Thursday, October 16, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Scream

You can run, and you can hide, but if you break the rules, you probably will not escape in Scream.

In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 16: Scream (1996) 

As I said in the introduction to this month of the macabre (linked above), the best way to watch most of these movies is on VHS. The now-outdated technology has a delightful graininess to it that cannot be replicated on DVD. Something about a roll of tape moving reel to reel gives it a physical essence, and though I have not had to “be kind and rewind” in years, I think we lose an element of our past every time we leap forward in technology.

Maybe that is a discussion for another day, but I bring it up here for two reasons. First, Scream is absolutely obsessed with the past, which we will get into in a minute. Second, my introduction to this movie was on VHS, and that will always be an integral part of my memory.

Back in the bad old days of home cable, HBO was a bit of a rarity. Not everyone had it, and you could not just share your HBOGO password with your friends. On Demand did not exist as we now know it. You could call and order Pay-Per View, or you waited for what you wanted to see to come around in the rotation. DVR was not around, so you went to the store and bought a blank tape. Our friend, Tom, used to record tons of movies this way.

The director’s cut of Scream – with added gore and, therefore, added value – was the second half of one such tape. The first half was the Clint Eastwood movie Absolute Power. Because rewinding a tape is an inexact science, I have seen the ending of Absolute Power a number of times, but I have seen Scream dozens of times. I watched it over and over and can still recite much of it. I was the Ghost Face killer for Halloween three years in a row. All of this is to say: I like Scream.

Writer Kevin Williamson (creator of Dawson’s Creek) penned the right script at the right time, and old horror master Wes Craven was the right director for the material. This is a Generation X horror movie through and through – ironic, self-referential, too cool to care, and obsessed with a preference for the past over the present. It should be terribly annoying. Instead, it is riveting and entertaining in equal measure.

It asks more of its audience than any of the similarly minded late ’90s horror-thrillers that followed (the Williamson-penned I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legends, Final Destination, etc.). Scream is enjoyable as a masked-madman movie, but if you are on its wavelength, the rewards are endless. From the moment the killer asks the now-immortal question, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” we are aware that we are in for a horror fan’s horror film. After all, how often do we get to watch characters who watch movies?

Even as they mock the characters of horror movies past, they gleefully engage in many of the behaviors they chastise. The characters go so far as to list the rules they need to follow in order to survive, then openly flout those rules, only to be swiftly and brutally punished. It is a belief system that reflects the MTV generation this movie targets (Scream actually won Best Film at the MTV Movie Awards): We now the rules. Damn the rules. If there are consequences, well, fair enough.

The who’s who ensemble of actors, led by Neve Campbell but which includes Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Jamie Kennedy, Skeet Ulrich, Rose McGowan, Matthew Lillard, and Drew Barrymore, is a perfect assemblage of talent for this story, and all walk the thin line of playing self-aware material straight. It is a glorious high-wire act under the sure, guiding of Craven, and it never falters.

Tomorrow, the most recent entry we will discuss plays around with horror tropes in the interests of laughs and gore.

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