[Deep Focus]
SCREAM
Directed by Wes Craven
Written by Kevin Williamson
Starring Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich,
and Rose McGowan
U.S.A., 1996

GRADE: B

I once watched a film teacher suffer a meltdown after a classroom screening of The Last House on the Left. Last House was Wes Craven's debut feature, an exruciatingly graphic rape-revenge film shot almost documentary-style in 16mm, and something about it was more than our instructor could bear. As the lights came up, he stalked to the front of the classroom muttering that he didn't think anybody should be allowed to watch such a pernicious film. This was the first-ever convincing argument, he said, in favor of censorship. He threw around words like "inept" and "artless," and the students in the class were put in the uncomfortable position of having to defend the merit of some of the most sadistic instances of humiliating sexual violence ever committed to celluloid.

"Did you know it was based on Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring?" I finally asked. Stopped him right in his tracks. He stood up there for a few long moments, scratching his chin, wondering if it could possibly be so -- could this vile, torturous excuse for cinema actually have been inspired by the much revered work of one of Europe's greatest filmmakers? And more importantly, was the director a lot smarter than he had been willing to give him credit for?

Since then, Wes Craven has gone on to more auspicious projects, including The Hills Have Eyes as well as the first and last movies in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, an uncommonly imaginative knock-off from the slasher boom of the late 70s and early 80s. The series went downhill as it converted Craven's genuinely creepy Freddy Krueger character into a stand-up comic, and one of the characters in Craven's newest movie, Scream, comments on that: "They all sucked, except the first one."

Craven is a filmmaker of ideas, but he's not entirely successful at bringing those ideas to fruition. Still, his movies are consistently more interesting than their mainstream Hollywood counterparts. The People Under the Stairs is an elaborate metaphor for the class struggle in Reagan's America, complete with Ron and Nancy surrogates. His Shocker was a misfire, a heavy metal slasher movie that was aimed perhaps a little too narrowly at its target audience -- but who would guess that Craven would make his points about the pervasiveness of television as our new fantasy realm by directly referencing Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr.?

Television plays a big role in Scream, as well. In the brilliantly conceived opening sequence, cute-as-a-button Casey (Drew Barrymore) gets a distasteful phone call from a psycho who wants to play games with her. When she asks why he wants to know her name, he tells her it's because he wants to know who he's looking at. When she asks what he wants, he tells her he wants to see what her insides look like. Reduced to a quivering wreck, Casey cowers in the corner, next to a TV screen that glows blue from its blank video signal. Later in the movie, a bunch of drunk high schoolers will gather around another TV set to watch Halloween, and that movie's electronic soundtrack will become Scream's background music.

Craven is interested in the contrast between movie reality and objective reality -- or at least reality as it appears in his movie as compared to the reality that appears in everyone else's movies. You follow? The chief conceit of Scream is that it knows it's a scary movie, and its characters -- at least the smart ones -- are keenly aware of the conventions that make scary movies such a predicament for the people caught in them.

So Neve Campbell (she was in The Craft, and a TV series called Party of Five) plays Sidney as a more savvy version of the prototypical babe-in-distress. Like her pal Tatum (the terrific Rose McGowan from The Doom Generation), she can run verbal circles around her male counterparts, but may be a little too headstrong for her own good. The movie begins in the wake of Casey's death, and the local high-schoolers aren't exactly shedding tears over her grave. These kids are into gallows humor and gossipy speculation on the identity of the real killer, who wears an elongated death's head mask that becomes a hot item for pranksters at the local high school. So many of the people in this community are so twisted that it seems any one of them could be the killer. In fact, the screenplay is gleefully peppered with clues that could implicate nearly every character in the movie.

Sidney's father is leaving town for the weekend, which means that she'll be at home alone -- her mother was murdered in gruesome fashion just a year ago. Sidney's cellular-phone-toting boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) has a bad habit of climbing in through her bedroom window, and becomes a prime suspect in Casey's murder. Sidney is getting phone calls from the same creep who rang Casey, and they're starting to carry the uncomfortable echo of her mother's murder. The TV-ready Courteney Cox is aptly cast as a uniquitous reporter from a tabloid program, and David Arquette plays the awkward Sheriff's deputy who may have something to hide. Also involved is Randy (Jamie Kennedy), a nerdy video store clerk who lectures his peers on how to survive a horror movie (don't have sex, don't do drugs, never say "I'll be right back").

Craven's main triumph here is proving that plausibility needn't have anything to do with effective filmmaking -- Scream made me jump in my seat more effectively than just about anything since The Evil Dead. Here's a movie where the killer stalks victims through the grocery store in full Halloween regalia, where a video camera broadcasts images into a news truck on a 30-second delay (what, they're waiting for the picture to bounce back off the satellite?). It's a big bloody crowd-pleaser, and a treat for thoughtful fans of the genre. Knowing references to the genre include a discussion of Jamie Lee Curtis's breasts and the cameo appearance of Craven himself as a school janitor in Freddy Krueger clothing. But when Tatum makes passing reference to "something out of a Wes Carpenter movie," it really is one wink too many.

What's more remarkable than the labored reflexivity is Craven's reconstruction of a nearly picture-perfect slasher movie with some important twists. (A year ago, he thought he had contracted with Miramax to remake The Haunting, but plans went awry.) Scream has a casual feeling about it, almost like something done on a lark. He's angling to create something akin to the conceptually audacious Wes Craven's New Nightmare, which was a fairly sober meditation on why we need horror stories (and one of his most engaging films). Still, Scream ultimately disappoints because what's missing from this "scary movie" is a sense of what's really scary. If Scream had even one truly horrifying moment, a scene that made you shudder instead of just jolting your ass out of your chair one more time, it might carry a little more weight. As is, it's simply the slasher movie to end all slasher movies -- too bad it comes about 10 years too late.

As always, Craven's reach exceeds his grasp. The film is shot in anamorphic Panavision, but unlike his compatriot John Carpenter, Craven has no real sense for how to use the widescreen frame. The screenplay (by first-timer Kevin Williamson) has too many clever ideas that never really pan out. The constant references to Halloween in particular are more hamfisted homage than plot device, and the aforementioned video camera gimmick is wasted. And while the movie is smart as a whip about the conventions of horror movies, it's conspicuously silent on the subject of what drives them, or why we enjoy them.

Finally, I'm not sure what we're supposed to make of the delirious final reels, in which the killer explains, against all apparent evidence to the contrary, that "Movies don't create psychos; they just make psychos more creative." Good point, but are we expected to take a psycho's word for it? And why is a television literally instrumental in one character's death? Never mind -- it's all so fast and fun that you barely have time to wonder at such stuff. Strap in and enjoy the ride.


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