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DISSECTING SCREAM

FROM THE ICFH ARCHIVES:


When Scream was released in 1996, I absolutely loved it. I saw it a couple times in the theater and then watched it however many times when I picked it up on VHS. I really enjoyed the two sequels too. (Scream 4 has grown on me over the years, but for whatever reason it just doesn’t have the same vibe as the other ones.) I wrote this piece for Alan Fare’s Film Geek fanzine, and I always loved writing for Alan. He was a great guy, and it was always a surprise when he’d send me copies of the zine because more times than not there would also be a VHS tape with a couple of movies I couldn’t find anywhere else in the package. Here we are, 26 years after the release of Scream and 21 years after I wrote this thing, and we have a new Scream movie on the way. I’ll be honest, I’m excited. Once a slasher fan, always a slasher fan, and re-reading this piece put me in the mood to watch the original. I’m ready for a new sequel too.


Revisiting this made me cringe in places. I really hope I no longer come across as a smarmy slasher movie snob. (I probably do.) I also noticed that I never once used the term “final girl.” We had that phrase in 2001, didn’t we? (At least I didn’t fall back on Scream Queen.) I did take the liberty to correct a number of grammatical bumps in the road (and created new ones along the way, no doubt). I also shared some new info I’ve run across since this appeared as well as included a little piece that got omitted the first time around.


Beware, here there be spoilers! When I wrote this Alan said to just go for it and I did. The spoilers include a number of movies, so be careful if you have not wasted half your life trying to watch every slasher movie ever made. I re-wrote some parts to try and “vague them up” a bit. I hope I don’t spoil any surprises for anyone. You have been warned. Enjoy. Rob


Dissecting Scream

By Robert Freese

Originally appeared in the fanzine FILM GEEK Issue 6, Fall 2001.



Dissecting Scream


In Mary Shelley’s creature classic Frankenstein, mad creator Dr. Frankenstein brings to life a creature stitched together from various body parts culled from the morgue and local cemetery. With this image in mind, it is easy to picture mad creator Kevin Williamson skulking under the cover of night to his neighborhood video tape emporium to rent an armful of ‘80s slasher flicks for inspiration for the screenplay he was working on that went on to be one of the major horror hits of the ‘90s, Scream.


I remember the excitement of a new, honest to God slasher flick being released. Directed by Wes Craven no less! Watching with my wife and a packed house, everyone screamed and laughed and had a great time.


But as I watched, the more and more the movie seemed familiar to me. It soon became a “Greatest Hits” package of all the greatest slasher film cliches ever filmed, all in one new movie. Like a parade, familiar characters and scenes marched across the screen, one after another, and soon, this new Scream suddenly seemed stale. (Even the title is taken from a little-known slasher flick that hit screens in 1983.)


To it’s credit, Scream is a wonderful rollercoaster ride that expertly blurred the lines between what is perceived as “real” and what is perceived as “reel.” Unfortunately, it also blurred the lines between “homage” and “rip-off.”


One of Scream’s charms was its self-referential way of letting the audience in on the joke that the filmmakers knew the audience had seen all this hokum before. Critics and fright film fans loved the cornucopia of horror film references and in-jokes Scream offered. But let’s be honest, for twenty odd years the films of John Carpenter, Joe Dante and John Landis, regardless of genre, have always been packed with film references and little winks to the audience. (If reference and in-joke heavy horror flicks are you mug of joe, I highly recommend Fred Dekker’s horror homage Night of the Creeps from 1986.)


My purpose here is simple: let’s have some fun and cut Scream open and see what makes it tick. If Scream is the bastard film of a hundred slasher flicks, let’s give it a DNA test and find out who helped sire this sucker. Breaking the film into specific scenes, I’m going to share with you some of the films that come to mind when I watch Scream. (My intention here is to accuse Kevin Williamson of nothing more than wildly fun script writing. My observations are based solely on my own misspent youth, spending hour after hour in front of the boob tube, watching one gory slasher flick after another. In many cases, I’m sure that Williamson, as well as director Craven, were simply unaware of some of the films I use in my comparisons.)


With that said, let’s first take a look at our cast of characters and get an idea from where they may have originated.


Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore)- Casey is a throwaway role filled by a relatively big-name actress who is killed early on just to shock the audience. Just like Janet Leigh as the ill-fated Marion Crane in Psycho (1960).


Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell)- Our slasher heroine is basically a composite of three slasher heroines: Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) from Halloween (1978), Christie Parson (Mary McDonough) from Mortuary (1982) and skittish Beth (Angela O’Neill) from Sorority House Massacre (1987).


Mr. Prescott (Lawrence Hecht)- Sidney’s caring, single father is set up as the killer when, days before the anniversary of his wife’s death, he leaves on a “business trip,” just like caring, single dad Lawrence Dane in Happy Birthday to Me (1981).


Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich)- Billy is a generic slasher boyfriend, made up mostly of Johnny Depp’s Glen from A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and David Wallace’s Greg from Mortuary. Billy is the type of boyfriend who tries to keep his crazy-acting slasher heroine girlfriend’s mind off the bloody mayhem around her by constantly trying to gain entrance into her pants.


Randy (Jamie Kennedy)- Film geek Randy is a mutation of no less than five other film movie geek characters. He’s got a pinch of film freak Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher) from Fade to Black (1980), a smidgen of splatter movie experts “Chainsaw” (Dean Cameron) and Dave (Gary Riley) from Carl Reiner’s Summer School (1987), a dash of horror film aficionado Mike (Craig Peck) from the horror spoof There’s Nothing Out There (1990) and a spoonful of horror film enthusiast Morgan Steward (Jon Cryer) from Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home (1987).


Tatum (Rose McGowan)- Fun loving best friend to Sidney, like all ill-fated sidekicks, Tatum meets a horrible end. She is a hybrid of Laurie Strode’s best friends Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (P.J. Soles) from Halloween.


Deputy Dewey (David Arquette)- Goofy and awkward law enforcer Dewey just wants the respect of the people he serves and protects, just like goofy and awkward law officer Deputy Joe (Alf Humphreys) in Funeral Home (1981).


Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox)- Nosey news sleuth Weathers belongs to a proud sorority of slasher film news ladies that also includes Jane Harris (Lauren Tewes) from Eyes of a Stranger (1981), Deborah Ballin (Lee Grant) from Visiting Hours (1982) and Vanita “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams) in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986).


Principal Arthur Himbry (Henry Winkler)- Himbry is a mugging, over-reacting carbon-copy of Principal Guglione (Michael Pataki) from Graduation Day (1981).

As for Mr. Ghostface, well, his appearance mirrors that of the dark robed, ghost faced stalkers in Mortuary and Rush Week (1989).


In the opening scene, Casey Becker is terrorized over the phone by someone who is close by, if not directly in the house with her. This psycho-caller-in-the-house gag was first used in the sorority house slasher classic Black Christmas (1974), but the best remembered from When a Stranger Calls (1979). The gag was already considered cliched by the early ‘80s and was spoofed in the slasher send-up Student Bodies (1981). [The Severed Arm predates Black Christmas by a year and actually used the gag for one attack.]


The killer uses a voice changer to disguise his voice, just like our partying killer Richard Sullivan (Kip Niven) in New Year’s Evil (1980).


As Casey flees her killer, her parents come home and find burnt popcorn on the stove, just like Dana Kimmell and Paul Kratka found upon returning to their cabin in Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982).


When Mrs. Becker (Clara Hatley) picks up the phone to call the police, she hears her daughter being killed on the open line, sort of like how Laurie Strode listened to Lynda being strangled over the phone in Halloween. (Terror stricken mom Sally Fields listened over a cell phone as her young daughter was murdered in the 1995 thriller An Eye for an Eye.)


Casey is murdered within yards of her parents, just like scuzball hood Andy Cavenaugh (Don Harvey) in Creepshow 2 (1987- the Old Chief Wood’nhead segment).


Before dying, Casey removed her killer’s mask and recognized her executioner. This scene recalls Steve Christy’s (Peter Brouwer) immediate recognition of his slayer in Friday the 13th (1980), and the self-unmasking of the killer to his victims in Terror Train (1980).


After the slaughter, Billy visits Sidney by sneaking through her bedroom window, just like Glen (Depp) visited his gal pal Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) in A Nightmare on Elm Street.


The next day at school, our horror movie savvy group of teens (spouting off much like the Horror Movie Society in Frightmare, 1983) talk morbidly about Casey’s slaughter. This scene recalls an early scene in Final Exam (1981), where horror film fan Radish (Joel Rice) explains to his friends with much morbid gusto the slaying of a young couple the night before at a nearby campus.


Sidney is haunted by the memory of her mother’s mysterious murder, just like Christie (Mary McDonough) is haunted by her father’s mysterious murder in Mortuary.

Later that night, Sidney is attacked. Like lots of dim-witted slasher movie heroines, when she should be locking the door, she wanders out onto the porch to see if her friends are playing a prank on her. Just like dim-witted Sissy (Renee Jones) in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986).


Returning to the house, Sidney is attacked where her killer jumps out of a closet at her. This gag has been done to death in flicks like Halloween, Black Christmas, The Mutilator (1984), When a Stranger Calls Back (1992) and others.


Fleeing the fiend, Sidney is unable to get out the front door because it is locked on the inside (?). Locked doors and the slasher heroines who are unable to unlock them have been around forever in tons of flicks, including Toolbox Murders (1978) and The Prowler (1981).


Billy shows up immediately after the attack, setting himself up as the killer. This is so obvious, we figure there’s no way Billy could be the killer, right? This psycho boyfriend bluff has been used many times in flicks like Graduation Day, The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), Out of the Dark (1988), My Bloody Valentine (1981) and Slumber Party Massacre III (1990).


The next day at school, Sidney overhears some girls making fun of her and calling her crazy in the bathroom. Driller killer survivor Courtney (Crystal Bernhard) overheard her friends talking the same sort of trash about her in Slumber Party Massacre II (1987).


Catty co-eds are the least of Sidney’s problems as she’s attacked by the killer in the bathroom, just like the hapless nurse was attacked in the subway bathroom by the psychotic creep in Maniac (1980).


At this point in the story, the school principal, the town’s sheriff, the heroine’s father and [to a very small degree] the school’s creepy custodian all served as red herrings for the killer’s identity, just like in Prom Night (1980).


When Principal Himbry gets his “ticket punched,” the reflection of his slayer was seen in his eyes. This scene recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), when the slaying of one victim is shown in the reflection of the victim’s eyeglasses.


When Stu (Matthew Lillard), Tatum’s boyfriend, throws a party, Sidney and Tatum stop by the supermarket for supplies. A phantom prowler in a ghost mask stalks them, calling to mind the scene where Jamie (Danielle Harris) is stalked by Michael Myers in the five-and-dime while she’s looking for a costume in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988).


Stu’s party is of gigantic, slasher movie proportions, like the beer bashes in The House on Sorority Row (1983) and Killer Party (1986).


At one point, Tatum goes to the garage to fetch more brewskis when she turns and faces the killer, who she thinks is one of her friends fooling around. Michael Myers has used this gag several times: in Halloween when he came to Lynda with the sheet over his head wearing her dead boyfriend’s glasses, then again in Halloween II (1981), when a nurse nibbled on his fingers thinking they were her boyfriend’s after a short romp in the therapeutic hot tub, then finally in Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) when he picked up Tina (Wendy Kaplin) for a Halloween party in Tina’s boyfriend’s car wearing a mask.


As Halloween plays on TV, several scenes are scored with the music playing from John Carpenter’s classic. This idea was actually used in Halloween, for a scene that is scored with the music from Forbidden Planet (1956), which is playing on the TV in the background when Michael is spotted carrying a body into the house across the street.


Billy’s fake murder is a take off on Axel’s (Neil Affleck) supposed demise at the hands of the real killer in My Bloody Valentine (1981).


After much carnage and blood spilling, Gail runs to her nearby news van to get help. The windshield of her van is covered in the blood of her now dead cameraman Kenny (Earl Brown). This scene calls a scene from Drive-in Massacre (1976), when the blood of the murdered projectionist drips onto the projector’s lens and is projected onto the big outdoor screen. (There’s also a similar scene with a projector and blood on a screen in 1983’s The Evil Dead.)


Our stab happy slasher has a habit of wiping his knife blade clean after every kill, a habit he may have picked up from the psycho in soldier’s garb in The Prowler, who wipes his bayonet clean after running it through someone’s head or torso.


Sidney soon finds herself trapped in a car with the killer outside trying to get in, a predicament Camp Counselor Trainer Jinny (Amy Steel) found herself in in Friday the 13th Part II (1981).


In the film’s final moments, the killers reveal themselves in a twist ending similar to ones used earlier in Hell Night (1981) and Just Before Dawn (1981). (The climaxes for the Scream sequels also dip deep into the slasher movie cliché cookie jar for their psycho reveals. Scream 2 (1997) basically repeats the ending of the first Scream, but adds a vengeful parent to the mix, just like Friday the 13th’s psycho mom Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) and the vengeful Jason-clone in Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985). Scream 3 (2000) opted for the surprise psycho sibling, an idea used in Silent Scream (1979) as well as the sorority girl stab-o-rama The Initiation (1984).)


Our killers admit that while horror movies didn’t turn them into killers, they did help turn them into creative killers, just like Eric Binford in Fade to Black.


The motivation behind the bloodbath was an affair between the parents of the teens, the same motivation behind the bloodbath in Happy Birthday to Me.


The killers explained their plan to frame Sidney’s father, then stab each other and appear as the only survivors of the killing spree. This was similar to the stunt Jude Madigan (Jamie Lee Curtis) pulled in Mother’s Boys (1994), hurting herself and calling for help while visiting her ex-husband’s new girlfriend Callie Harland (Joanne Whalley) to make it look like the girlfriend had assaulted her.


Had the plan worked, they would have gotten away with murder, much like the killers in The Dorm that Dripped Blood (1982) and Intruder (1989).


As it turned out, Sidney fought back, and the psychos were on the receiving end of a butt whupping. One is finally offed when a TV set crushes his head, the same way one of the demented hicks in Mother’s Day (1980) bought it. The other is shot several times but jumps alive one last time to take a point-blank bullet to the brain, like the lunatics in Eyes of a Stranger and House of Death (1982).


Our autopsy’s over and we’ve made a mess. Let’s clean up and maybe grab something to eat. Maybe put on the TV and watch something.


Anyone up for a slasher flick?









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