The Classics of Horror #18 – Scream (1996)

In the mid-90s, slasher flicks started to lose impact in a market oversaturated with 7th or 8th installation of franchises soaked in 80s vibe. Yes, they kept giving mass audiences some mindless entertainment, but they completely and utterly gave up on originality and unconventional plots and characters.

Thus, Wes Craven, who contributed to the slasher era with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), decided to spoof the entire sub-genre and its tropes by making Scream, a film so clever that it works both as a parody of slashers and an intense ride nonetheless.

Scream 1When the quiet town of Woodsboro is shocked by a mysterious killer of teenagers known as Ghostface, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) – who’s dealing with post-traumatic syndrome due to the rape and murder of her mother one year prior – and her friends try to figure out who the killer is with the help of a nosey journalist and an incompetent police deputy.

Craven’s umpteenth success shows the constant usage of horror tropes and clichés to criticise their formulaic presence in horror cinema, particularly in the slasher sub-genre. References to Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises are all over the place in this smart meta-slasher.

However, it’s John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) that plays a primary role, with Craven and Kevin Williamson (Scream screenwriter) paying homage to the movie that started it all. Scream even utilises part of the Halloween iconic soundtrack to raise tension in certain sequences and winks to the audience in others.

As he’s done successfully with Nightmare (1984), Wes Craven is able to create a context in which the suspension of disbelief is unnecessary: as opposed to the Jason Voorhees’ movies – which you really can’t overthink about in order to enjoy – or even the first Halloween – great film, but engulfed with unbelievable physics – in Scream universe everything is believable and makes sense within the story. Upon fourth viewing, I still couldn’t find any plot hole! Which is something that never occurs in slasher movies, to be honest.

Scream 2.jpgBesides, Scream benefits from a perfectly balanced combination between “whodunit” mystery and black comedy – obviously, the reveal of Ghostface’s identity toward the end looks silly (as it is in most of the slasher flicks), but the movie gives the audience hints throughout so that the final surprise doesn’t come entirely unexpected. And, above all, makes sense. Craven never lies to its audience in Scream, so that if you paid attention to the story development you’d know why the ending unfolded in that specific way.

As per comedy, the director shows once again his black humour in this film: Craven, to my knowledge, was the first horror director to include comic relief in one of his earliest flicks (The Last House on the Left, 1972) and, although in that case it didn’t quite work, in Scream these aspects blend perfectly with the crime/mystery one.

Scream 3Besides, Scream benefits from a perfectly spot-on casting: there isn’t a standout actor among them, but they all fit perfectly the roles they’ve been assigned with. Mostly, though, the characters they portray are incredibly amusing and entertaining. Sidney, deputy Dewey (David Arquette), unscrupulous news reporter Gale Weather (Courtney Cox), Billy and Stu (Skeet Ulrich and Matthew Lillard) are compelling, entertaining and quotable. Plus, some fun cameos (such as Drew Barrymore, Live Schreiber, Henry Winkler and, of course, Craven himself) make for an extra layer of enjoyment in the movie.

Yet, Wes Craven’s film deserves to be among the horror classics for two main reason: firstly, it made impossible to overlook tiresome clichés in horror flicks ever since Scream came out. In other words, this film deconstructed formulas that made our beloved genre boring and conventional, to the point of being considered almost dead following an influx of direct-to-video titles and numerous sequels to established horror franchises of the 1970s and 1980s.

Which is my second point: thanks to Craven’s masterpiece the horror genre has reborn from its ashes and found new ways to tell scary stories. Surely, the late 90s and early 00s have been quite stingy in terms of good horror films (at least around Hollywood), but the blast of the 2010s is, more or less, indirectly tied to Scream.

All in all, I love the movie and I can only appreciate how much Craven has done for the horror genre. Although Scream is probably less immune to the aging process than other genre classics, it has a special place in my heart and every horror fan should recognise praise that.

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The Classics of Horror #15 – A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Being the intelligent filmmaker he was, in the early 80s Wes Craven decided to get out of the hole he dug himself in with his early exploitation flicks. Great quality exploitation, though, with The Last House on the Left (1972) being a genre-defining, twisted flick and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) being a fun, extreme ride.

As a consequence, A Nightmare on Elm Street hit theatres in 1984, challenging a market filled with slasher flicks and dominated by the Halloween and Friday the 13th movies. The result was one of the most loved movies by horror fans in cinema history, other than a unique take on the sub-genre.

Kicking off in medias res (in the midst of things), without any character’s introduction, Was Craven film sets itself apart from any other slasher back in the 80s.

Nightmare 1The plot follows four teenagers who are having recurring, similar nightmares about a disfigured man who wears a shabby hat and a glove made of knives. They soon discover than what happens in their dreams has a repercussion on reality and Freddy Krueger – one of the most iconic villains in cinema history – is not just a figment of their imagination.

Freddy (memorably portrayed by Robert Englund) is the show-stealer in this movie that went on creating a long-lasting franchise and an endless series of remakes and reboots. Unlike Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, Krueger utilises a more psychological approach to hunt his victims down: with creepy sense of humour he winds them up and confuses their reality and dreams. He makes them terrorised, sleepless and weak; thus, more vulnerable.

The concept behind A Nightmare on Elm Street is what’s truly scary about the film: you can escape Myers and Voorhees, as long as you don’t cross path with them, but you can’t refuse to sleep and run away from your subconscious, your dreams.

Although many fans consider A Nightmare on Elm Street an entertaining movie (which, in fact, it is), the idea it’s based on it’s genuinely frightening and the backstory of Freddy (a child molester and killer, who was burnt alive by the families of his victims) make for a great horror, driven by a fantastic antihero.

Nightmare 3Yet, Craven is amazing at executing the concept, by melting reality and dreams from beginning to end. Because of that, the grand finale of Nightmare is one of the most satisfying in cinema history (in my opinion), because it gives the viewer food for thought and doesn’t betray the rest of the movie. Something modern horrors do a lot more than they should…

Nightmare 2In clever contrast to the dream-like vibe that permeates Craven’s masterpiece, the characters (among which there’s a young, but always charming Johnny Depp) are extremely relatable and feel like real people: similarly to Halloween (1978), dialogues and actions of the protagonists are believable. The best compliment I can make to the cast is that they don’t feel like actors.

Again, the parents of the main guys are aware of the things that are happening in their community and, to different extents, participate actively to the story, as opposed to being completely irrelevant or absent (which happened in most of the slashers back in the day).

As per flows, I’d say that the police reaction to the assaults towards the end of the film is a bit laughable – worst police squad ever! However, this doesn’t detract from the high-quality value of this flick.

Nightmare 4If you haven’t seen A Nightmare on Elm Street yet, this is the moment to check it out: besides all the features mentioned above, this film contains the right amount of jump-scares (a couple of them startled me even upon fourth viewing!), blood (a lot for the 80s standards) and comic relief, which make for a viewing experience that should please modern mainstream audiences as well.

“One, two, Freddy’s coming for you”! Thus, watch the film and be prepared: you never know what you might dream about tonight!

Classics of Horror #7 – The Last House on the Left (1972)

The Last House on the Left is the first, and probably most, controversial entry on this list.

This film – directed by a then-young guy who went on making flicks sank by obscurity (sarcasm alert) such as The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Serpent and The Rainbow (1988), The People Under the Stairs (1991) and the four Scream (1996-2011) movies – is an exploitation horror that received humongous criticism when it came out and have been rehabilitated only in recent times.

Last House on the left 1Written, directed and edited by a young Wes Craven – one of, if not the best horror filmmaker of all time – The Last House on the Left tells the story of two naïve teenage girls who, in search of drugs, end up kidnapped by a band of maniacs who just escaped from prison.

It’s a 40-something year old movie, so I imagine nobody will complain if I insert some spoiler every here and there. I need to, in order to explain where the controversy lies.

Once kidnapped and taken into the woods, the two girls get raped, tortured and, eventually, killed.

As a consequence of its themes, the film was censored in many countries, and was particularly controversial in the United Kingdom, where The Last House was refused a certificate for cinema release by the British Board of Film Censors in 1974 due to scenes of sadism and violence.

I wonder what would have happened if A Serbian Film came out back then…

Anyway, Craven’s debut motion picture was inserted among the ‘video nasty’ list in 1984. In summary, ‘video nasty’ is the colloquial definition ascribed to a list of films that were criticised for their violent content by the press, social commentators and various religious organisations.

Last House on the left 3Due to the consequent implementation of the Video Recording Act, a stricter code of censorship has been imposed on videos than was required for cinema release. Several major studio productions were banned on video, as they fell within the scope of legislation designed to control the distribution of video nasty.

Despite many reviewers (among which Roger Ebert and Mark Kermode stood out) praised The Last House and used it as a symbol against the censorship of ideas and free art, the film had been presented to the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors) for theatrical certification throughout the years and it’d constantly been refused. Until 2008 when, upon numerous investigations by the BBFC itself, it was classified uncut for video release.

At this point, you might wonder if the movie is worth its reputation.

To begin with, the violence is quite in your face, although some weird editing choices and poor practical effects (Craven had only some $87.000 budget available) make it looks dated and less effective.

However, The Last House came out in 1972, a time when audiences’ maximum level of gore was represented by the slow-ass zombies of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the hints to violence in Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Due to its themes and implications, the film had an impact on me in terms of uneasiness (I must admit I consider rape as the worst crime, sin and cruelty a person could ever commit, alongside with paedophilia). So, I can just imagine how people perceived it back in the 70s.

Besides the controversy, Craven’s debut feature is an iconic rape-and-revenge exploitation that inspired an entire sub-genre with an endless list of titles and made room for a horror field that has little to do with the paranormal or supernatural.

Its grounded and down-to-hearth nature is what I appreciate the most about this film.

On the contrary, an aspect I didn’t like about it is the comic relief. In all fairness, to my knowledge, The Last House was one of the first horror flicks to introduce comedic features, a revolution that still influences horror cinema nowadays.

Unfortunately, in Craven’s film the comic relief – provided by two clumsy policemen – falls short and distracts the viewer from an otherwise dark and depressing story.

The sound design fails as well in creating a suspenseful atmosphere, being filled with tracks more suitable for a hash house than a dramatic situation as the one our teenagers are experiencing.

Last House on the left 2In terms of characters, the criminals are depicted very well and their traits emerge through dialogues and actions more than exposition. The girls and the other protagonists, instead, are flat and victims of the events, therefore not very interesting.

All in all, The Last House of the Left is worth a watch, especially if you are looking for some 80 minutes of ‘twisted’ entertainment. Craven’s debut will not be the only director’s entrance on this list and, perhaps, the next ones will justify his title of Master of Horror. Cheers!