Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Scream if you wanna go faster

Ten years is a long time in the movies. Tastes change, audiences grow up, genres evolve. So there must be some anxious people at Dimension waiting to see how the movie-going world will respond to its newest tentpole release. After an 11 year hiatus, Ghostface is back, and he's got a fresh new crop of familiar faces to introduce to his hunting knife.

In the intervening decade since we last checked in with series regulars Gail, Dewey and Sydney, the horror genre has changed more times than a Decepticon with multiple personality disorder. The Scream-inspired retro slashers soon gave way to moody ghost stories, then J-horror, followed by 80s remakes and torture porn. But with the Saw franchise finally eviscerating its last morally dubious victim, it's time to welcome everyone's favourite murderous franchise back to the big screen.

Scream 4 opens in just over a week's time. So to help you get up-to-speed, here's the lowdown on how to survive a painfully ironic postmodern horror movie...

Big stars, small roles

Much of the original Scream's success can be attributed to Drew Barrymore. Supposedly picked for one of the lead roles, Drew was the biggest name in a cast that proudly counted the Fonz amongst its glittering ensemble. However, Drew speculated that if she was murdered in the opening act, audiences would be wrong-footed for the rest of the movie. Once you've seen the most famous actress in the film gutted and hanged from a tree, all bets are off. The downside is that you're left rooting for David Arquette to make it to the end credits.

Throughout the trilogy, producers made sure that the most recognisable faces on the poster were stabbed, sliced and thrown off balconies, with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jada Pinkett Smith and Jenny McCarthy all taking an early bath. But not together, that would be unseemly.

Just like in the movies

As the creator of the series, Kevin Williamson seized on a simple but compelling insight - kids love horror movies. So it made sense for his characters to reference the conventions of the genre as a survival technique. In the sleepy Californian town of Woodsboro, those ubiquitous WWJD bracelets stand for 'What Would Jamie Lee Curtis Do'.

Although this gimmick was initially something of a novelty, it did start to become irritating by the third installment. After all, it's hard to maintain suspense when a character in mortal jeopardy fights back using ironic pop culture references, rather than a big stick.

Let's get loud

OK, true story. My parents went to see The Exorcist back in 1974, in a packed Sheffield cinema. As the film wore on, my Mum's nerves were jangled by William Friedkin's tendency to shift jarringly between relentlessly loud noises and sudden silence. With the tension building to intolerable levels, Mum dug her nails deep into my Dad's arm, prompting him to shout over the soundtrack, "Well, you stupid bitch, I told you we shouldn't have come." Just as Friedkin cut away to another quiet scene of Ellyn Burstyn sucking on a cigarette in a hospital corridor.

For my parents, this became an amusing, if slightly misogynistic, anecdote to tell their friends. For every other horror director in the world, it became a how-to guide for building tension by indiscriminately turning the volume knob from zero to eleven. Ever since then, sound mixers have spent their days making sure that all scary movies have a soundtrack like Björk's It's Oh So Quiet.

Show your face

One of the things that Scream managed to resurrect, along with director Wes Craven's career, was the tradition of the mask-wearing murderer. During the slasher boom, every self-respecting mass murderer had a disguise to hide behind - Jason Voorhees had his hockey mask, Leatherface had a patchwork visage made of human skin, and Michael Myers had an inside-out William Shatner face. Film experts argue that the trope gave these implacable monsters a creepy anonymity. But it also helped to hide the fact that, in most cases, it was easier to get a stuntman to play the role, rather than pay a theatrically trained actor to leap through a sugar glass window.

The killers in Scream favour an over-the-head number styled after Munch's similarly titled painting, even though it actually looks more like Sarah Jessica Parker browsing the racks in Primark. At least in this series, the mask enhanced the mystery element by keeping the killers' identity a secret until the inevitable Scooby Doo-style ending - "I would've gotten away with it too, if it weren't for this pesky assortment of medium-profile TV stars".

The plot thickened

Despite its slavish adherence to the rules of the slasher movie, the Scream series was happy to break with convention in one key area - it actually had a plot. Characters came with a backstory, the trilogy had a narrative arc, and there were plenty of twists and turns along the way. For a generation raised on films whose entire story could be told in a 30-second teaser, this came as something of a revelation. 

Scream 4 brings back the three surviving members of the original cast, and promises to take the mythology in a new direction. So it might not be on a par with The Wire, but it still wouldn't hurt to pay attention in-between all the stalk-and-slash. That two-hour running time is going to include a lot of exposition. 

So there you have it. Now, when someone calls to ask about your favourite scary movie, you've got a slim chance of survival. You can thank me when part 5 comes out.

No comments:

Post a Comment