Thursday, September 30, 2021

All I Have to do is Scream

Spoilers for all the existing Scream movies, plus an assumption of familiarity.

We just did a re-watch, and I had completely forgotten that Scream 5 is in the works until we were midway through. I’m sure I’ll see it, but I don’t know how I feel about it.  It’s a unique situation in the genre to have four films with the same director, a consistent core cast, and three of the four written by the original creator. Even the same composer worked on all the films! The only comparable situation I can think of is the Phantasm films, where four of the five had the original director/creator, and all five starred Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm. So I have mixed feelings about Scream returning without Wes Craven at the helm, even if the series had the usual diminishing returns. Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courteney Cox are all set to return, along with Scream 4’s Marley Shelton … and I swear to God if there’s a love triangle I’ll, well, scream. It’s being directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, and written by Tyler Gillett, the team who did Ready or Not, so that's promising.  In the meantime:

Scream (1996)

A slasher full of characters who’ve seen all the horror movies, and base their ideas about a killing spree in their town accordingly. I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen this. I even bought the score. I used to have a coffee mug! And the script, published as a trade paperback. For the record, I was obsessed with Party of Five in the '90s, but never watched Friends, except an occasional snippet.

Most frustrating death: I think I’ve been mad about Tatum’s death every time I’ve seen it, all the way back to the first viewing, and I’m still mad. Her "Bam! Bitch went down!" scene, reenacting Sidney slugging Gale with a stuffed bunny, is still super-endearing, as is her general protective instinct toward her friend. And I feel like she should have done more damage with those beer bottles.

Cringiest moment: The mean girls gossiping about Sidney in the bathroom look way too old, and are so exaggerated, it’s like they’re in a different movie.

Cameo: Henry Winkler turning up was a real surprise on the first viewing, and he’s pretty fun as the creepy, ultra-vain principal constantly startled by the many mirrors in his office.

Personal favorite: I enjoy the early stages of the Gale/Dewey relationship. They have a really natural chemistry, easily falling into a rapport, and I like how Gale is clearly flirting with him as a manipulation technique, but that she also enjoys his company and starts genuinely flirting at the same time. It’s all pretty charming.

The twist: Good, actually. It was certainly a surprise at the time. Billy was such an obvious suspect, slasher conventions made him seem like an obvious red herring. But that convention was the red herring! I’m sure I never believed it was the father, though, so I honestly don’t remember who I thought the killer was.

Scream 2 (1997)

Ghostface goes to college. The survivors of the first film are trying to get on with their lives when people are murdered at the premiere of Stab, a movie based on their ordeal. 

Most frustrating death: Randy. Over time, he’s definitely become the iconic character (far more than any of the killers under the Ghostface mask), especially with his speech about the rules. I guess his death lets us know that nobody’s safe, but still, once he’s gone, some energy goes out of the whole series.

Cringiest moment: When Derek sings “I Think I Love You” to Sidney in the college cafeteria. Eeg.

Cameo: Portia de Rossi in an early role as a sunshiny sorority girl, already showing off her comedic skills saying things like: “Hi! I really mean that. Hi!”

Personal favorite: The final confrontation has some great moments, possibly the best of the series, with Sidney saying that Mickey forgot one thing about his hero, Billy Loomis: “I fucking killed him.” Then Mickey tells Sid she has “a Linda Hamilton thing going … It’s nice. I like it.” That's a compliment near to my heart! Sidney and Gale totally blowing him away with massive overkill is also pretty great. Side note: Timothy Olyphant gives one of the funniest performances of all time in the underrated Santa Clarita Diet, as the uptight suburban dad flummoxed by his wife turning into a zombie, and it’s crazy to remember this as where I first saw him. I wonder if he and Drew Barrymore ever compared notes on their times in the Scream franchise!

The twist: Already getting to be a bit of a stretch. The presence of Laurie Metcalfe makes you think there's more to this character, but since she excels at playing the everywoman, she could have been a red herring to give Gale more to play off. However, it would have been more of a surprise if Mickey and someone else had just been copycats, and not tied back into that rat-looking mama’s boy, Billy Loomis. Insisting on that muddies the waters. If Mrs. Loomis’ whole motive was to get revenge on Sidney for Billy’s death, she could have killed her way more easily if they hadn’t orchestrated the Stab killings and gotten her into protective custody. I guess she also wanted to torment her and make her suffer, but doing that clearly made it harder to achieve her true goal.

Scream 3 (2000)

Cartoonishly meta at points, this one’s set in Hollywood, centered on the set of Stab 3, the sequel-within-a-sequel.

Most frustrating death: Parker Posey, no doubt. Her Gale Weathers is the best thing in the movie, and I wish the option was open for her to return. 

Cringiest moment: At the time, I’d have named the creepy, stalkery vibe given off by Patrick Dempsey’s red herring cop. But now it’s the existence of a whole casting couch/executives raping young actresses subplot in a Weinstein film. That's really unpleasant.

Cameo: Despite the presence of Roger Corman, Carrie Fisher, and Jay and Silent Bob, my fave is definitely Heather Matarazzo as Randy’s sister. We should have gotten to see more of her!

Personal favorite: Everything with the two Gales. “Are you gonna help Gale Weathers or not?”

The twist: It’s not as egregious as Freddie Krueger suddenly having a wife and daughter he’d never thought about before, six or seven movies in, but it’s getting there. All the Scream killers to this point have had specific blame-the-victim mentalities, which is kind of weird. Sidney’s targeted for having killed someone in self-defense.  Her mom was a target because she gave a kid up for adoption, and then had an affair, while the men involved (like her just-as-guilty lover) are barely mentioned,  I guess the sleazebag who hosted the party where she was raped does get his throat cut, but it seems more like part of the plot to frame Sid than the killer caring about it. Also, here and in Scream 2, the killers have elaborate plots, contingent on all sorts of coincidence and dumb luck, which involve grooming catspaws to do their killing for them, when they’re perfectly willing to kill people themselves, and no one would have any reason to suspect them. I mean, if Billy and Stu hadn’t been killed in the first movie, they'd have sold out Roman in a second!

Scream 4 (2011)

Somehow this one is so undistinguished, I kept referring to it as Stab 4. Several years later, Sidney returns to Woodsboro on a book tour, on the anniversary of the original murders. She acts above all the exploitative promo stuff, but come on, she knew that wasn’t a coincidence, but timed for maximum press.

Most frustrating death: Mary McDonnell. Come on! Casting the President of the galaxy just to waste her in such a nothing role is downright bizarre, especially since she functions as a never-before-hinted-at aunt for Sidney right there in Woodsboro. Apparently just to explain why there’s a cousin to position as an heir to scream queendom. But she gets one line about “hey, the murdered Maureen Prescott was my sister, so I have trauma too!” Then a line about shopping when she’s stressed. And then she’s dead. So wasteful. 

Cringiest moment: Maybe the whole vlogging thing? No, wait, it’s the guy who says the only way to know that someone will survive a horror movie these days is if they’re gay. I’m still trying to figure out what his evidence for this is.

Cameo: Anna Paquin and Kristin Bell from the opening. I am equal parts both characters, so having the “I dunno, I enjoy a dumb scary movie” woman stab the critical, analytical one was like a scene inside my own brain. 

Personal favorite: Alison Brie’s performance really hits the same notes from Community, but it’s admittedly fun to see a version of Annie who’s so foul-mouthed and gleefully insensitive. 

The twist: It’s okay, I guess. I’m not sure I suspected Jill the first time, but it does smack a bit of “the kids today.” Which, to be fair, was also a thread in the original, about desensitization and whatnot. There is an interesting, if barely noticed, nod to the gendering of violence and the assumption of female innocence when Sidney asks her cousin how she could do this to her friends. I don’t think anyone has ever, at any point, questioned how Billy and Stu could have done the same to their friends. For young men, it’s taken as more of a “why not?” And “there’s always some bullshit reason to kill your girlfriend,” as Randy pointed out so long ago. 

Overall, while they're all enjoyable, it's hard to look back and understand why I was so deeply invested in the Scream movies. All the '90s copycats, with their glossy surfaces and attractive young casts plucked from TV, certainly dulled the freshness of the original. In retrospect, the first film does have an unusually strong sense of place. Filmed in California wine country (my cousins went to high school in the building used as the Woodsboro High School!), the real locations give it a dual impression of affluent ease and unsettling isolation. And you really feel the relationships: Dewey and Tatum snipe like real siblings, and Sidney genuinely seems like she's known Dewey all her life. There's a lot of little warm touches in the performances, and that all works for me. It probably helped that, for example, the very worst Halloween sequel, The Curse of Michael Myers, had just come out the previous year, so a lot of us were pretty desperate for something new to come along. And that might be enough to explain the phenomenon.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Back to School Horrors: Rush Week

Spoilers galore, so beware!

In Rush Week (1989) a transfer journalism student investigates the disappearance of a young woman at a mostly sedate college, at the same time a rowdy fraternity house is reopening, which may or may not be connected. The film begins with a nighttime vista of the empty campus, set to creepy background music, showcasing a sense of emptiness and isolation, before shifting to a frat party full of (mostly drunken and immature) camaraderie. 

Coincidentally, I just read the book The Great Good Place, with its discussions about place, and the increasing difficulty of creating community in modern spaces, so much so that people are losing “the habit of association” (73), and I noticed it was originally published in 1989, the same year as Rush Week came out. The campus isolation contrasts with one of the main reasons why people join fraternities and sororities: to make friendships and/or connections. Even if it’s for future professional reasons, there’s an assumption that personal ties will help with that.

Unlike Monster on the Campus, the emphasis in this film is solidly on the students. The adults are unhelpful, exploitative, or downright sinister. Like Dr. Blake in Monster on the Campus, this college’s Dean Grail is concerned with civilization and the danger of regression: “Fraternities, sororities tend to accentuate the very worst, the most degrading influences.” He wants to guide the students instead toward “productive futures,” but this is clearly part of his mental instability. An attitude of “don’t trust anyone over 30” is ingrained even in young people who, certain Animal House-style shenanigans notwithstanding, dress like yuppies and are far removed from the hippies who popularized that idea.   

In that 1958 film, the lead was a professor distracted from his classroom duties by higher research; here, they’re students distracted by their extracurricular social activities, which certainly seem more important than their schoolwork. In the case of protagonist Toni, she’s a journalism major, but she spends all her time at the campus newspaper office and the computer lab, not in class. And how quaint are those early CRT computer terminals! Awwww!

Like Monster on the Campus, many of the horrific events center around the science building, but not because of instruction or experimentation. The dangers are no longer centered around science itself. Instead, it’s a large, empty place where a cafeteria worker can moonlight taking nude photos of female students, who are openly motivated, at this stage in the ‘80s, by the difficulty of paying for college. There’s one significant exception who probably didn’t need the money, but it’s hard to say for sure. Wealthy parents controlling their kids by controlling their finances isn’t a new story either.

One thing I appreciate about Rush Week: it contains actual female friendships, and recognizes that the characters involved in sexual "transgressions" are motivated by financial need. The roommate of the sexy first victim (last name McGuffin, by the way!) sincerely worries about her, describing her as a responsible young woman, and is reluctant to reveal her friend's sideline in amateur porn, knowing she’ll be judged negatively for it. New student Toni is immediately befriended by Jonelle, who introduces the audience identification character to the campus and its various groups. Thanks to film conventions, when she first appeared, I half expected her to be a “bitchy girl,” but this film didn’t have one! 

Jonelle's an attractive blonde with big hair and bedazzled clothes, and a boyfriend in the frat, but she’s also the computer expert who explains “back doors” to Toni, and later hacks into the university’s system to warn her of potential danger, before showing up with a whole cavalry of people from a costume party to rescue her in the last act. Not only that, but she sings with the band at a frat party; a fun featurette with actress Courtney Gebhart on the Vinegar Syndrome blu-ray talks about this as one of the highlights. The famous L.A. punk band the Dickies also appears, and “Baby Doll,” the parodic Devo pop song featured in Tapeheads, is also heard in the background, so I like to think these films take place in a shared universe.

In some ways I wish the fun-loving and multifaceted Jonelle were more the focus than Toni, although that’s not the fault of Pamela Ludwig, who’s fondly remembered, especially, from 1979’s teen rebellion classic Over the Edge. As the most serious and stolid character, Toni comes across as something of a straight woman to her campus peers. She’s hampered, too, by her relationship with frat president Jeff (Dean Hamilton), a red herring who’s never called on his awful behavior in condoning his frat brothers’ cruel pranks on a prostitute, which, in the worst of frat boy stereotypes, they do just because they can. When the young woman goes missing and Toni worries about her, Jeff says, “Hey, she’s just a hooker,” and she should have dropped him right there.

Their relationship is especially frustrating since he's rude to Toni from the start, immediately telling her “you’re too intense.” He cuts down her ideas, telling her to “wake up. This is real life, not some stupid horror movie,” and “I told you not to get so wrapped up in this.” Even though there was an unsolved ax murder on campus the year before, and he knows she’s onto something! If he was concerned for her safety, he could warn her about that! But nope, he just constantly tells her not to follow her instincts, and not to be herself.

In response, she overlooks his Jekyll/Hyde qualities, gives in to his persistence, and out of nowhere says she’s falling in love with him. He might not be the killer, but the fact that he’s such a plausible red herring is still a red flag about his potential as a boyfriend.  He’s also involved in the film’s gay jokes, which are unfortunate but certainly period-appropriate.

I do like the scene where the two have a date at a campus hangout, because it brings back fond memories of places like Minneapolis’ Valli Pizza, all of them long-gone, and Jeff’s musing about how for the students, “most of ‘em have no idea what they wanna do with their lives.” While his frat house seems to be 100% dedicated to crazy pranks and mooning, there's one interesting aspect in that Jeff’s heart really isn't in it anymore. His best friend has to keep nagging him to do the responsible thing by taking part in fun and debauchery, where he presides over the ceremonies, announcing “I sever the bindings of social constraint.”

This brings up a question of what that even means. The frat's resistance to social constraint is itself ritualized, a tradition, and it’s the authority figure on top of the org chart who is actually freed from social constraint to the point of ax murder.

This all made me think of the apparent decline of frat culture, at least anecdotally, and certainly locally. My own alma mater had eight Greek organizations and one home-grown fraternity in 1970, seven of which had free-standing houses right next to campus. I couldn't find an official count for the '80s, but as of 2021, there are three Greek groups, none of them with a house.

The social upheavals of the ‘60s clearly affected the popularity of Greek life, which then saw a revival in the ‘70s; a frat house like the one seen in Rush Week would probably have gotten their ideas from movies like Animal House as much as from local tradition. By this time, there was a lot concern about alcohol abuse and hazing. As late as 2020, AHS: 1984 includes a fraternity hazing death in one of the characters’ back stories, so this still comes up in pop representations, although social and economic changes probably do more to influence the decline of interest among new students.

Overall, while there are certainly slashery elements, like hooded guys committing ax murders, Rush Week's plot gives it more of a mystery/thriller feel, creating more forward motion than some of the more bare-bones slashers do. I’m not arguing that it's a real lost masterpiece, but it was still a fun new discovery. Sometimes “you need something new, yes you do,” as Jonelle sings at the frat party (voiced by Addie, of the Addie Band). 

It's clearly unsatisfying for some viewers, with a frequent consensus that the movie fails because it’s fairly tame, with fewer, less graphic, and less creative “kills” than other slashers. However, the idea that this is the primary way, or the only way, to judge a slasher film seems like a limited view of the genre, one that plays to stereotypes about lowest common denominators. I’m probably in the minority, but I’ll go on blithely assuming that’s not the case, and that other people might enjoy a competent film with decent acting and a baseline of suspensefulness.

Director Bob Bralver was most well-known as a stunt man and stunt coordinator, who did some actingand started directing TV shows. Rush Week was his first full-length film, and watching the Vinegar Syndrome release blu-ray, I was fairly impressed. For a mostly unknown film, it looks GREAT!