Step into the Salon: Do you scream for 'Scream'?

Dimension

By Jacob Axelrad, Assistant Arts Editor
and Kayla Upadhyaya, Senior Arts Editor
Published October 4, 2012

When the elusive and erratic Ghostface asks Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) — the protagonist of the iconic “Scream” franchise — if she likes scary movies, she replies: “What’s the point?”

“They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.”

She has a point. Once upon a time, feminist heroines in horror films weren’t all that uncommon (“Alien” ’s Lt. Ellen Ripley, “The Silence of the Lambs” ’s Special Agent Clarice Starling, etc). But most horror films in the past two decades — particularly of the slasher nature — are notoriously misogynistic and stereotype-ridden. They glorify virginity and mix sexually suggestive imagery with spurting blood and severed bones.

“Scream” is the anti-horror film. Unpacking almost every trope in the genre, Kevin Williamson’s ingenious script holds up a mirror to teen-slasher cinema and fingers the formulaic nature of it all: “The police are always off-track with this shit! If they’d watch ‘Prom Night,’ they’d save time! There’s a formula to it. A very simple formula!”

Williamson’s love for the genre emanates through the film’s dialogue (with references to “Halloween,” “Psycho,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “The Exorcist,” “Carrie” and dozens more). And his partner is quite the horror aficionado himself: Wes Craven, who sired serial killer legend Freddie Kreuger. Between Williamson’s gift for writing mind-melting meta — without crossing over into hokey territory — and Craven’s experienced eye for capturing all the right shadows to make us positively petrified, together they created a holy masterpiece for any devout horror lover.

And when we love something so much, we must also recognize its downfalls, as “Scream” does. Sidney Prescott flies in the face of the conventional Damsel in Distress, Final Girl or Dead Whore. She’s a true heroine who outmatches Ghostface with her general badassery, smarts and strength (and I’m not just talking about her physical prowess — Sidney is brave, unflinching even in the most terrifying of situations).

Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) similarly takes a knife to slasher stereotypes. She’s aggressive and perceptive, piecing together the mystery faster than any of Woodsboro’s policemen can. As brilliant and well executed as the rest of the story is, it’s Gale and Sidney that make “Scream” an unfading sensation.

Today, we’ve been given a false sense that women are reclaiming the horror genre. New releases like “Jennifer’s Body,” “I Spit on Your Grave” and “Tamara” tout female protagonists exacting revenge on the men who oppress them — namely by seducing and subsequently killing them.

Suggesting that women are so powerless that their only way of fighting patriarchy is to use their sexuality isn’t feminism. It’d be nice to not have to wait until “Scream 5” to get another glimpse of some Gale Weathers and Sidney Prescotts in today’s horror cinema — though, if “Scream 4” was any indication, both ladies have still got it.

—KAYLA UPADHYAYA

***

When I came to University orientation three summers ago, I received some news that made me groan: “Scream 4” was being filmed in Ann Arbor. Murmurs of Courteney Cox and Neve Campbell sightings filled the halls of East Quad. I couldn’t escape: The abomination of a horror franchise had followed me halfway across the country.

There are certain scream-o-philes who will laud “Scream” for its courage in facing the slasher cliché, daring to make fun of itself. “It’s a horror movie that self-consciously comments on the nature of the horror genre,” they might say. Yeah. It is. I got that when Randy told us that, “Everyone’s a suspect.” Or when Billy informed viewers that “It’s all one great big movie.”

In my book, Kevin Williamson’s script is nothing more than a Saturday Night Live sketch that takes itself way too seriously — a serial killer and his targets who’ve seen too many movies and jokingly predict the killer and the movie’s next steps. The conceit quickly grows tired and the acting, if you can even refer to it as such, is overdone to the point of parody (and not the kind the movie wants, either).

Director Wes Craven routinely receives credit for reviving the long-stagnant horror genre. And yet, “Scream” is anything but scary. Ghostface chases his victims through their homes, knife in hand. After the initial moment of suspense (leaping out at his victims after a game of cat and mouse played over the phone) what ensues becomes comical as Ghostface slips and slides over his gown, a demented attempt at shock horror that always fails to hit its mark.

Moreover, while I’m not bothered if people wish to say “Scream” made slasher flicks mainstream again, I’m bereaved by anyone who hints that it’s the most memorable of the ’90s horror canon. Before there was Sidney there was Clarice Starling. And before there was Ghostface there was a psychopath named Hannibal Lecter. While “Scream” may be entertaining in a post-modern, play-with-its-own-premise sort of way, its pleasure is fleeting, superficial, going no deeper than the scream carved on Ghostface’s mouth.

Yet even lemons have their perks. And in the case of this dud the perk’s name is Deputy Dewey (David Arquette, “Cougar Town”). Where the rest of the cast’s pretty faces ooze nothing more than pretention, Arquette creates a character who will remain imprinted in our collective memory — a beacon of honesty in this world of cynicism and irony. He’s pathetic. He’s sincere. He wants to do the right thing, yet is repeatedly thwarted by circumstance, a Chaplin-esque figure seemingly lost in the pitfalls of the ’90s.

If I could rewrite the movie as a Dewey character study, believe me, I would. Unfortunately, I’ve resigned myself to simply voice my beliefs from the back of the room whenever my housemates feel compelled to host a “Scream” marathon. “What I like about it is that even though it’s a commentary on horror, it’s still pretty scary,” I heard one of them say. And so it goes.

—JACOB AXELRAD