In a 2007 interview, Scream franchise director Wes Craven said, ‘Horror is very close to comedy. It’s a lot of talking about the forbidden in a way that is entertaining and the timing is very similar.’
Both horror and comedy rely on the element of surprise to do their respective jobs of frightening and amusing and both genres take subjects with quasi-sacred overtones (family ties, sex) and subvert them, but few films combine the two genres as seamlessly as the Scream films do.
Life-threatening situations become darkly funny when undercut by the traditions of a genre that is not notorious for being silly; reserving the most carnage for the blonde girl with the big breasts, for example. Tatum in the original Scream may be a lot more sarcastic than a typical Friday The 13th bimbo, but she has the traditional figure of just such a bimbo and this feature alone dooms her to the most gorily-ludicrous death of the franchise, mangled and possibly electrocuted for good measure in a cat-flap in a garage door.
Ghostface’s hallmark question ‘What’s your favourite scary movie?’ reveals many of his intended victims to be movie buffs familiar with a lurid pantheon of horror, including films Wes Craven himself directed or wrote, but their knowledge of the rules of the genre can’t spare them an end almost as grisly as Tatum’s nor even stop Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell) from running upstairs when she knows (having just joked about it) that she should run outside.
The one person whose knowledge of the horror genre does actually help him is Joel Jones (Duane Martin), Gale Weathers’ black cameraman, who in Scream 2 argues that ‘brothers don’t last long in situations like this,’ and quits his job, thereby escaping the fate of his murdered predecessor, camera man Kenny Jones (W. Earl Brown) and breaking the rule he himself identified.
Scream 4 is released on DVD and Blu-ray this week by Entertainment In Video.
#1: The death-scene that starts it all off is the demise of Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore). A sure-fire candidate for the Top 4 with its almost-baroque ornateness, it kicks off the Scream tradition of opening each film with a double murder. On this occasion the auxiliary death is just a means for Ghostface to ramp up his victim’s misery.
Casey’s boyfriend Steve, gagged and bound, then gutted when she gets one of Ghostface’s questions wrong, is dehumanised into such a tool that his demise hardly counts as a tragedy, though his distress when he sees Casey agree to answer Ghostface’s questions is memorable for suggesting he knows something she doesn’t.
The surviving member of the couple is then toyed with, stabbed, has her throat cut so she can’t call out to her parents for help when they come home during her ordeal, stabbed some more – all while clutching a cumbersome cordless phone like a security blanket. After her mother picks up the extension to call the police over what looks like a break-in and hears her dying gasps in the receiver, she is dragged over to a tree and strung up from it in order to horrify her parents when they open the front door.
Wes Craven doesn’t patronize his characters, which is conversely why the situations they get into seem so ludicrous. He forces us to identify with each victim to the point that we start sharing their disbelief at what’s happening to them.
#2: There’s a lot of dying in the vicinity of screens, large screens or small screens, but preferably ones showing someone else being murdered. The death of Maureen Evans (Jada Pinkett Smith) at the beginning of Scream 2 shows Wes taking his celluloid-backdrop fetish to new heights when he has her die in a cinema showing the death of ‘Casey’ (Heather Graham) in ‘Stab’, the fictionalised version of the character played by Drew Barrymore in the first film.
A film within a film – or a story within a story – is an idea that has been around in one form or another since Shakespeare, but a film about the prequel to the film in which it’s being shown threatens to lose reality down a distorting – and infinite – Hall of Mirrors.
Being Scream 2, in which no death-scene is complete without lashings of irony, Maureen dies after making gibes at ‘Stab’ Casey to Ghostface beside her, whom she thinks is her boyfriend in a Ghostface costume. And let’s not forget the final postmodern touch: the nonplussed cinema audience, less deliberately-voyeuristic echoes of ourselves, who not surprisingly aren’t sure if they’re witnessing a hyper-realistic publicity stunt or a real murder and watch her die without doing anything.
#3: The device, first used in the original Scream, of having the killer use one member of a couple against the other recurs with new variations in Scream 3 when Ghostface mimics Cotton Weary’s (Liev Schreiber) voice while going after his girlfriend Christine (Kelly Rutherford), with the result that when the real Cotton turns up in the middle of the attack to rescue her she thinks he’s the one trying to kill her and knocks him out, pipping her one chance to be rescued.
Diverting though the Cotton-Christine death scene is, however, it may be worth nominating another one for inclusion among the Top 4 death scenes. Scream 3 has perhaps the most memorable last words in the franchise. When veteran producer John Milton (Lance Henriksen) is held at knife-point by the latest incarnation of Ghostface, director Roman Bridger (Scott Foley), he proves to be one of the few characters who isn’t too proud or stunned to bargain for his life.
‘You don’t have to do this, Roman! Just tell me what you want, I can make it happen! Any picture, name your budget, script approval, final cut!’ Unfortunately, the offer is too little too late for the previously-fired Roman, who demonstrates why you shouldn’t offer ‘final cut’ to a homicidal director when he’s holding a knife to your throat by cutting Milton’s throat.
#4: Having explored the rules of the trilogy in Scream 3, it’s hard to see what Wes can do with the fourth installment, but his inventiveness still has a way to go. The stabbing of Rachel Millles (a cameo appearance by Anna Paquin) by her equally doomed-looking blonde friend shocks because there’s no Ghostface involved in it and because it’s later shown to be in a ‘Stab’ sequel (one that itself featured a ‘Stab’ sequel , to make you think you were watching ‘reality’).
But the death scene of Olivia Morris (Marielle Jaffe), another sassy beauty of the Tatum kind, is in a league of its own. In the Drew Barrymore death scene you saw what the dying Casey saw – her parents, just out of range of her damaged voice – and a little bit what Casey’s mother heard, but here Wes inverts this sequence of emphasis so that you see Olivia’s murder partly through her eyes but mainly through the eyes of the helpless bystanders, her friends at the window of a house across the street.
To watch someone in the position of bystander, it turns out, is almost as awful as it is to watch someone just beyond help. The final twist to this death scene is that one of the bystanders turns out to be a killer. Definitely Wes at his crafty and unrelenting best.