One of the cardinal rules of slasher movies is that the killer never really dies. Jason or Freddy may look dead, but we know they’ll pop up for one last jolt. Even if they’re ”killed” at the end of the film, they can always be revived for a sequel (lest we forget, Friday the 13th — The Final Chapter was followed by Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning). After their ’80s heyday, however, teen-horror flicks couldn’t scare up much business, and the genre seemed ready to expire.
But like a psychopath who keeps coming back to life, the slasher movie has returned with a vengeance thanks to Scream. Director Wes Craven’s terrorific hit single-handedly revived the genre by bringing something fresh to it — a self-referential sense of irony. Its teenage characters were weaned on shockers like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, all of which made killings at the box office, launching long-lived film franchises. While their classmates are being butchered by a masked murderer, these media-fried kids watch teen-horror flicks as a video-store geek (Jamie Kennedy) recites the rules needed to survive them (never drink, smoke, have sex, or say ”I’ll be right back”). It’s all a movie to them. Kevin Williamson’s sharp script at once invokes and subverts these hoary cliches.
Is it possible to enjoy the old teen-slasher movies after having seen Scream? Yes and no. The out-of-nowhere smash that started it all, Halloween, holds up startlingly well today. John Carpenter’s brutally efficient exercise in tension and release follows escaped lunatic Michael Myers as he stalks a virginal babysitter (Jamie Lee Curtis, who had scream-queen genes as the daughter of Psycho’s Janet Leigh). The soon-to-be-cliches are all there — one victim is skewered after drinking, smoking, having sex, and saying ”I’ll be right back.” Still, Carpenter’s skill shines through; besides cowriting and directing Halloween, he also composed the movie’s unnervingly spooky score.
If John Carpenter is the ultimate craftsman, Friday the 13th’s producer-director, Sean S. Cunningham, brings new meaning to the word hack. A slavish copy of Halloween, it’s another story of nubile child-care workers (in this case, camp counselors) hunted by a nut on a traditionally scary night. This artless rip-off adds nothing new, except gorier murders (an arrow through the neck, a hatchet in the head). The amateurish cast — including a pre-Footloose Kevin Bacon — turns Friday the 13th into a true camp classic. It won’t even help Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon players: Has anyone seen costars Jeannine Taylor, Laurie Bartram, or Harry Crosby since?
With A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven took slasher movies to another level — a Freudian one. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) isn’t a run-of-the-mill killer. He’s an undead phantom who materializes in teenagers’ dreams but can cause very real injuries with his trademark finger-knives. A cackling wisecracker, Freddy also brought much-needed wit and personality to a genre overrun by silent, faceless slayers. With its cutting humor, Nightmare can now be seen as a warm-up for Scream. One of Nightmare’s scenes, in which Johnny Depp (in his big-screen debut) climbs into girlfriend Heather Langenkamp’s window, gets replayed in Scream when Deppelganger Skeet Ulrich climbs into girlfriend Neve Campbell’s window.
Although Scream satirizes its cinematic antecedents, it never forgets its primary goal — to scare the crap out of you. That it does, starting with a 15-minute mini-movie opening sequence, in which Drew Barrymore is menaced by a maniac caller. Barrymore’s may be the showiest, but there are other notable performances in Scream, including David Arquette (Johns) as Dewey, the dopiest deputy since Barney Fife, and Courteney Cox (Friends), nicely cast against type as a cutthroat tabloid-TV reporter.
Some of these characters survive Scream, setting up the possibility of a sequel. What a shocker — Scream 2 and 3 have already been given the green light. It remains to be seen if Scream can avoid the fates of the Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, which took quick dips in quality with subsequent installments. But if future Screams perpetuate cliches instead of sending them up, they could drive the final stake through the heart of the genre Scream revived. B