Scream: It's Comfort Terror Season
October is the month when being terrified makes me feel better.
On my 27th birthday, three months and one day before my wedding, I watched Scream, alone, at 11pm, sitting in bed, my wife asleep next to me. She hates horror movies, and she especially hates being woken up, which explains why I was watching a movie alone on my birthday. But why was that movie a mid-90s slasher black comedy by Wes Craven? In short, if there’s such a thing as comfort terror, Scream is it.
Sure, Scream makes me feel at home in the same way that any movie with characters that I recognize from my own teenage years makes me feel at home. Stu’s (Matthew Lillard) high-school idiocy is recognizable annoying; Randy’s (Jamie Kennedy) off-handed nerd charm is who I like to think I was in high school, hopefully without the sleaze; and Sid (Neve Campbell) and Billy (Skeet Ulrich) are the hot couple we all dreamed we could be. They’re the reasons I loved the movie in high school. But after a decade of wading through hundreds of horror, slasher, and teen movies, it’s for a much different reason that I regularly return to Scream.
Praised for its satire and meta-commentary on slasher films, Scream works so well because of the love that Wes Craven has for the genre. Biting satire becomes affectionate pastiche in his hands – instead of feeling like a snarky takedown of decades of B-movies, watching Scream instead is like pulling on an over-sized sweater (Fall attire, of course) knit together using the threads of my favorite movies. Watching Scream is like welcoming back dozens of my oldest and best on-screen friends.
When the movie opens on an ominously ringing phone, and Drew Barrymore’s Casey picks it up with a casual “hello,” it feels like she’s talking to me, welcoming me back to an experience I know and love, despite her soon-to-be fate. When Ghostface asks Casey, “you like scary movies?” I nod along, and when he asks “what’s your favorite scary movie?” I roll my eyes, because, duh, it’s this one, because this one is all of them.
Perhaps most obviously, there are the people. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s characters – brought to life by a host of relatively unknown actors – comfortably inhabit a tradition of slasher movie archetypes without feeling reductive or staid.
Lillard spends the entire movie on a knife’s edge, injecting manic energy into Stu, who otherwise operates as a combination of the stereotypical jock and jerk of the group, rolled into one. He’s terrible but wonderful, in the tradition of Harry Cooper in Night of the Living Dead and Henry Rhodes from Day of the Dead, John Strode in Halloween, Frank in Hellraiser, and Jeff in the later-released Cabin Fever. Stu’s first scene involves a visceral description of how to “gut someone,” delivered with horrifying glee to Sid, whose mother was murdered just one year earlier. It’s a bold, unlikeable role for an early-career actor who would go on to play Shaggy in Scooby-Doo, but perhaps one that could have been expected given two of Lillard’s few screen credits at the time were as Emmanuel “Cereal Killer” Goldstein in Hackers and Chip Sutphin in John Waters’ Serial Mom.
Randy is the flip-side of the same coin, a secondary character who fulfills the role of the nerd (think Shelly from Friday the 13th Part III), with the perfectly meta twist that he’s not just a regular geek, but a film geek, and in particular a horror film geek. Played by Jamie Kennedy (of course he shares a name with legendary scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis), Randy is Williamson and Craven’s biggest wink at the audience, the character who comes closest to feeling like he’s in on the joke. But he’s also a source of companionship for the viewer – sitting on our shoulders, pointing out each horror film cliché and reference alongside us. Whereas I love Stu because I can’t wait until he gets the assured comeuppance of every slasher movie jerk, my affection for Randy comes from a desire to spend more time with him. Either way, they both bring me back to my favorite slasher movies.
The rest of the cast admirably fills out the list of slasher archetypes. Tatum (Rose McGowan) cleverly merges the best friend and the cheerleader roles – and like her boyfriend Stu does with his performance as the jock, she adopts the tropes of the cheerleader persona without ever needing the movie to establish that she’s actually a cheerleader. Both McGowan and her audience understand the character so well from past movies, it doesn’t need to be spelled out. Sid gets turns as both the virgin and the one who just had sex, while Billy whips back-and-forth between the nice guy and the asshole boyfriend – eerily reminiscent, both in looks and in Skeet Ulrich’s performance, of Jonny Depp’s Glen Lantz in A Nightmare on Elm Street. And there’s even the wonderful Henry Winkler, fulfilling his duty as the obligatory authority figure in Principal Himbry.
These characters – and the actors who bring them to life – evoke memories of past favorites without merely replicating them. They bring all my favorites to mind, but carve out their own paths. It’s comfortable but not boring; I still jump when Billy pops up in Sid’s room, cringe when Stu get gruesome, and guffaw in a “did he just do that?” sort of way when Randy announces the three rules for horror movie victims.
Craven’s filmmaking prowess is largely responsible for conjuring these emotions. And make no mistake, beyond the characters, emotions are what bring me back to my favorite comfort watches. Clever plotting, meta commentary, and thematic resonance are important, but when I’ve seen and heard everything three times, thought at length about the meaning and the impact, and caught every reference, I’m only popping in the Blu-Ray for a fourth time because I want to feel. This is the art of the comfort terror – it’s comfortable discomfort, a fear or shock or disgust that I hate but that I recognize and welcome.
Craven does this with dutch angles, knocking the camera off its axis as soon as danger arrives, jarring loose any complacence in his characters and audience just as soon as it begins to set in. He does it with an eavesdropping lens, poking through the railing to listen in on a conversation between Tatum and Sid, making us feel like we’re snooping, or someone is snooping, and we’re just as close to danger as the girls are, maybe closer. He does it by turning all his characters into monsters with distorted shots, angling up from below, his camera taking the position of a flashlight pointed up at someone’s face during a scary story.
Craven’s visuals are accompanied by sounds that arouse this same comfort terror, a veritable soundtrack to my death. Marco Beltrami’s score haunts without overpowering, a soft menace filling the spaces in between the scares, and thudding at just the right moment to enhance the audience’s feelings, rather than manipulate or create them whole-cloth. Even the painfully realized dubbing through automated dialogue replacement brings warmth rather than irritation, transporting me back to the schlock B-movies of the 60s and 70s.
Though nothing recalls those classic genre films quite so well as lovingly nestled references – some subtle, some not so much. After all, the only thing better than hanging out with your favorite horror film characters, is hanging out with your favorite horror film characters while they talk about your other favorite horror films. It starts with overt references to Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, and for the next 110 minutes, the shout-outs range from the irreverent (“starting to sound like some Wes Carpenter flick”) to the winking (“well, the first [Nightmare]…but the rest sucked”) to the camp (“What is this, I spit on your garage?”).
Scream’s characters make these references work as more than just a barrage of look-at-what-I-know Easter eggs. The repartee is natural, and it’s exactly what most of my conversations with friends devolve into. We call each other nicknames based on movies, like when Randy asks “what’s leatherface doing here?” We make sense of our reality through analogy, like Billy telling Sid that “it’s like Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs.” We correct each other on obscure details, though usually less lascivious than Randy’s “not until Trading Places in 1983” did Jamie Lee Curtis appear in a scene with nudity. And eventually, when we make a reference that we’re particularly proud of, we follow it up with a post-script – just like Billy trailing off his Pyscho quote with “Anthony Perkins, Psycho.” Maybe Scream feels like hanging out with friends because Scream shaped the way I hang out with friends.
And it’s the most obscure allusions that make me feel like part of the club. Billy’s last name, Loomis, being a nod to Dr. Loomis in Halloween, itself an homage to a minor character in Psycho, Sam Loomis. Casey’s father direct-quoting Halloween in the opening scene, telling his wife to “Go down the street to the Mackenzie’s house.” Or the way Billy talks about his physical relationship with Sid as having a “nice solid R rating, on our way to an NC-17,” a gleeful and pointed middle finger to the ratings battle between Craven and the Motion Picture Association of America. Scream invites anyone and everyone to be in on the joke.
Of course all of this – the characters, the technical elements, and the references – would mean little if Scream didn’t have such a firm grasp on the mechanics of dozens of slasher movies that preceded it. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it; but those who memorize their film history are equipped to subvert it. From the opening scene murder of the movie’s most famous actress (a Psycho homage in itself), Scream lets you know: it knows what you’re expecting, and it doesn’t particularly care.
Sometimes it fulfills those expectations, like when Sid flees up the stairs instead of out the door just moments after complaining that all horror movies just have “some big-breasted girl who can’t act and who’s always running up the stairs when she should be sprinting out the front door.” In other moments, Scream undermines its own foreshadowing. After perfectly setting up Randy’s murder, with Jamie Kennedy yelling “Watch out, Jamie, there he is…Jamie, look behind you, turn around” as Ghostface sneaks behind him, Scream serves up an anticlimax: the tape we were watching along with Kenny the cameraman was on a 30-second delay, and the killer already ran away, leaving Randy unscathed.
Perhaps I’ve just solved my own paradox after 1,500 words, discovering the simple answer to the question of comfort terror. I’ve seen Scream a few dozen times in the last two decades. I know what’s going to happen. But I forget when Craven is going to scare me and when he’ll let me linger, my tension unresolved. I can’t recall exactly how he’ll jolt me out of my seat – will it be a quick zoom on Ghostface, a jarring camera tilt, or a shrill scream? Those details keep me on the edge of my seat, coming back for more, even as the bigger picture feels like settling into an aged recliner with my favorite magazine.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the most infamous part of Scream: the mask. Circling the halls of junior high in the early 2000s, I couldn’t round a corner in October of my teenage years without bumping into the Ghostface mask, the Scream face. It inspired fear the first 100 times; laughter the next 100; and irritation the 800 after that. Now, a decade removed from my hometown, and it carries an air of nostalgia, returning me to the glory days of awkwardness and immaturity.
I don’t have a Scream mask, but I do have a pair of socks. They have Randy’s face on the heel, and they list his three rules for surviving a horror movie. Number one, you can never have sex. Big no-no, sex equals death! Number two, you can never drink or do drugs. It’s the sin factor! And number three, never ever ever, under any circumstances, say “I’ll be right back,” because you won’t be back. Once every few months, I pull on my socks, grab a beer, tell my wife I’ll be right back, and head into our designated movie room to watch Scream. What can I say? It’s comfort terror.