Monday, October 31, 2011

Behind the Mask

Film: Scream; Halloween
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen (Scream); DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television (Halloween).

It’s Halloween! Last year, that meant my favorite films, because this also happens to be my birthday—the 9th anniversary of my 35th birthday in this case. This year, we’re going traditional, and I’m watching the sorts of films most people watch on this day. Today, it’s two of the best slasher films ever made: Sceam and Halloween.

The first 10 minutes of Scream are arguably the most famous 10 minutes in slasher movie history. It’s pure genius, and it’s proof that Wes Craven is one of the smartest horror film directors in the business. High school student Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) gets a series of increasingly disturbing phone calls only to discover that the calls are coming from a homicidal maniac. He kills her boyfriend in front of her, then kills her brutally before running off. What makes this so good is that in this scene, Craven is playing with our expectations. When Scream was released, almost none of its stars were known for anything. A few, like Henry Winkler and David Arquette were known, but Barrymore was by far the biggest name in the film. No one expected her to die off at all, let alone right at the start.

Scream is a film plays with the slasher subgenre of horror movies by both following the standard tropes and flouting them in intelligent ways. The biggest and smartest flouting of the slasher convention is the film’s budget. Typically, slashers are low-budget affairs with plenty of nudity and gore to distract from the minimal budget, bad acting, and grainy footage. Not so with Scream, which is slick and glossy and made with obvious money behind it.

Wes Craven is one of the most important directors in the subgenre and for very good reason—a lot of his movies helped create the genre and a lot of his movies similarly played with the ideas of the slasher film and the crazed killer. In fact, at one point in Scream, one of the characters lists off some of the more important ways to avoid dying (like don’t have sex and don’t take drugs or drink), and then going as far as possible to break them. What’s more important, though, is that Craven doesn’t simply break the rules; he breaks them in ways that make sense in the film.

I’m not going to get too involved in the plot here, because for the genre, this one is pretty involved and convoluted, and takes a number of interesting twists before it eventually all makes sense at the end. Suffice to say that at each stage in the film, the current theory makes perfect sense, and ultimately the way the film wraps up fits in with everything we’ve seen as well.

I like that the film is kept in the realm of the possible. Too often, the slasher genre involves a killer who is possessed of supernatural or demonic powers (more on that type of killer in a moment) and can take huge amounts of physical punishment because he is essentially immortal or at least undead. Not so in this film. Repeatedly, when victims (or potential victims) are attacked and fight back, the killer, typically known as “Ghostface,” takes actual punishment. It’s a nice thing to see, when we typically see the killer shrug off blows that would sideline anyone else. In many ways, this makes the action scarier, because it also makes the action more real. I’m not too worried about Jason Voorhees because I don’t believe in the possibility of a thunderingly badass undead machete killer. A guy in a mask? Yeah, that’s possible.

The other reason I’m not going to tap into the plot here is that this is either a movie that you’ve already seen because it’s critical for the subgenre of slasher as well as the main genre of horror or because you’ve never seen it, and I don’t want to be the one who spoils it for you. This is a film to go into cold if you haven’t seen it, because it plays so intelligently with everything that has come before it. Craven, thanks to movies like this one, remains one of the players in horror and one of the most important directors to watch. A good director gives a wink and a nod to a knowing audience. A great director gives a wink, a nod, and then moves in for the kill.

As a final note on this one, Scream matches many other films of the genre in having a score that truly helps it sell the scares.

John Carpenter is the director of a number of shorts in his early student career. His first full-length film is a science fiction comedy and his second is essentially an action film. His third film, though, was Halloween, and it was here that Carpenter made his greatest mark. Carpenter, thanks in no small part to this film, has been pigeonholed as a horror director despite the fact that a number of his movies are not straight horror, or even horror at all. If nothing else, that’s in indicator of how good this film is and how influential it has been for the last 30-plus years.

Many of the standard tropes of slasher movies come from this film—virginity being the way to prevent death (according to Carpenter, this was because the kids having sex were so focused on sex that they couldn’t pay attention to anything else), never saying “I’ll be right back,” the concept of the final girl, the vanishing killer at the end, teens in peril, quick flashes of nudity, fake shocks, a minimalist but effective soundtrack, the killer who walks at a slow pace but still catches up, even the idea of each death being its own unique set piece. It’s also one of the first films with a masked killer, although there were others before it, notably Blood and Black Lace.

The story, as with many slashers, is straightforward. Fifteen years ago, a young boy named Michael Myers (Will Sandin at this point) kills his sister just after she has sex with her boyfriend. Michael is institutionalized, and at the start of the film, has broken out and returned to the scene of his grisly crime. Rather than a clown mask, he steals a completely blank white mask (actually a William Shatner mask painted white) and sets about killing anyone and everyone around the house he once lived in. Pitted against him is Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis in her first role, and one that would define her early film career), and his doctor (Donald Pleasance).

Like many a great scary movie, most of the good shocks in this one are tricks of timing, camera, and pacing. Halloween is thought of as a gory and gruesome film, but there is almost nothing here in terms of blood or gore. The film is virtually bloodless, a fact that indicates precisely how powerful the suggestion in Carpenter’s film really is. Just as important is the idea that aside from the disturbing opening, the really good scares, the ones that people really remember all come in the last half hour of the film, and the best ones come in the last 10 minutes. The bulk of the film, essentially, is set up and getting the mood correct. It’s an old lesson of horror—scare everyone in the first 15 minutes and you don’t need a great scare again until the final reel.

Halloween was made on the cheap, the entire film start to finish cost about $320,000 and the actors had to supply their own wardrobes. That’s a budget that wouldn’t cover a catering bill these days. It goes to prove that low budgets can bring out the best in creative and intelligent filmmakers, and that not having millions of dollars means that smart directors find new ways to do things that both save on money and, in the case of this film, heighten the scare factor.

I don’t want to go too far into the plot of this film. If you haven’t seen it before, you should see it immediately. If you are even mildly a fan of scary film, though, this is one you’ve seen and loved. Halloween is one of those rare litmus test films—horror fans are essentially required to like it. Fortunately for all horror fans, there is very little here not to like. Halloween provides plenty of scares, jumps, and boo moments (my favorite being Michael Myers sitting up after the closet fight) to last anyone through the Halloween season. While a great many films followed in the genre, only a scant few have come anywhere close to this level of all around quality. Horror fans love it because it’s awesome; film students love it because it’s purely great.

Quick piece of fun trivia—Michael Myers is referred to in the script of the film not by his name, but as “The Shape.”

Why to watch Scream: You can test your knowledge of slasher movie tropes.
Why not to watch: The real life relationship between Courtney Cox and David Arquette bleeds into the film to the film’s detriment.

Why to watch Halloween: It is the gold standard by which all other slashers are judged.
Why not to watch: If you’re a gorehound, there’s not that much blood here.


  1. I think the screenwriter of 'Scream' (Kevin Williamson) should definitely gain some credit there, too. It relies hugely on the script because it's so clever indeed. But that's not to say that Craven didn't do an excellent job at directing it, definitely. Two great reviews you got here, I love both films, particularely Halloween.

  2. Good point, and an oversight on my part. The script for Scream is a large part of what makes the film work.

    I prefer Halloween, too. It's just such a classic.

  3. My first viewing of "Halloween" was on a Black And White television in 1978, it was over a decade before I saw it again and still feel that the B&W does it greater justice, creating a bridge which took us from Hitchcock's "Psycho" OVER the schlock gore B-horror movies to the newest, more intense horror that would follow.

    While I enjoyed the inventiveness of "Scream" I felt that the following sequels laughed more at the audience, then it did at the sub-genre.

  4. The really scary moments would work pretty well in black and white, I think. Most of them take place in very dark lighting, so color has almost no impact.