Cravenous: Scream 2

scream2

Re-watching Scream 2 for this series made me realize that it’s been a long time since I watched this or the third film. I love the first movie (duh). Clearly, I have all the time in the world for it. And I have owned the trilogy in every iteration it has appeared in (VHS? Check; DVD? Yup; Blu-ray? I bought a Blu-ray player just so I could buy and play the trilogy, ISYN). However, as time has passed, I have slowly convinced myself that the sequels are not worth watching. As the second film even addresses, very rarely do sequels prove their worth. However, the horror genre in particular seems to thrive off the existence of unchecked and often unwarranted franchises.

That being stated, are the Scream sequels terrible? No. As sequels go, they actually are quite good. In fact, this re-watching of the first sequel, again focusing on the technical merits of the film, has made me realize how strong it was on several different levels. This and the third film (we’ll get to that fourth one in a little while) also have elements of enjoyment and intrigue and, after pondering this a bit for this series, I would posit that they ultimately do add merit to the horror genre for doing to the horror franchise trope what the original did to horror in general.

First, though, I’ve been pondering why Craven was so amenable to the notion of participating in sequels for Scream when he was so adamantly against them for Freddy Krueger. I think a few things went into his decision this time. First, writer Kevin Williamson always had sequels in mind [insert predictable Stu Macher quote about sequels here]. So the option was always on the table, even when Craven first started hearing about the script, as opposed to how Craven wanted his original Nightmare on Elm Street to be a one-shot film with a definite ending. Second, I think it would be fair to surmise that Craven probably learned a valuable lesson with Freddy. If you don’t want others botching your creation, then you need to be the one driving (even if you’re driving from someone else’s map). With Scream, he realized that he could be conductor for Williamson’s death train, from start to finish, and I suspect that appealed to him, especially after the first film blew up so massively and rapidly in popularity.

And then there is the unique focus of this horror franchise. Other popular horror franchises hinged upon the killer always being the same. Not this time. No, this franchise’s focus was the exact opposite of most horror films. This time, it’s all about the survivor. Sidney is the character who doesn’t change (although let’s not forget the other survivors, two of whom stay by her side through the whole series like a Holy Survival Trinity #spoilerz). Sidney is the keystone.

[Loba Tangent: If that concept sounds familiar, it should. Craven granted the same level of power to Heather Langenkamp in his New Nightmare.]

Craven had already made a career of presenting strong female characters in many of his films. In fact, he had made a career of presenting unlikely heroes/heroines from several diverse groups, not just strong women. His last two films prior to taking on Scream, in fact, showcased casts comprising not just Black heroes/heroines, but also largely Black casts. This was practically unheard of from a serious film-making perspective at this point in the horror genre (I say serious here as opposed to horror spoofs like what the Wayans brothers were doing with their Scary Movie spoofs). Horror was a Hollywood holdout of predominantly White casts, White heroes, White villains, made for predominantly White audiences. Was that because horror is mostly preferred by White audiences? Or was it more likely because diverse audiences weren’t interested in a genre that showed no interest in them? I think Craven tested this latter theory most successfully with The People Under the Stairs, which was a genre success that very few anticipated.

[Loba Tangent: I think this was part of what made the opening sequence with Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps even more spectacular. Pinkett’s character’s lament about how the movie they were getting ready to watch was “some dumb-ass White movie about some dumb-ass White girls getting their White asses cut the fuck up” not only was a poignant castigation against several horror tropes but also made her character’s ultimate, shall we say, intrigue in the telling of that “dumb-ass” movie even more humorous.]

Therefore, a man who had spent several decades building his reputation as a Master of Horror (I think it’s time we started using that as an official title, don’t you?) through the construction of complex, complicated, and often unexpected horror heroes/heroines would naturally be drawn in by a series of movies that eschewed the traditional horror franchise route of focusing on (glorifying?) the killers for the unconventional approach of focusing on the survivor(s).

There’s also another aspect that seemed particularly prevalent and important to this sequel that I think must have attracted Craven by dint of reason that it had held such a disturbing fascination for him throughout his career: the reality of human brutality. Again, let’s think about the movies that started Craven down his path to Master of Horror status. Those movies sprang up from Craven’s desire to examine the darker sides of human nature in the most realistic ways. And now he gets this script that hinges upon examining the reality of what transpired within the first movie.

These survivors from the first movie? They’re all damaged, emotionally and in many ways physically. That “fun” first movie carried weighty consequences, which we watch play out throughout the unraveling of this and following sequels. There is still humor all throughout this sequel, but Craven and Williamson did an extraordinary job in balancing it with weightier truths for these characters, particularly Sidney. We’ll get to her in a moment, though.

First, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the opening of this film. I already mentioned that Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps bring us into the new world of Scream 2. They are heading in to a free preview of Stab, the movie based on Gale Weathers’s book on the events of the first film, The Woodsboro Murders. So basically we end up watching a movie about people watching a movie of events we’ve already watched. The continuing beauty of this is that what they are watching is both very close and incredibly far away from what actually happened in the first film. Again, Craven and Williamson are taking collective digs at the tropes of their trade in exquisite fashion. What they are also doing, and it comes through with such unsettling perfection, is juxtaposing the “reality” of horror movies for its fans against the true reality of horror.

I’m referring, of course, to the murder of Pinkett’s character, Maureen Evans. I still can recall the collective silent horror shared throughout the audience I was in when we watched that murder play out. Whereas the majority of the kills in the first movie all came across in electric ways that pumped up the audience to cheer or scream or laugh or yell at the screen, this time…this time was utterly different. Craven knew precisely how to make this one of the most discomfiting deaths from the entire franchise. Whereas it was in many ways similar to the first death from the first movie, this time Craven and Williamson pulled it out of the expected solitude of a typical horror movie setup.

This was not the “girl alone in a secluded setting” predictability akin to what Heather Graham’s character was facing in the Stab film (or that Drew Barrymore’s character faced at the beginning of the first movie). This was a young woman being brutally murdered in a theater full of people. In so doing this, they not only upended the trope but they also made us uncomfortably and unwillingly that much closer to her murder. In essence, we became one with the on-screen audience, all of us watching as Maureen climbed to the front of the theater, bleeding, dying, crying out for someone, anyone to take note, take heed of what was happening. Craven had always made a point of trying to invoke a sense of moral uneasiness in his audiences, and this opening did not disappoint. I remember the disgust I felt at the opening of this film; I realize now that this was precisely the reaction I should have had.

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Skipping ahead slightly in the movie but focusing on another instance in which Craven beautifully shows us how to get away with murder in a way that breaks the horror tropes apart, let’s talk about Randy. Poor Randy. All he wanted was for the geek to get the girl. Instead, he’s brutally, savagely murdered by Ghost Face in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded college quad. That was the beauty of Craven’s directorial acumen. He knew how to upend and audience. He lulled us into a sense of complacency. It’s a sunny day. People are all around. They’ve all got each other’s backs on this, right? Besides, it’s Randy! Nothing is going to happen to Randy. And then the blood began to run and we all knew, there is no understanding of sacred beneath that Ghost Face mask.

Interestingly, even the MPAA finally got on board with Craven’s focus on realism and consequences. Craven stated in interviews that he purposely made this film as bloody as he could, expecting the MPAA to come back and tell him to cut it down for an R rating as they did with the first film (and myriad other films from his career). Instead, they left the original cut of the film untouched. According to them, the violence was okay because it carried consequences. Kind of like all Craven’s other films, but never mind.

[Loba Tangent: I’ve actually not only seen the original cut of Scream but I also used to own it on VHS. It’s the version they made the director’s commentary for on that weird VHS double set I bought. I’m kicking myself that I don’t have it anymore. I’ve never seen that original cut anywhere else, not even the special edition DVD set. Craven’s original cut actually made the consequences of Billy and Stu’s actions more prevalent. The MPAA’s insisted-upon cuts took away that level of realism and left instead a false sense of invulnerability for our killers.]

And then there’s Sidney.

We watch as she starts out this round prepared, defiant. She’s armed with a caller ID and a BFF roomie and a new boyfriend and Randy (for now). She’s got this. She is ready for whatever the premiere of that stupid movie based on her chaotic life has in store. Even Tori Spelling.

[Loba Tangent: Good on ya, Tori, for having a great sense of humor and for playing along with the continuation of a line from the first film. Also, this is one of the moments from this film that falls soundly into the hilarity camp. I love how Craven is able to get the absolute worst performances from “Sidney” and “Billy” in the movie based on the first movie, thus poking fun at the original film in such a wonderful way.]

Oh, Sidney. We want so much to believe in your tough girl ruse. But Craven will not let that happen, and you know it. That moment when Sidney realizes the horror is starting again, Craven gives us this beautiful shot composition of her off-center and alone before slowly pulling in closer to her, thereby pulling us into her horror. It was so simple and yet so right.

Courtesy of Shadow of Reflection
Courtesy of Shadow of Reflection

And in case you haven’t picked up on this yet, I love Sidney Prescott. Just like Nancy Thompson, she is another one of Craven’s quintessential Warrior Women, faced with seemingly insurmountable odds but willing to dig in and find a way to survive. She refuses to lie down and accept her victimization at the hands of others wishing to make her their personal scapegoat. However, we also witness that these events harden her, to trust and to emotional stability. Her inability to place faith in anyone after her betrayal by Billy leads to the deaths of two of her closest confidantes in this film and, I believe, kills her ability to function in any publicly acceptable fashion. It actually worked out that Neve Campbell wasn’t able to be in the third movie for long, because limiting Sidney’s time in the third movie helped solidify that the damage she absorbed in this film may not have killed her, but it came pretty close to destroying her. It certainly destroyed her ability to allow herself to feel. That moment at the end when she shoots Debbie Salt/Mrs. Loomis through the forehead without even flinching? Even Cotton and Gale flinch (Gale! Flinches!), their expressions revealing their respective horror at realizing not only what Sidney has just done but also what she has just become.

Courtesy of Shadow of Reflection
Courtesy of Shadow of Reflection

Wow, this is a long review. And I haven’t even gotten to things like the soundtrack and Marco Beltrami…or the roll call of Hollywood’s young elite who clambered to appear in this film…or the ones who were actually picked. Like Sarah Michelle Gellar. Even though she was in the middle of filming Buffy, she made time for a cameo in this film. I mention all this only for one reason: Craven’s sense of humor. See, Gellar’s scene included moments where she was watching television, and then moments where she was moving about her sorority house while the television just played in the background. Like in this moment:

Courtesy of Shadow of Reflection
Courtesy of Shadow of Reflection

Yes, denizens. That would be Nosferatu playing on the television behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

However, the one final thing that I would like to focus on for this film is the play scene. There is a moment in this film in which Sidney has a dress rehearsal for a play she’s in at the college. The significance of this scene from a Cravenous perspective? Craven wrote this scene and the play. The original script that Williamson wrote included some kind of generic Our Town-esque play, according to producer Marianne Maddalena. Craven, however, knew a way to write a scene that would integrate a play perfect not only for the film but also for Sidney. Let’s not forget that he was once a professor of literature or that he had a master’s degree in philosophy and writing. If anyone could come up with the perfect theme for a play suited to Sidney Prescott, it would be him.

[Loba Tangent: Also, making the play a Greek tragedy was Craven’s subtle castigation of the MPAA for their denouncement of violence of horror movies. Craven was basically pointing out that violence and horror have been a part of entertainment since the Greek tragedies. Hello, Oedipus and Medea. And yet now they are lauded as classics.]

I have to admit, the play scene is one of my favorite moments in not only the Scream trilogy but also horror in general. The way Craven not only beautifully draws the parallels between Sidney and Cassandra but also utilizes the Greek tradition of a masked chorus in such an effectively chilling way—it’s breathtaking in its brilliance.

Courtesy of Shadow of Reflection<
Courtesy of Shadow of Reflection

Here is Sidney, playing Cassandra of Troy, gifted with the ability to see the future, but cursed by Apollo to never be believed. She is often described in myth as dark-haired, dark-eyed, clever and beautiful…but considered by all around her to be insane. It becomes pretty clear that many around Sidney are beginning to question her grasp on her own sanity as this latest round of killings start up around her. And in the middle of rehearsal, Sidney comes completely unhinged as she finds herself facing the Ghost Face mask mingled among the rest of the masked chorus surrounding her, the scene done with such ambiguity that you find yourself questioning whether or not he was ever actually there in that scene. Even if Sidney really did see the killer, just like with Cassandra, she tells the truth and no one believes her.

Courtesy of Shadow of Reflection<
Courtesy of Shadow of Reflection

[Loba Tangent: I love how this theme of Sidney’s slow unraveling continues into the third film with much greater conviction, ultimately giving us yet another one of my favorite moments from both this trilogy and horror in general…but we’ll get to that. Soon.]

More importantly, however, is how Cassandra was cursed in the first place. It was punishment wrought upon her by the god Apollo because she denied him sex (although in one version of her story, she consented so that Apollo would grant her the gift of prophecy, only to change her mind after he had given her this talent, which angered Apollo enough to curse her immediately after). Her torment and exclusion were all borne of her sexual decisions, which a male figure felt compelled to punish her for. Not that dissimilar to Sidney or, more importantly, to Sidney’s mother. Remember, it was Maureen Prescott’s dalliance with Billy Loomis’s father that set off the chain of events in the first film and the first two sequels. Maureen’s “unpardonable” sin of infidelity led both Billy and Mrs. Loomis to want to punish her and her daughter, disregarding the fact entirely that their father/husband was a willing participant in said events.

[Loba Tangent: By the way, that’s also a nice extra touch, having Mrs. Loomis be the killer, seeking revenge upon Sidney for her son’s death in a rather Greek tragedy sort of way. Layers. Craven could bring them.]

In such a small space of the movie, Craven brings Sidney’s plight into perfect historical focus. She is the tragic heroine of this modern-day Greek play, punished for sexual choices, some made by her but the main ones made by another but for which she must bear the punishment. However, with a fantastic modern twist, we see our tragic heroine survive…but at what cost? How much can young Sidney bear before it all becomes too much? Guess we’ll just have to wait and see…

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