Posts Tagged ‘Horror’

Warning: total spoilers for both Knives Out and Ready or Not

Periodically in Hollywood, I’m never quite sure why, it so happens that two films with strikingly similar themes are released within months of each other. Such is the case with Ready or Not¬†and Knives Out, which hit cinemas in August and November 2019 respectively: a pair of blackly comedic yet emotionally affecting genre films whose shared, central thesis is that rich people are the literal goddamn worst. Each film follows a female protagonist of humble origins – Grace (Samara Weaving) in Ready or Not, Marta (Ana de Armas) in Knives Out – who finds herself the target of a rich family when events beyond her control see her cast as a threat to their power. She must then survive their attempts to remove her – quite literally, in Grace’s case – while figuring out which family members, if any, she can trust to help.

Of the two films, Ready or Not is undeniably the darker. Equal parts black comedy and survival horror, we’re introduced to Grace on her wedding day, when marriage to fiance Alex (Mark O’Brien) will see her join the La Domas gaming “dominion,” as the family call it. However, as part of her initiation into their number, Grace must join her new relatives for a midnight gathering on her wedding night. Forced to draw a card from a mysterious box as per the legacy of Mr Le Bail, their historic benefactor, Grace must play whatever game her card names – but when she draws Hide and Seek, the rules abruptly change. Now, in accordance with a demonic pact forged by their great-grandfather, the La Domas family must hunt and kill Grace before sunrise, or else risk death themselves. What follows is a tense hunt through the La Domas mansion, as the family – by turns brutal, bumbling, selfish and sociopathic – attempt to eliminate Grace, who must scramble to survive.

By comparison, Knives Out is much lighter viewing, yet shares the central conceit of a rich family whose wealth comes from success in the entertainment industry: in this case, the murder mystery novels of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), whose apparent suicide the night of his 85th birthday is nonetheless being investigated by a whimsical private investigator, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Originally hired to be Harlan’s nurse, our heroine, Marta, soon became his friend, too: a refuge from his backbiting, selfish descendants. His esteem for her was such that Harlan made her the sole heir of his estate; but when a fatal mix-up with Harlan’s medications made it possibly for Marta to be held accountable for his death, thereby voiding his will, he went to the extreme of committing suicide to protect her, leaving Marta – who cannot lie without throwing up – to weather the aftermath alone, avoiding both the suspicions of Blanc and the ire of the Thrombey family.

In both films, the means by which the families originally became rich – horror games and murder mysteries – are echoed in the plot structure, creating a neat genre parallel. Similarly, both films have their respective protagonists emerge alive and triumphant: Grace survives, albeit bloodied and battered, while Marta is exonerated and claims her grand inheritance. Each final scene involves the heroine in front of the mansion in which the bulk of the film has taken place: while Grace sits on the steps of burning La Domas home, Marta stands on the balcony of the Thrombey estate, looking down on its former inhabitants.

Thematically, I’d argue that Knives Out is the more ambitious film, in that it attempts a more complex understanding of race, class and privilege: Marta, her mother and sister are undocumented immigrants, and for all that the lily-white Thrombeys claim to love Marta as part of the family, she is constantly subjected to their microaggressions. A prime example is the failure of any Thrombey to know her country of origin, which is variously stated to be Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador and Brazil. However, while this “joke” is clearly meant to highlight the Thrombeys’ racism rather than being at Marta’s expense, the fact that the audience is left to share their ignorance, with her real nationality never being confirmed, unintentionally suggests that it doesn’t actually matter – which attitude is why the Thrombeys get it wrong in the first place.

By the same token, and as much as I enjoyed seeing Daniel Craig chewing the scenery as Benoit Blanc, my one critique of the film is the inescapable feeling that writer/director Rian Johnson, who is white, has gone so far out of his way to paint Marta as a “good” Hispanic that, by having Blanc speak for her at critical moments, he robs her of both her agency and her anger. The fact that Marta can’t lie without vomiting makes for a clever plot detail, as she’s constantly required to bend the truth in creative ways to avoid detection, and yet it also feels like an exaggerated way to reassure the (white) audience that Marta is an exceptionally good person. Similarly, at the climax of the film, we learn that Harlan’s grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) is ultimately responsible for the medical mix-up, not Marta – he knew she’d been named sole heir and wanted to frame her for murder, so that she’d be disinherited under the slayer rule. As such, there’s a moment where Marta, who still doesn’t know her own innocence, is ready to confess and apologise to the Thrombeys, even though they’ve been abusing and harassing her: a true angelic act. It’s Blanc who, having realised the truth, swoops in and yells at them on her behalf, pointing out how awfully they’ve been treating her – and as much as Marta’s goodness is central to the plot, I can’t help feeling that the story would’ve been stronger if she was allowed to be both good and angry, caring and assertive.

To be clear: I think Marta is a fantastic character, and I love that, even in a cut-throat, murder mystery setting, her inherent goodness and kindness are allowed to win out. However, given how overtly the film discusses race and racism as a factor in her mistreatment – which is firmly to its credit – I can’t help feeling that Johnson has shied away from doing anything that might risk Marta being even a little bit unsympathetic. When Harlan comes up with his harebrained scheme to commit suicide and thereby “save” her – a gambit that ultimately turns out to have been unnecessary – the narrative implication is that Marta is correct to play along because Harlan told her to; her agency in evading capture is “permitted” because it was sanctioned by him. That she’s also trying to protect her family – their undocumented status will be discovered if she’s arrested – should be a valid motive all by itself, and yet she’s still ultimately willing to risk their safety to come clean to the Thrombeys at the end, because she feels she owes it to them.

In my perfect version of the film, Marta is allowed to be angry at how she’s been treated; allowed to resent being shut out of the funeral, constantly called “kiddo” and then pressured to give up the inheritance. Instead of Blanc calling out the Thrombeys, I would’ve loved to see her speak for herself in that moment, and then to have it revealed that she was innocent all along – instead of, once again, having a powerful white, male character step in to validate her existence. (It also rankles that Blanc is repeatedly situated as being smarter and better informed than the actual detective assigned to the case, who happens to be black.)

That being said, the class criticism in Knives Out is otherwise spectacular. Having first established the Thrombey family as being split along political lines – some are far right, others more left-leaning – Johnson then makes clear that their real political allegiance is to money. When Marta is named sole heir, suddenly the family closes ranks against her, and while the most liberal Thrombey, Meg (Katherine Langford) is emotionally manipulated by her mother, Joni (Toni Collette) into helping them get dirt on Marta – Joni says that they won’t be able to afford Meg’s college anymore if Marta inherits, conveniently omitting the fact that her own embezzlement of Harlan’s funds is the reason why they were cut out in the first place – it still matters that she chooses money over principle. And all along, we’re treated to Ransom, who’s been the black sheep of the family for years, getting close to Marta and pretending to be on her side, because even though he hates the other Thrombeys, he still loves money foremost and is desperate to claim his share.

By contrast, the family wealth in Ready or Not is depicted as being, both literally and figuratively, blood money. Ever since their great-grandfather made his pact with the demonic Le Bail, the La Domas clan have murdered anyone who violates the established rules. Refusing to play the midnight game at your wedding is just as much a death sentence as drawing the Hide and Seek card, and at one particularly brutal moment, we see Grace fall into the literal charnel-house where the bodies of dissenters are thrown. Indeed, the film opens with a haunting flashback to the last time Hide and Seek was played, as Alex and brother Daniel (Adam Brody), then children, run through the house as their aunt’s new husband is hunted down. After stashing Alex in a wardrobe, Daniel is approached by the bleeding groom, begging for help, and in a moment of childlike terror calls out “He’s in here!” to his family, resulting in the man’s capture and ultimate ritual sacrifice. “I’m so proud of you,” his mother says; a scene later echoed between Alex’s sister Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and her own young son, who confesses to having shot Grace in the hand because he was trying to copy the grownups.

An alcoholic, Daniel has clearly lived a haunted life, for all that he’s never stood up to his family; his wife Charity (Elyse Levesque) is far more bloodthirsty. Like Joni Thrombey, she married into her wealthy clan, and having endured an upbringing implied to consist of extreme poverty, violence or both, is willing to do anything to keep her comfortable life. Throughout the film, Daniel alternates between apathy and resignation, not wanting to kill Grace himself but not quite able to let her go, either – right up until the very end, when he works to set her free and is shot and killed by Charity for his troubles. In a terrible parallel, it ends up being Alex who finally recaptures Grace: having worked throughout the whole film to try and free her, once he realises that she’ll never stay with him after what she’s endured, he echoes the fateful line of his brother and nephew and calls his family: “She’s in here!”

Though Ready or Not is class-critical, in that it explicitly situates wealthy people as being amoral assholes who’ll do anything to hang onto their money, no matter how heinous, it also uses the deaths of three maids – two of whom, Tina (Celine Tsai) and Dora (Daniela Barbosa) are women of colour – as part of its dark comedy. Both Tina and Clara (Hanneke Talbot) are killed by Emilie, who’s so coked up that she accidentally shoots them both (in separate instances) and has to be comforted by her parents. Dora, discovered hiding in a dumbwaiter by Grace, immediately tries to turn her over on learning that Grace is who the family wants; she then ends up crushed when the doors close on her torso. This cavalier treatment of their bodies as disposable, comic props isn’t mitigated by the fact that Grace, like them, doesn’t come from money: we’re told that she grew up in foster homes and – tragically, given the plot – has always wanted to join a family. At the same time, the stark difference between how the family treats the bodies of the maids and the bodies of their own is meant to emphasise their cruelty: as patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny) says to Grace, anyone not a La Domas is just another “goat” for the sacrifice.

It also helps that, by the end of the film, every single La Domas has died: after a brief moment of comedic uncertainty on the issue, it turns out that Le Bail has been real all along, and when dawn comes with Grace still alive, she watches – bloody, shocked and laughing – as her surviving in-laws explode, one by one. It’s gory and hilarious, especially when a frantic Alex, the last to be left alive, tries to plead with Grace for a reconciliation, telling her that she changed him for the better and that therefore, he must get to live; she watches, nonplussed, as he explodes all over her, then takes his mother’s beautiful cigarette case and goes out to smoke in front of the now-burning mansion.

In both films, the message is clear: until or unless you’re truly considered “one of the family,” the obscenely rich are only your friend if they can securely think of you as a lesser human being. Only fellow family members are equals, and therefore entitled to family protection: get in the way of that logic – either by inheriting ahead of them or invoking the murderous clause of an ancient demonic pact – and they’ll come after you with knives out, ready or not. For all that I’ve nitpicked parts of both films, they’re two of the best offerings I’ve seen in their respective genres in recent years, and if you’ve got the time, I highly recommend watching them as a double feature.

Warning: total spoilers for all four Scream movies. 

When I sat down this week to rewatch Scream, I did so as part of a horror-binge inspired by my first American Halloween experience. The first time I saw it, I was doubtless too young: I was ten at the time of its 1996 release, and while I was probably twelve or so before I actually watched it, I was never one of those kids with an appetite for horror. I found it gruesome and upsetting, and when I saw it again in my late teens, my reaction was much the same. Unsurprisingly, teenage-me had never seen the horror classics whose tropes and themes form the basis of Scream’s meta-narrative. This time around, however, I was fresh off watching Halloween, Halloween H20, Friday the 13th Part 1 and Part 2, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. (I also attempted A Nightmare on Elm Street, but tapped out after twenty minutes; it was too naff.)

All this being so, I expected I’d understand Scream a little better than I had in my teens, and that I’d maybe have a decent time watching it. I did not expect to stumble on what now feels like an eerily prescient glimpse into modern toxic geekdom: a weird strata of 90s cinema that moved me to watch Scream 2, Scream 3 and Scream 4 in quick succession, not because I thought they’d be any good – indeed, each film is exponentially worse than the last – but to try and work out whether what I saw in Scream was accidental, incidental or both, and to what degree.

In its now-iconic opening sequence, Scream shows us a terrified young woman, Casey (Drew Barrymore), as she’s taunted on the phone by the as-yet unknown killer/s. With her boyfriend revealed to be tied up outside, the killer/s challenge Casey to answer horror movie trivia questions. If she answers correctly, her boyfriend will live; if not, he’ll die. Though Casey correctly answers the first question – the name of the killer in Halloween – she flubs the second, mistakenly naming Jason Vorhees as the killer in the original Friday the 13th film, instead of his mother, Mrs Vorhees. Her boyfriend is then gutted, with Casey herself killed gruesomely and left to hang in a tree for her parents to find.

Watching Scream in my teens was terrifying because of the violence and jump scares. Watching now, however, that opening scene hits home in a very different way. Back in 1996, mobile phones were still so recent and uncommon that a character in Scream is asked by police, “What are you doing with a cellular telephone, son?”. That being so, it’s eerie  how the killer/s’ initial, escalating conversation with Casey reads exactly like the sort of hair-trigger, toxic misogyny that women so frequently encounter now in texts and online messages.

A man calls Casey out of the blue; she assumes it’s a wrong number and hangs up. He calls back, saying he wants to talk; she tells him there are 900 numbers for that. He calls again and asks why she doesn’t want to talk – and here, because this is a film written by a dude, Casey decides to humour him. They have an almost pleasant conversation, albeit an unrealistic one: it’s borderline flirtatious, the killer asking if she has a boyfriend, Casey lying and saying no, as though that’s in any way the usual response to an unknown, nameless creep who keeps pestering you for conversation. Eventually, though, the killer reveals that he’s looking at her; at which point, Casey understandably hangs up. He calls again; she tells him to call someone else. He calls again, and this time he’s angry: “Listen, you little bitch,” he hisses, “You hang up on me again, I’ll gut you like a fish, you understand?” 

Substitute hanging up the phone with ignoring a stranger’s increasingly aggressive texts, and a fictional conversation between a male serial killer and his female victim from twenty-two years ago is virtually identical to the kind of everyday encounters women have with men online in 2018. Throw in the killer/s need to prove their superiority over Casey by besting her in a game of pop culture trivia, and the parallel evokes the ongoing clusterfuck of toxic misogyny in SFF circles, not least because the killer/s are eventually revealed to be Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu (Matthew Lillard), the respective boyfriends of protagonist Sidney (Neve Campbell) and her best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan): disaffected horror geeks whose initial, public reaction to “hearing” about the murders is laughter.

It’s so breathtakingly salient, you’d almost think that writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven were trying to craft a cautionary tale about what happens when angry, sexist geekboys go bad – and yet, despite how obvious that reading of the film now seems, I’d argue that those elements were largely unintentional. Though the self-professed meta of Scream is obsessed with naming horror tropes even as it enacts them, there’s never any explicit discussion of how those tropes are frequently impacted by the misogyny of the killers, misogyny in the narrative (whether conscious or subconscious) or a combination of both. Thus: it’s clear throughout Scream that Billy and Stu are sexist, not because Williamson and Craven are telling a story about sexism, but because sexism is such a fundamental part of the tropes they’re using that they’ve imported it wholesale. This means in turn that, while misogyny is a huge part of Billy’s motive in particular, the story doesn’t really comment upon it even when given the opportunity to do so; nor does it usefully comment upon the sexism it depicts elsewhere.

For instance: during an early phone conversation with the as-yet unknown killer/s, Sidney says that she dislikes horror movies because, “They’re all the same: some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl that can’t act, running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door – it’s insulting.” Put in Sidney’s mouth, this line is the closest the film ever comes to acknowledging sexist horror tropes at the level of both creation (actresses cast for looks over talent) and characterisation (damsels who make poor choices). Moments later, however, the observation is undermined when Sidney does exactly the thing she’s just decried, running upstairs to escape the killer/s instead of heading outside. This is what we in the business call lampshading: drawing attention to an egregious fault or obvious trope-use in lieu of actually fixing or addressing it in the narrative. As lampshading can often be used to comic effect, I’d argue that this moment in Scream is meant as a type of black comedy: Sidney is aware enough to know that women in horror films are constrained by sexism, but not aware enough to keep from being constrained herself.

As such, sexism is silently reinforced as an aspect of Scream which, while integral to the horror genre, is not one of the “rules” we’re meant to examine in order to predict what happens next. Indeed, if it was, Stu and Billy’s guilt would be obvious from the get-go: the first time we meet them, they’re not only joking callously about the murder of Casey and her boyfriend – Casey rejected Stu at one point; they laugh that this gives him motive to kill her – but are doing so in front of Sidney, whose mother was murdered and raped (by them, it turns out) the previous year. Notably, it’s this conversation which contains the only explicit reference to sexism in the whole film, courtesy of Tatum. When Stu asserts that “there’s no way a girl could’ve killed them,” she replies, “That is so sexist. The killer could easily be female, Basic Instinct.” But of course, Tatum is wrong, which Stu already knows because the killer is him and Billy. Sexism is here acknowledged, but as something we’re meant to ignore, not as a rule of genre, and while it’s possible to argue that this is a deliberate red herring, given the meta-nature of the film as a whole, it therefore becomes conspicuous that the gotcha isn’t expounded upon at the finale.

What is expounded upon during Stu and Billy’s big reveal, however, is an argument that reappears at crucial moments in both Scream 2 and Scream 3: the question of whether horror movies cause real-world violence. While still technically relevant in 2018, this particular question is currently less culturally urgent than the matter of toxic misogyny, which is why it’s so tempting to think that, surely, Craven and Williamson must have been calling out sexists deliberately. But in the eighties and nineties – and, indeed, the early 2000s – the opposite was true. At the time, there was massive cultural panic over the idea that that things like violent video games, Dungeons and Dragons, rap music and horror movies were actively causing teenagers to go bad. When Billy and Stu taunt their genre-savvy friend Randy (Jamie Kennedy) about his status as a suspect on the basis of his interests, he agreed: “You’re absolutely right; I’m the first to admit it. If this was a scary movie, I would be the chief suspect.”  When Stu then asks what Randy’s motive would be, he chillingly replies, “It’s the millennium. Motives are incidental.”

And come the finale, it’s this line, not Tatum’s accusation of sexism, to which the film returns – or at least, it’s the one to which it returns overtly. With Stu and Billy revealed as the killers, not only of the current crop of victims, but of Sidney’s mother, the following exchange takes place:

Sidney: Why? WHY?

Billy: You hear that, Stu? I think she wants a motive. I don’t really believe in motives, Sid. Did Norman Bates have a motive?

Stu: No!

Billy: Did they ever really decide why Hannibal Lecter likes to eat people? I don’t think so! It’s a lot scarier when there’s no motive, Sid. We did your mother a favour. That woman was a slut-bag whore who flashed her shit all over town like she was Sharon Stone or something. Yeah, we put her out of her misery.

Stu: Let’s face it, Sid – your mother was no Sharon Stone, hmm?

Billy: Is that motive enough for you? How about this? Your slut mother was fucking my father, and she’s the reason my mom moved out and abandoned me.

[Stu looks shocked]

Billy: How’s that for a motive? Maternal abandonment causes serious deviant behaviour. It certainly fucked you up – it caused you to have sex with a psychopath!

Several things are telling here: chief among them, the incorrect claim that Norman Bates, the killer in Psycho, had no motive. In actuality, Bates was warped by maternal abuse, conditioned to a misogyny that saw part of his fractured psyche view all women as whores. If anything was going to convince me that Scream is intended as a commentary on sexism, it would be this line: for a meta film that places a high value on classic horror trivia, it’s difficult to believe that such a falsehood would be included by accident and not as an analytic Easter egg for knowledgeable fans. And yet I still doubt that sexism, explicitly labelled as such, is what Craven and Williamson are intending here. Contextually, it seems clear that the reference to Bates is meant to underscore the significance of neglectful mothers, not the misogyny of their sons, for all that the two are fundamentally linked – a pivotal difference in emphasis and interpretation.

By his own admission (and to Stu’s surprise), like Norman Bates, Billy has been “fucked up” by his mother – but while this explains some of his anger, it does not excuse his misogyny; the ease with which he reverts to violent, sexist language when women don’t do as he wants. (“Listen, you little bitch!”) Looking at the film in 2018, at a time when we’ve come to recognise violence against women as a consistent, key commonality to mass shooters, the fact that Billy and Stu’s first victim is Sidney’s mother takes on a powerful new significance. For a film released three years before the Columbine massacre, it’s frighteningly easily to view Scream as an unintentional oracle. Swap the two angry boys with knives and ghostface masks for two angry boys with guns – swap the taunting, escalating phonecalls with taunting, escalating posts online – and what differentiates Scream from other slasher movies isn’t the meta-commentary about horror tropes, but how accidentally real its killers are.

Because the other side of that motive scene – the aspect which, back in 1996, made the whole thing seem so meta, so unreal and yet so frightening – was the nihilism of it: the idea, as Randy had it, that motive, like sexism, is incidental compared to the act of killing. Just a little later in the finale, when Sidney screams that Billy and Stu have watched too many horror movies, Billy replies, “Sid, don’t blame the movies. The movies don’t create psychos; movies just make psychos more creative.” This, more than anything else, is the thesis of Scream – and, indeed, its sequels. This is what justifies the “ghostface killer” being brought back by three different copycat pairs in the subsequent movies. “Everybody dies but us,” Stu screams. “We get to carry on and plan the sequel – ‘cos let’s face it, baby, these days you’ve gotta have a sequel!”

Which is where the sequels become relevant to analysing the original: all four movies are directed by Craven, while Williamson wrote the first, second and fourth (Ehren Kruger wrote the third), which allows us to see which themes the creators thought most integral to both Scream and its success. While it’s subjective of me to claim that the subsequent three films are clearly worse than the original, it’s much less subjective to state that the themes of male entitlement, sexism and frustration that underlie the first are absent from the sequels. Instead, the themes that carry over are an evolving meta-narrative about horror movie structure, and the question of whether narrative violence influences real violence, and in what ways.

In Scream 2 (1997), a self-indulgent, overlong meta wankfest, the killers are revealed to be Billy’s mother, now posing as reporter Debbie Salt (Laurie Metcalf), and her flunkey Mickey (Timothy Olyphant). Like a reverse Mrs Vorhees, Debbie wants revenge for Billy’s death, and has convinced Mickey, a budding psychopath she recruited online, that he’ll be able to plead that the Stab movies – the in-film adaptations of the events of the first Scream – provoked him to commit murder. As he monologues as Sidney:

Mickey: Billy was a sick fuck who wanted to get away. Mickey is a sick fuck who wants to get caught!  You see, Sid, I have it all planned out. I have my whole defence planned out! I’m gonna blame the movies. It’s pretty cool, huh? It’s never been done before. And wait ’till the trial, cause these days, it’s all about the trial! Can’t you see it, Sid? The effects of cinema violence on Americans. I’ll get Cochran or Dershovitz to represent me. Bob Dole on the witness stand in my defence. We’ll hold a Christian coalition. It’s airtight, Sid!

Sidney: You’re a psychotic!

Mickey: Yeah, well, shhh! That’ll be our little secret. That’s one thing that Billy got right  – it’s all about execution.

Not long after this declaration, Billy’s mother kills her would-be accomplice – she only ever wanted him as a patsy. Laughing, she explains herself: “Talk about being rational! For Mickey, I don’t blame the movies, my god. I’m very sane, my motive isn’t as 90s as Mickey’s – mine is just plain old revenge. You killed my son! And now I kill you, and I can’t think of anything more rational.”

Skipping ahead to Scream 4 (2011), the bloated meta-story conceit is in full effect from the outset: the film opens on a scene that turns out to be from the meta-film Stab 6, which cuts to a scene that turns out to be from Stab 7, only the Stab 6 scene was actually somehow the meta-meta intro to Stab 7, which the actual characters of Scream 4 are watching, and all of these scenes feature commentary on horror as a genre. In this moment, the Scream franchise sews itself into an inhuman centipede, crawling up its own asshole to devour its contents over and over, a Frankenstein oroborous. Smartphones exist by 2011, of course, but the film has only a partial understanding of what this means, conveniently forgetting about caller ID and GPS tracking as plot devices even as characters livestream on the internet. The killers, when they’re revealed, are a terrible pastiche of the previous films: Sidney’s cousin and supposed victim Jill (Emma Roberts), working hand-in-hand with nerdy co-conspirator Charlie (Rory Culkin) are teens who want their fifteen minutes of fame – though of course, Jill murders Rory just like Billy’s mother did Mickey, tricking him into thinking they would only wound each other like Stu and Billy.

Though part of me thinks it unfair to judge Scream for the crimes of its youngest, least capable sibling, given that both films are written by Kevin Williamson, I can’t shake the bone-deep suspicion that Scream 4 is, again by accident, the key to understanding what Scream was meant to be. By which I mean: with Scream 2 set at university and Scream 3 in Hollywood, Scream 4 is where, however badly, the series returns to its origins: as a story about nihilistic teenage killers trying to control their own horror movie narrative. In 1996, Stu and Billy want to be survivors so they can plan a sequel; in 2011, Jill and Charlie want to be survivors so they can be famous. “I don’t need friends, I need fans!” Jill shouts at Sid, who can’t understand why she murdered the people closest to her. “Sick is the new sane!” she says, like a chirpy catchphrase. And then, an indictment of Sid’s career as a self-help writer that simultaneously explains her own plans for victim-stardom: “You don’t have to achieve anything – you just have to have fucked-up shit happen to you.”

In 2011, Jill is a strawman millennial, so hyper-obsessed with fame and internet glory that she’s willing to murder everyone she knows to get it. She kills her mother, her best friends, her ex-boyfriend, her co-conspirator – an act of total psychopathy that seemingly comes from a person without any history of violence or cruelty. The Jill we see on screen is a total fake: not only does she lie to us the entire film, but psychologically, she’s utterly implausible on the basis of the evidence provided. Like Randy said in the original, her motive – her real millennial motive – is incidental, in that it doesn’t really exist. She’s a bogeyman conjured up to represent the worst of what we’re meant to fear about ourselves in the present moment.

In other words, she’s exactly what Billy and Stu were meant to be in 1996.

But while Jill will be just as much a straw character in 2021 as she was in 2011, time and bitter experience has proven Billy and Stu to be much more real than they were ever meant to be. In 2018, we know those boys: those angry, entitled, sexist men who demand attention and scream threats of violence if they don’t get it; men who act first against a woman they know, progressing only later to mass carnage. Billy and Stu were meant to be strawmen, exaggerated for the screen – but in aping the casually sexist language of the time, the inherently sexist tropes of the genre, and mixing them together with a motive that encompassed aggressive misogyny, Williamson and Craven created, not the monster under the bed, but the one who sleeps in it.

Which brings us, in a dark and sideways fashion, to Scream 3, and the sexist meta-irony of the series as a whole – because, for all that I enjoyed the original Scream, I couldn’t shake my annoyance at the needless death of Tatum, played by Rose McGowan. Contextually, it’s the only death that doesn’t make sense: she’s Stu’s girlfriend, and given that Stu and Billy plan to live, there’s nothing in the narrative to explain why she has to die, nor does it make sense that Sidney never asks Billy and Stu about her best friend’s death. Of equal aggravation as the films progress is the relationship between reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Officer Dewey (David Arquette) – not just because it comes out of nowhere and makes no sense, given their personalities, but because each film in the franchise forgets that Tatum was Dewey’s sister. Whenever it’s brought up that Dewey lived through the events of Scream, we never see any sign from him that he lost his little sister; another character mentions it once at a point where he might be expected to, and Dewey never reacts. Instead, his emotional investment is tied to Gale and Sidney: Tatum is almost completely erased.

Not being written by Williamson, Scream 3 is the odd film out: it takes place in Hollywood, where a new ghostface killer is striking at people related to the filming of meta-movie Stab 3. Though not as terrible as Scream 4, it’s largely unremarkable – until, midway through, we’re given the big reveal about Sidney’s mother, murdered before the start of the first movie. Years before Sid was born, we’re told, her mother went to Hollywood to act for two years, using the stage name Rina. In that time, something terrible happened to her. The producer of Stab 3, John Milton (Lance Henriksen) explains:

Milton: It was the 70s, everything was different. I was well known for my parties, Rina knew what they were. It was for girls like her to meet men, men who could get them parts if they made the right impression. Nothing happened to her that she didn’t invite, in one way or another, no matter what she said afterwards.

Gale: Are you saying she was –

Milton: I’m saying things got out of hand. Maybe they did take advantage of her! Maybe the sad truth is, this is not the city for innocence. No charges were brought. And the bottom line is, Rina Reynolds wouldn’t play by the rules. You wanna get ahead in Hollywood, you gotta play the game or go home.

Watching this scene – plot relevant because Rina had a son as a result of her rape, who turns out to be the director of Stab 3, and also the killer, yada yada yada – I suddenly recalled a particular name I’d noticed in the credits for Scream and Scream 2, and made a mental note to look for it in the credits to Scream 3. And there, sure enough, I found it: Harvey Weinstein, executive producer for all four films in the franchise.

Harvey Weinstein, who raped Rose McGowan a year after she appeared in Scream as Tatum.

I mention this not to assert any script-meddling by Weinstein in terms of Tatum’s portrayal; it doesn’t fit the timeline, and in any case, it would be the absolute least of his now well-documented crimes, so small by comparison as to be meaningless. Rather, it strikes me as a vicious, parallel irony that Tatum, arguably the best character in the original Scream, was erased from the narrative as pointlessly and violently as Rose McGowan was removed from Hollywood. It makes me wonder: did Ehren Kruger know, when he wrote Milton’s lines and Rina’s backstory, what had happened to McGowan? Was that scene a barb at Weinstein, or is the narrative of actresses being exploited and abused by Hollywood producers one so ingrained, so historically ubiquitous, that it was considered little more than a cliche, like the multiple adjacent “jokes” about the actress-characters in Stab 3 sleeping with their bosses for terrible jobs?

Scream 3 is not a good scary movie; and yet that one scene raises more chilling questions in 2018 than it ever did in 2000, just as Billy and Stu are more frightening now than they were in 1996. Which just goes to show you: horror is never just violence and jump scares. It’s history, knowledge and context – and, far too frequently, both in stories and real life, entitled men with a grudge against women.

 

There are two types of people in the cinema-going world: those who like M. Night Shyamalan films, and those who don’t. It’s not an issue on which there’s much, if any, middle ground. With the possible exception of The¬†Sixth Sense, his films, while mainstream releases, have a tendency to polarise in the manner of arthouse flicks: either they’re revelations, or rot.

I used to be one of the unenlightened. Watching Signs on the big screen, I snorted with laughter. The Village left me irritable – what the hell kind of ending was that, anyway? I’d¬†been frightened out of my young life¬†when Haley Joel Osment¬†confessed to seeing dead people, but at that point, I didn’t even realise the films were by the same guy.¬†Had friends not taken me in hand, my opinion might never have changed, but after The Village, they sat me down and asked, in exacting tones, exactly why I was disappointed.

After twenty-odd minutes of flustered debating, we hit upon the crux of my frustrations, viz: the film had been marketed as horror. Although the first half of the narrative fit this pattern, the character relations, plot twist and conclusion took an entirely different turn, which lead me to believe that the whole was a botched attempt. So, my friends asked. Was the problem with the film, or just with what you thought it was meant to be?

I opened my mouth, closed it again, and thought back. I’d gone in expecting to see a horror film, and so had watched for narrative markers appropriate to the genre. They’d been there early on, but then vanished entirely, which left the possibility that I’d been actively misinterpreting the film, imposing my own assumptions on how it should work, and judging it wanting. It was a strange realisation, but the more I¬†considered it, the more¬†it made sense. Hadn’t I thought the same thing about Signs? It was as if I – and, for that matter, Hollywood – had been looking for The Sixth Sense in every subsequent Shyamalan film,¬†when they weren’t really horror at all.

With Lady in the Water, I made a conscious effort to¬†ignore the marketing and test my hypothesis: to watch with no expectations and an open mind.¬†Might I¬†see something I’d missed before?

I¬†could, and did. Near the end, I realised what should’ve been obvious all along: Shyamalan’s films are always about people. The pseudo-horror setting is simply his preferred vehicle for storytelling, a background mechanism designed to threaten, not the audience, but his characters. Thus menaced, the point of their reaction isn’t fright, but inter-development: how they draw together, and how they mend. Because healing, faith and self-acceptance are big themes in Shyamalan’s work. In both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable,¬†supernaturally gifted¬†protagonists come to terms with their powers, not in order to save the world, but to help the people in it. Quietly and with inner strength, the heroes of Signs and Lady in the Water regain¬†their faith, two broken widowers made whole. And in The Village,¬†a community of emotionally¬†scarred people are forced to confront their injuries by the actions of three who are physically wounded: a dying man, a blind girl and her mad brother.

The subtlety of Shyamalan films simultaneously acts as their blessing and curse. Early scenes deliberately set up the false horror that, inevitably, constitutes their sales pitch, but the plots become introverted. It is as if the film is a train travelling towards a junction: the audience expects to travel one way, and instead is taken another. What we protest is a percieved error Рturn back, turn back! Рwhen, in fact, our course was planned from the outset.

Except for The Sixth Sense, which he didn’t produce,¬†and Wide Awake, which he neither produced nor appeared in, Shyamalan has, at 37, written, produced, directed and appeared in all his films. Given the excellent characterisation,¬†scripting, cinematography and production values, it’s hard not to be impressed. But more impressive still are the moments of beauty and revelation which¬†characterise his work: the idea that even though we are all flawed, we can¬†fix ourselves.

I¬†saw The Orphanage on the strength of a David and Margaret review. A Spanish supternatural horror film, it follows on the heels of Pan’s Labyrinth: both¬†movies were¬†produced by Guillermo del Toro – which role, it seems, suits him better than that of director, if Hellboy and Blade II are anything to go by – and feature an eerie take on innocence.

After spending her early childhood in an orphanage, Laura (Belen Rueda) grows up to adopt Simon (Roger Princep) with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo). Wanting to open her own home for disabled children, Laura returns to the orphanage of her youth Рnow empty Рand begins to prepare for the arrival of her charges. Simon, ignorant of his adoption, has always been accompanied by invisible friends; but the arrival of an ominous third, Tomas, soon after their arrival, worries Laura.

As Simon begins to show knowledge of things his parents have kept hidden, Laura grows increasingly disturbed and disbelieving, until, on the day her children are due to arrive, Simon vanishes. Frightened by a series of strange occurences within the house, Laura begins a long and desperate search to find her son, distancing herself from Carlos and, in the process, unravelling the secrets of the orphanage.

From the stylised opening credits to the final reveal, The Orphanage doesn’t miss a single beat. Like a Celtic knot or a piece of music, significant ideas are woven seamlessly throughout the narrative, placed so naturally that their reappearance seems more a haunting echo than a deliberate ploy. There is nothing heavy-handed about this film: Laura’s grief and slow spiral towards understanding, the way she is helped (or hindered) by the authorities, the breakdown of her relationship with Carlos – and, perhaps most importantly, the sheer,¬†ghostly¬†presence of the house are all breathtakingly achieved. The music and cinematography combine to create an eerie captivation, while the script and acting are perfectly balanced.

Let’s be clear, however: The Orphanage is a horror film, on which premise¬†it delivers magnificently. Moments of sheer, gut-wrenching terror are juxtaposed against drawn-out tension, violent fright, fey chills, mystery¬†and an ethereal sense of the¬†otherworldly. Although not as downright horrific as The Ring, The Orphanage is certainly of a similar ilk, and will leave you just as breathless. The only snag is its limited release; but for those willing to look¬†beyond mainstream cinema for their kicks, consider this the perfect opportunity. ¬†

Easily, The Orphanage is one of the best films¬†I’ve seen in¬†the last few years, and deserves every accolade it revieves.