Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Know Thyself

The capstone image in Wes Craven's Scream is a a densely layered but starkly composed and giddy-edged moment when horror movie fanboy Randy (Jamie Kennedy) slumps drunk and alone on a sofa before a television, groaning advice at Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween, as he is being lurked by Scream's own resident serial killer. Though he has ranted about the "rules" which govern slasher movies, and is aware off the structural contract of the genre to move from murder setpiece to murder setpiece, and the apparent puritanical ideology that designates victims — Do Not Drink, Do Not Screw, Do Not Be Alone — Randy finds himself inevitably caught in the mesh of the slasher genre chess game, drunk, and alone, and eventually attacked. He survives on a technicality — by his estimation, it is "because" he is a virgin — but his self-awareness as a genre expert does not afford Randy extra agency within the story's machinations, merely a heightened sense of impending doom. Jamie Kennedy mumbling intoxicated advice to Jamie Lee Curtis slurs "Turn around Jamie, turn around," but neither one does, neither is meant to, and it is almost as though neither can. Indeed, the tragedy of Cassandra figures, unable to alter the fate they foresee, becomes an explicit theme of Scream 2 and there Randy meets his death, seemingly punished for his inflexible insistence that sequels suck and horror sequels especially suck.

On its release in 1996, the Randies of the real world began grumbling that perhaps the celebrated metafictional conceits of Scream were not so original, and Kevin Williamson's screenplay had cribbed from the 1991 independent horror comedy There's Nothing Out There. A 2001 profile of TNOT auteur Rolfe Kanefsky in Femme Fatales magazine (?), reproduced on the buggy DVD of the minor cult item, passive-aggressively implies the same thing. In There's Nothing Out There a carload of overaged high schoolers vacations in an isolated house in the woods, and is set upon by a globby space-toad which picks them off, one by one. Among the fresh batch of alien-meat is obnoxious, wisecracking neurotic Mike (Craig Peck), who has "rented every horror film on video" and constantly warns his fellow irritated victims-in-waiting that they're walking into certain death, not to wander off alone, and correctly surmises given a few clues that they're facing a space beastie rather than escaped mental patient. Mike eventually masterminds the plan to defeat the monster and escape with the survivors — and advises them to boot an alien-impregnated hitchhiker out of the getaway van — vindicated in his belief that it's entirely possible that the party crew has wandered into a horror picture.

Whether Craven, Williamson, or any personnel connected with Scream had seen There's Nothing Out There is beside the point. Scream is the scarier horror movie, funnier comedy, and richer statement on genre storytelling. The films share a common deconstructive sensibility, even if superficially, Scream tugs at the seams of slasher movies while TNOT is a violent monster movie spoof. "The story is different," Kanefsky explains, "but the gimmick is the same." The film geek characters both recognize signals that artificially imposed Movie Rules are at play, and it's a toss-up who has the edge as a devotee. Mike spots early warning signs as his friends drive past cops investigating the scene of an earlier monster victim, notices mysterious rustling bushes, growls that some interloping skinny-dipper bikers are clear "foreshadowing," and is incredulous when he falls victim to the time-honored Cat Scare ("I love how these animals just fall out of nowhere, right into your hands!"). But Randy has the upper hand in deconstructing the horror genre's thematic underpinnings. Mike fails to warn anyone of the dangers of drink, sex or being an ethnic minority. No matter, for neither horror fan is able to channel their awareness to extricate themselves from the situation, or avoid those pitfalls they know are coming. Mike notes both that the scenario reminds him of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and that in the other film, the invaders are not stopped. He fortifies his bedroom and arms himself, but is continually foiled by his nonbelieving friends who lock him in the basement, helpless. Randy rants to anyone and everyone (including the murderers), and is laughed off and ignored in short order. Even once the boundaries are discovered, all characters are still beholden to the laws of the genre; their self-awareness gives them no real leg-up on less savvy characters. Regardless of the film history knowledge that got them there, Mike and Randy simply become recasts from the same mold that popped the teens in The Blob and Dr. Bennell in Body Snatchers. No one listens, no one believes, and their expertise lapses into impotent frenzy.

Randy and Mike belong to two close family lines, with a history of crossing and merging: the genre-geek expert and the lineage of characters aware of meta-fantasy unfolding around them. Neither Randy nor Mike press outward against the celluloid to commit the ultimate breach and meet their creators. Other adventurers through the metafictional fantastique have braved the leap: She-Hulk, Animal Man and Cerebus have in comics, Roland the Gunslinger in Stephen King's Dark Tower, and Freddy Krueger in Craven's own New Nightmare (1994). The almost uniform result is a humbling revelation that the creator-god-artist feels his own hand is being forced as well. There's Nothing Out There, in a throwaway sight gag, allows a character to Tarzan-swing off a low hanging boom mic, but otherwise Randy and Mike never pierce the Fourth Wall sharply enough to run smack into a film crew, confront the audience, return to their trailers or escape the films. It is as if the skin of the genre is too tough to burst. They see the horror movie around them, but another world outside is opaquely glimpsed at best. As casual horror scholars and horror characters both, they've become interpolated into the genre so thoroughly they resist their own salvation with something like magnetic repulsion. Randy doesn't leave Woodsboro until the murders end, Mike doesn't call a cab and get out of the woods. They both end up alone, with the bear at their backs. As Ro-Man might put it, "I cannot!... Yet I must!"

In the pre-Scream, much-lacking Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994), the only intriguing scene concerns a mutual sympathy between characters played by Renée Zellweger and Marilyn Burns, last woman standing in the 1974 film. The two Final Girls look at each other across the span of four Chain Saw movies, across 20 years, and mourn the loss of ability to escape the genre's constraints, even as they understand the function of their stories to tell audiences something about terror. In The Next Generation, the story itself has been engineered by some vague possibly-government/Freemasons/aliens conspiracy, the muddied point being that when we enter into contracts with the fantastic tale, we shake hands, and everybody's hands are tied.

"Horror," Stephen King used to be fond of telling interviewers, "Is as conservative as a three-piece suit." The theory going that the genre's foundation is the invasion of the familiar by the unfamiliar, in tales where the reaction is fear, disgust or disquiet. The theorem also might imply a tradition of formatted rules, plot points and unforgiving schematization. Randy and Mike may be genre experts, but perhaps because they insist upon the limited choices available to genre characters, in the end they are in essentially the same position as the hapless Chain Saw girls. They all survive their nights of torment, but it is largely by being lucky enough to shift into one of the few available Designated Survivor slots.

King himself laid the rest of the groundwork for Mike and Randy, horror afficionados who find themselves in a horror story: 12-year-old Mark Petrie in King's 1975 novel 'Salem's Lot, his bedroom a shrine of Aurora monster models, is an outsider oddball whose insider monster expertise — and enthusiasm — actually does him some good once vampires begin bringing the sick soul of his small town to light. The monster kid hero is vindicating wish fulfillment for all the Mark Petries of the world, ostracized for the stack of E.C. comics under the bed, but triumphant when the monsters arrive on Maple Street. In King's universe, Shock! Theater is a basic training educational filmstrip for survival, and variations on the theme are threaded through his work, from It to Creepshow to Dreamcatcher and beyond. The more one leans toward good-natured geek conversant in fantasy scenarios, the better the odds of survival. The liberation available to self-aware horror buffs continues through Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn (1983), The Monster Squad (1987), and resonates through Joe Dante's Gremlins diptych.

What separates Mike and Randy from their younger geek ancestry? In their cynically comic stories they become a new guard of meta-genre experts. Scream is not a rip-off of There's Nothing Out There, but part of a longer tradition. Randy and Mike sit on the same branch of a common family tree, a darkened reflection of Mark Petrie, grown up, caught in a video feedback loop where a postmodern sense of intertextual play cannot save you. Don't you know it's no good to yell advice to the characters in a horror movie? They're going to open that door, walk into the woods, investigate the terrible house, go down to the basement, and get scared by the cat. They have to. They always had to. There was really never any other choice.

1 comment:

Damian Arlyn said...

Great article, Chris. I just watched the original Scream again myself recently and was reminded of not only how great it was as a "scary movie" (it's original title), but like Craven's earlier and IMO rather underrated New Nightmare, how excellent an engagement of post-modern meta-cinema it was. This was one of the few horror films I actually liked back when it first came out and subsequent viewings have only elevated in my eyes. Many of the lines in there are extremely clever, funny and memorable but some are quite profound ("It's the millenium. Motives are incidental," and "Movies don't creat psychos. Movies make psychos more creative" are too of my personal favorites.