Scream and Saw: Head-to-head Horror

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It’s Halloween and it’s horror movie time here at Grump Factory. (Yes, it’s past Halloween, but what are we going to talk about? Thanksgiving movies?) I’m sure you’ve noticed, since Dracula has moved into the neighborhood. :(

It recently came to me how the trend in horror movies has shifted so drastically over the past decade or so. Nowadays it’s gore, gore and MORE GORE! Not that we were ever lacking gore in horror movies, and I’m not here to say gore doesn’t have its lovely place in scary movies. But sheesh, people. There’s a reason the current crop of horror movies are called “torture porn.” It’s not even really about scaring you anymore. It’s about filming, in detail, how the killers eviscerate their victims and keep them alive until the last possible moment where they finally slash open their carcass with a giant scythe and bathe in their blood. While that example may (or may not) be over the top, I think it’s fair to say that the horror movie that kicked this particular trend into gear was Saw, now in its fourth (?!) iteration.

But it wasn’t always like this. Remember that time in the 90s when horror could be tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic, post-modern and self-referential? It wasn’t so much about horror, but deconstructing horror movie cliches and subverting expectations, all the while delivering the thrills one expects from a horror film. While not the first movie to do this, Scream has arguably been the most successful of this breed.

Now to lock them in a cage together and the first one to kill the other gets the antidote to the poison!

I first saw Scream, gosh, about a decade ago, I guess. I thought it was the scariest movie I’d ever seen. Yes, I was am a dweeb. But like most of the things from my childhood/adolescence, I recently wanted to revisit it to see if it could stand the test of time.

Scream starts out with a typical 90s teenager (Drew Barrymore) making popcorn by herself at home and picking up a ringing phone. It seems to be a wrong number, so she hangs up and shrugs. Then the phone rings again. Huh, unusual, but OK. The caller from before wants to apologize and perhaps flirt with her. They get onto what kind of movies she likes and she answers, of course, SCARY movies! They get all meta and discuss some of the big ones, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, etc. before the caller asks her name. She asks why he wants to know and he answers, “I want to know who it is I’m looking at.” Dun dun DUNNNNNNNNNNNN! What follows is a truly fantastic opening bit where the killer tests Drew’s movie knowledge and plays with her like a cat plays with a mouse before a truly torturous climax.

Of course the movie isn’t over. The REAL story is about Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell… remember her?), another teenaged girl who has a mother who was brutally murdered a year ago and her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) who wishes she would just put the fuck out already. She goes to school the next day with her friend, Tatum (Rose McGowan) and sees news crews swarming her high school covering the murder of her classmate. She recognizes one of them, Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), the reporter who came out with a controversial book about her mother’s murder case that painted the Prescott family in a less-than-flattering light. When she goes home alone that night (her father conveniently left town on business), her phone rings and the audience can tell it’s the killer, but Sidney just thinks it’s her movie-crazy friend, Randy (Jamie Kennedy). After a few minutes of increasing tension, she realizes she’s talking to the real deal and it’s up to her to figure out how to survive being the next target of the mysterious killer…

To put it bluntly, I didn’t think this movie would hold up to a repeat viewing. I thought I’d watch it and mock my past self for ever thinking it was a great horror movie. Turns out, it actually is! Scream isn’t just a slasher film, it’s a smart, self-aware one. When Sidney talks on the phone to her killer, she mentions horror movie bimbos who “run up the stairs when they should be going out the front door.” Not five minutes later, what is she doing? Running up the stairs instead of out the door. (But at least they give her a legitimate reason why she can’t go out the front.) Characters speculate the identity and motives of the killer and Randy lists a whole bunch of possible killers it could be, based on old horror movie plots. The teenagers watch Halloween at an ill-fated party and Randy launches into the infamous “horror movie rules” monologue. Billy, wanting more play from Sidney, says that their relationship feels edited for television and Sidney asks if he’ll settle for PG-13. Hell, the entire first sequence of the film is reminiscent of When a Stranger Calls (the original, obviously).

The list goes on, and yeah, the self-references are clever and funny, but apart from that, they actually help make the movie scarier. Instead of putting the movie in a fake movie world where killings like this do occur with comical frequency and an adherence to rules, being aware of that artificiality elevates the movie to something more real than movies, even when characters are getting stuck in doggie doors trying to get away from the killer. It’s also a very engaging whodunit, where everyone is a possible (nay, probable) suspect. Could the killer be Billy, wanting to punish Sidney for not giving him blowjobs? Could it be his psycho friend Stu (Matthew Lillard)? How about her friend Tatum who insists that the killer could be a girl? Or Randy, the guy who knows about as much about horror movies as the killer and seems a mite unstable? Or maybe Gale wants to get back at Sidney for possibly accusing the wrong man in her mother’s killing and getting a scoop out of it at the same time… Like I said, they do a great job keeping the question of who the killer could be at the front of your mind even as the suspects are whittled down one by one as the final act of the movie goes on. But even after the surprising (or not, if you pay close attention) identity of the killer is revealed, the movie still delivers a fantastic, edge-of-your-seat climax full of power-switches and characters whom were only assumed dead.

The cast is a veritable who’s who of people who you would have never guessed would be famous (or in some cases “famous”) a decade into the future. Neve is pretty good as Sidney, projecting just the right amount of scrappiness and vulnerability necessary in a scream queen. Skeet does a good job skating the edge between amorous obsession and unhealthy obsession. Matthew Lillard, of course, is known for his restraint and does not disappoint. Rose McGowan does her bitch routine just fine and provides the necessary amount of slutty visible nipples to get teenagers into the theater seats. David Arquette is also in the movie as Tatum’s doofy, ineffectual deputy brother. He’s… well, he’s David Arquette. Courtney Cox isn’t all that great, either. But hey, there’s at least a cameo by Henry Winkler as the hilarious red herring adolescent-hating principal.

This movie wasn’t director Wes Craven’s first foray into post-modernistic horror. His earlier attempt, Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare, is similarly suprisingly well-done, with the edge going to Scream for its snappier writing due to screenwriter Kevin Williamson (that dick responsible for Dawson’s Creek). Scream was so successful, it helped reinvigorate the stagnating slasher genre in the mid-90s, creating a gaggle of copycats and would-be contenders for its throne. Most of these, however, seemed to focus less on self-awareness and more on clever (or not-so-clever) dialogue. Of course all of these were not even half as good as Scream, the most high profile one being I Know What You Did Last Summer. Blehhhh.

And then horror movies were rudder-less for a while. Scream had come in and done its requisite trilogy (and no more, thank goodness) and M. Night Shyamalan had done his own stab at horror with The Sixth Sense and everyone was hot on the trail of that, leaving slasher films with nary an original thought left. Remember Jason X or Freddy vs. Jason? I hope not. But then, finally, slasher horror got its next great hope when Saw arrived in theaters with its crazy new ideas. It made a lot of money. Was it deserved?

Hell no. I just recently got a chance to see Saw after being turned off by the inundation of mediocre reviews the original received. It was recommended to me by Film Walrus, and thus I obeyed, finding the movie used for $5 and deciding I might as well get it and give it a try. Oh jeez what a shitty movie.

OK, so the story basically starts with this random douche and a doctor (Cary Elwes) waking up in the dirtiest room this side of a David Fincher film. They’re chained to opposite sides of the room and locked inside until one decides to kill the other, so we’re told by the voice of their captor, a malevolent serial killer named Jigsaw. While these two are dealing with that, the movie frequently uses flashbacks to set up the backstory. We’re told Jigsaw is a horrendous serial killer who actually manages to never do the actual killing of his victims, instead putting them inside gruesome situations with impossible odds of coming out without a scratch, telling them that they’ve taken advantage of their lives up until now, and he’s there to make them appreciate it. Some lovely scenarios include putting someone in a maze of barbed wire with the only exit on the other side and being told the door will lock itself if time runs out. The doctor we met at the beginning of the film is originally considered a suspect by the detective heading up the case (Danny Glover), and it seems the doctor is also neglecting his family for his work. Things like this keep going on until the end, which is full of gore and silly, unnecessary plot twists.

You know, I really do admire Saw for having such a fantastic premise. The traps Jigsaw sets are ingenious and in the hands of a better director, this could’ve been a truly classic horror movie. Instead, the movie is an audio/visual train wreck. The soundtrack is trash and constantly blaring in your ear and making things decidedly less scary and more like a music video. Instead of trusting his story to be scary, the director, James Wan, decides he wants to “accentuate” the horror by shaking the camera around like the camera man had an epileptic seizure. Add to that some pieces of fast-motion that makes the proceedings look like a Benny Hill skit and the job is all-around botched. About the only nice thing I can say about his style is that his atmosphere is quite good, with lots of grime that could rival a Fincher production like Se7en, a movie which this movie clearly worships (and for good reason).

The story structure also doesn’t really work to the story’s advantage. A large reason why this movie feels patchy is because it really is told to us in patches due to its non-chronological structure. Every so often, it cuts out of the scenario with the doctor to focus on some other bullshit. It really hurts the momentum of that scenario and unnecessarily complicates the story. If the movie had been presented in chronological order, yeah, Wan would’ve had to work harder to get to the scares, but it would’ve been a more sound movie and having the doctor find himself in one of Jigsaw’s traps at the end and having to stick through it with him for the entire time would’ve been a lot more tense and frightening. Instead it just seems like Wan did it out of order because it seemed like a cool thing to do, like a kid playing with Photoshop and putting in a lens flare just or some crappy filter just because he can. It reeks of amateurishness. Plus it makes the movie end up feeling like the Family Guy of horror movies. “Hey, remember that time I was a suspect in a murder?” “At least it wasn’t as bad as that time I neglected my family!”

On top of that, the acting in the movie is completely abysmal. Look, I LOVE Cary Elwes. He was fantastic in The Princess Bride. He’s even had a great run as a voice actor, getting to star in Ghibli features like Porco Rosso and The Cat Returns. It hurts me that his performance in this is so awful. No, not just awful. Terrible. Horrendous. A crime against the movie-watching audience. His character SHOULD be sympathetic, since we’re being asked to care about him being put into mortal danger. Instead, he’s portrayed as so cowardly, craven, whimpering and just-plain-unlikeable that I hated him and wanted him to die. It doesn’t help that they keep patting him down with pancake makeup as the movie goes on until he looks like some kind of ghost with his mouth gaping open like a fish. The other guy in there doesn’t do quite as bad a job performing, but it’s still not good. Danny Glover… sheesh. Remember when he was a box office draw? Some time before Lethal Weapon 4? He looks and sounds so OLD in this movie. He must be pretty old, right? But his police officer is so vanilla in the first half. And then when the timeline skips forward to the present, he has become some sort of over-the-top crazy muttering hermit that’s hard to believe. I mean, really. I don’t know if it was the writing or the acting, but it was terrible either way. Unfortunately this time, there IS a cast member from LOST in the mix, Michael Emerson as an extremely likely suspect to be Jigsaw, if only the movie didn’t deliberately have us hear Jigsaw’s voice at one point in the story, which sounds nothing like Michael’s. Ugh.

Really, nothing about Saw stands up to any real scrutiny except how solid the idea seems on paper. But of course it made a truckload of money, so the producers are whoring it out every Halloween. “If it’s Halloween, it must be Saw.” Blah. And then I have to put up with people who mindlessly go out every year to see them, raving about them and all that shit. And I have to sit there with a polite smile. Actually, no, most of the time I say, “No, Saw is terrible.” Not only was it a bad movie, but it was at the zeitgeist of the “torture porn” sub-genre of horror. We probably wouldn’t have disgusting, substance-free pseudo-snuff like Hostel if Saw didn’t consistently bring in millions of dollars. And before I forget, what really burns me up about people liking Saw is that they act like the entire reason to see a horror movie is for the “twist” at the end. Movies are more than twists at the end! I can’t in good conscience give a terrible movie a good score even if the ending has an absolutely brilliant twist (and I most certainly am not saying that Saw has that). You have to judge movies based on the whole product, not just the ending. Think about that, for my own sanity, please.

So in the end, obviously, Scream wins hands-down. It may be older and a little dated (my god, the hair), but it trounces Saw in almost every single category. Do yourself a favor next year and rent Scream instead of going out and seeing the inevitable Saw V in theaters.

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14 Responses to “Scream and Saw: Head-to-head Horror”

  1. Film Walrus Says:

    I do like Scream. I didn’t even see it in theaters (in fact I didn’t end up seeing it until I had gotten over independent crushes on about half the cast) and I still liked it. However, I’m not very certain I agree with your chronology about gore horror and pomo horror. I think the focus on gore started as early as 1962 (“Blood Feast,” the fall of the code and the rise of exploitation filmmaking), really took off in the 80’s and has been here ever since. Pomo horror has been here slightly longer (I’d start with the brilliant “Peeping Tom” in 1960), but your right that it didn’t “go mainstream” until the mid-90’s. To me, I almost wish it would take a break, since now everything tries to be “self-aware,” but by mimicking “Scream” without its freshness, producers show that they just don’t get it.

    As for “Saw,” I apologize that I recommended it (I think I said “give it a chance” and not “you must obey this command” if I remember correctly) and that you hated it so much. All your complaints sound like retreads of the same things I’ve heard from other critics, so you’re all either right or share some block that prevents you from getting over the hump. I think a lot like “Blair Witch Project,” people forget that it was a minimal, low-budget indie that just got overhyped, but was not as bad as, say, “Van Helsing.” All that said, I think my tolerance for bad horror is much higher than yours, too, because I tend to be somewhat fond for “idea only” horror (“Basket Case” comes to mind).

    You’re right about people’s obsession with “ending twists” and using that to validate otherwise bad movies, though. I get very tired of it (“Confidence,” I don’t even like your twist and it doesn’t even work…), but if you want to get sick to your stomach with soulless audience manipulating twists, try out “Irreversible.” Better yet, don’t.

  2. Film Walrus Says:

    Also, I think your wrong to blame “Saw” for torture porn. Again, the chronology just doesn’t add up. As for “Hostel,” Eli Roth was doing “Cabin Fever” two years before “Saw” came out, so I find the influence unlikely. The oft-cited “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980) (which Roth often praises in public and on T-shirts) is a far more likely lineage for him, and for the whole sordid subgenre.

  3. Brian B Says:

    Scream is indeed fantastic and I appreciate your props to New Nightmare since no one seems to agree with it being a good movie (though I hope you really did see it cause last we talked about the Nightmare movies you said you haven’t seen a single one, that was a while ago). One of those rare parodies that transcends to an actual legitimate entry in the very genre it is mocking.

    I do like Saw but I certainly can’t defend all the points you’re bringing up, I suppose I’m really just a bigger fan of the idea and that makes it more enjoyable for me. The sequels where Jigsaw becomes a whiny bitch are especially horrid.

  4. Brian B Says:

    And yeah, Benny Hill was what I thought of with the fast motion car chase scenes, as well….

  5. John Mora Says:

    I dunno if you talked to me about this, but yeah, I saw New Nightmare ages ago and loved it. Definitely the best Nightmare movie since the original (although I am partial to the third for sentimental/story reasons). And I’m glad that the points I made about Saw appear valid to even a fan of it.

  6. KJ Says:

    Freddy Vs. Jason was better than Alien Vs. Predator.

    I know. It’s not much.

  7. John Mora Says:

    It certainly had more members of Destiny’s Child in it.

  8. John Mora Says:

    And now that Film Walrus’ comments are de-spammed, I’ll reply.

    Yeah, I know I’m not as encyclopedic about this stuff as you are, so I tried to qualify my comments whenever possible. I just said that Saw appeared at the ZEITGEIST of torture porn, the peak of its burgeoning mainstream appeal. Hopefully that can mollify you. :p

  9. Film Walrus Says:

    Yeah, I understand where your coming from. I think where I’d most agree is the way that Saw never tries to make you care about the characters. Instead, it makes you appreciate the cleverness and fiendishness of the contraptions and the terrible moral dilemmas forced upon them. The change in focus from the victims of horror to the horror of victimization is kind of a sketchy one, especially since it often asks the audience to identify with the killer (or at the very least, a detached observer) rather than the victim. I think what everyone is asked to take away from Saw is that “whoa, Jigsaw is a genius and completely pwned them all” rather than “Dear god, they really went through hell and came out better people.”

    That being said, I loved the contraptions and the terrible moral dilemmas.

  10. John Mora Says:

    Me too. I’m just angry they were wasted on Saw.

  11. Chuck Says:

    “I dunno if you talked to me about this, but yeah, I saw New Nightmare ages ago and loved it. Definitely the best Nightmare movie since the original (although I am partial to the third for sentimental/story reasons).”

    Get out of my head! Also, agreement on the review(s). I saw Saw for the first time a few weeks ago on SciFi. It’s only appeal was the stomach turning fascination of the traps and situations. A good thing to be sure but doesn’t change that fact it wasn’t a good movie.

  12. sirtmagus Says:

    I only saw the end of Saw 1 and the ending/music was so overproduced and grating. That music was doing all it could to drill itself into my brain, so I added lyrics:

    LOOK AT THIS.
    IT’S THE ENDING OF
    A TEPID FILM.
    HERE’S A TWIST.
    HERE TAKE ANOTHER
    TWIST.

    repeat for 5 more movies.

  13. Brian B Says:

    Potshots at a horror movie soundtrack?

    :\

  14. sirtmagus Says:

    Well, YEAH.

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