Sunday 23 June 2013

Scream (1996) and Cabin in the Woods (2011)

With the arrival of a new lodger, so Netflix has entered my life.  Suddenly it's possible and convenient to watch films that neither Saskia nor I had deliberately sought out for our collections.  So it was that, when it became apparent I had seen neither 'Scream' (1996) nor 'Cabin in the Woods' (2011) we simply dialled them up and watched 'em.

They're both horror films which know they're horror films, where the characters know the conventions of the genre, and the audience are credited with some intelligence in this area too, meaning the movie can get on with something slightly more complex and interesting than a creeping tension studded with deaths.

An enjoyably quizzical stuffed wolf-head, in the cabin in the woods
We saw 'Cabin in the Woods' first.  It's written by Joss Whedon, who helmed 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and its ilk, so the characters are well-drawn, genuinely funny and memorable.  As to postmodern horror, it sets out its stall clearly and enjoyably during its opening titles, which begin by showing the credits over murky images of bloodish hell before a deliberately jarring cut to the ever-enjoyable Bradley Whitman in a government office - so suddenly that I thought for a moment the television had jumped a track and started showing us a different film.  He and a colleague banter for a while before the film's title crashes in over them and we jump to the 'normal' start of the film, the introduction of the doomed teens in all their Scooby-doo glory.

From the off it's clear that it isn't just a story of teens going on holiday and being killed by monsters and villains, as per 'The Evil Dead' (1981) or 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (1974, 2003).  That's how it may seem to the victims, but there's a sci-fi underground base in the James Bond tradition operating their fantasy horror, pulling the strings and apparently making a real-life horror film - but to what end?  Not only do we get the traditional fight of ordinary people against zombies, we also follow the mystery of why this is happening.  What could have been a twist at the end is given quite freely from the start, and we're left with the suggestion that many or all supernatural horrors are actually being manipulated in the same way.

A tutorial on what you must never do in a horror film
'Scream' is a serial-killer film directed by Wes Craven who a decade earlier wrote and directed 'Nightmare on Elm Street' (1984).  Here, the masked villain, the anonymous Ghostface, is well aware that he's in a horror film - or rather, he knows horror films and knows what's expected of him, and knows that his victims will have seen horror films too and will know the score.  The high-school students who make up the large cast of potential victims know their horror movies, and when it becomes apparent that there's a murderer preying on their peers many of them react just as churlishly and delightedly as real people would, dressing up as the killer and watching all the more horror, and intellectualising about the killer's his likely motivations.  Like 'Madhouse' (1974) it's a horror movie about horror movies, but more credible on all fronts and considerably more intelligent.

Both films show a real understanding of horror - how and why it works.  They enquire into two very different sides of the genre - the monster horror of zombie films and the slasher subgenre made famous by 'Psycho' (1960) - and manage to exposit on the genre conventions while remaining genuinely scary (though, as 15-certificate films, not horribly so), as well as fun and enjoyable.

I suspect Saskia's presence here means more horror will be on its way to The Penciltonian's pages, though I feel we've been spoilt by these two movies and by 'Bucket of Blood' (1959), which as the first horror film to make substantial use of comedy was similarly innovative.

Says Saskia, this is the most 90s screen-cap possible - a scream mask and some Romantica.
'What's Romantica?' I hear you ask.  'Think of Viennetta / But a cake and better'

P.S. Ghostface asks his victims 'what's your favourite scary movie?'.  I've no idea what my answer would be to that.  I like 'The Wicker Man' (1973), which is a horror but isn't really scary.  Of the films I've Penciltoned at you and not already mentioned in this post, it might well be 'Jurassic Park'.  It doesn't quite fit the genre, but those dragons are terrifying!  Though it's a documentary I'll venture 'Häxan' (1922) too, as the Devil's first appearance in it is so sudden and alarming that I almost toppled from my sofa with fright.

P.P.S. I feel compelled to give another tenuous link between films: 'Scream' and 'Brick' (2005) feature a school principal and a vice-principal respectively, each played by a cool 1970s hero, The Fonz in the former, Shaft in the latter.  What further inducement could you need to watch these fine films?

Despite my earlier advocacy of Netflix, here's some optical media for y'all.

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