Grindhouse Classics : “Scream” (1981)

Posted: April 20, 2010 in movies
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"Scream" Movie Poster

Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat : this movie has nothing whatsoever to do with Wes Craven’s postmodern revisionist slasher series that took the cinematic world by storm (for reasons your host still can’t quite fathom) in the late 90s/early 2000s. They share a title, but that’s it.

In point of fact,  writer-director Byron Quisenberry’s 1981 feature debut (he would go on to helm exactly one other film, something called Big Chuck, Little Chuck in 2004), Scream, also released under the equally nonchalant title of The Outing, bears little resemblance to any slasher before or since.

In the beginning, there were dolls

We open with a long, slow dolly crawl across a mantle in some unknown house in some unknown place. We see a series of dolls, some in various states of decapitation, a clock chimes, and we see an oil painting of a ship at sail on a stormy sea that’s dated 1891. We also get some voice-over from some unseen and unknown narrator about a sea captain, and the (sort of) cruel fate he suffered at the hands of  the”company men” who ran the ships. Then the clock we hear chiming is shown just as it strikes midnight, one of the dolls moves its eyes, and we’re gone from wherever it was we were.

The cast don't know what's going on, either

Next thing you know, we’re observing a group of folks (friends? business associates? it’s never really made clear — some appear to know each other, some are even related, as is the case with a teenage girl and her grandfather, but most don’t seem to know each other at all, so I guess it’s just one of those random “adventure tour” groups) on a rafting trip in what we’re later told is Texas (even though the film itself was shot on the old backlot at Paramount studios in Hollywood that they used for their westerns).  Tired from a long day, the group pulls in to shore on the lake/river/whatever and decides to find a place to camp for the night.

Walking just a bit inland, they find an old abandoned ghost town and decide, as you an I would I’m sure if we found a ghost town, that this looks like a pretty good place to spend the night. The two tour guides and their charges (one of whom is portrayed by John Wayne’s son, Ethan — the only other actors you might recognize are the aforementioned kindly grandfather, who appeared as the ancient bellhop on Twin Peaks that found agent Cooper lying on the floor and asked him what he was doing down there before taking forever to get him a telephone, and one-time John Ford regular Woody Strode, who isn’t part of the tour group but we’ll get to later) set to work rustling up some grub, drinking a few beers, fixing coffee, and getting their sleeping bags spread out on the floor of what appears to have one been a saloon.

Then the killings start. I guess. It’s hard to say for sure who’s doing the killing, although the rather haphazard script tries to play the traditional “whodunnit?” angle of making you wonder which member of the group is killing off the others.

Now, in their defense, Quisenberry and his cohorts weren’t filmmakers per se — they were stuntmen, who hustled up a little bit of a budget and were given free use of the old Paramount backlot to see if they could come up with a quickie slasher flick to make a few bucks since the early 80s slasher craze was in full boom at the time. Every major distributor, including Paramount itself, took a pass on the finished product when they saw it, but they managed to secure some limited fly-by-night independent distribution anyway, which is a testament to their perseverance.

But not to their skill. Scream plays out like exactly what it is — a low-budgeter made by some guys who had no clue what the fuck they were doing. But, again, to give credit where it’s due — by dint of sheer ineptitude and inexperience, they ended up coming up with a movie that, while in no way especially good, is certainly different enough from other similar fare to maintain interest throughout, even though, in fairness, it’s often crushingly,  even mind-numbingly, dull.

There’s a lot of sitting around and doing nothing on display here. There are pointless arguments with incredibly hokey dialogue. There is precious little by way of actual suspense. No compelling reason to actually give a shit about any of these characters is ever offered. In some cases, we never even learn their names.

In short, when they start dying, you really can’t be bothered to care. And it’s not only the blandness and sub-one-dimensionality of their portrayals that “achieves” this result — the nature of how they meet their ends contributes to this lethargy, as well.

Your standard "Scream" kill-shot

More often than not, we see a weapon or other implement hanging on a wall, we see an unseen hand begin to remove it, and then we see a dead body — that’s it. The bloody weapon might get hung back up. We might see some smoke in the darkness. We might see a long-distance shot of the corpse. And then again, we might not see any of that. One thing we definitely don’t see much of, though, is the person actually getting killed. There’s next to no gore on display here, just as there’s no T&A to make things at least dimly interesting, either.

In short, we’ve got a near-bloodless, near tit-less, near ass-less slasher flick that nonetheless racks up a semi-respectable (seven by my count, but the ambiguous nature of the ending leaves open the possibility of more) body count.

Woody Strode as the (sort of) Answer Man

As for exposition, there’s precious little of that, as well. The mysterious nature of the weapons being removed and almost floating toward their targets leaves open the possibility of a supernatural explanation for the murderous goings-on, but only when a mysterious rider (played by Western sorta-legend Woody Strode) comes into the ghost town on his horse with a Rottweiler a few steps ahead of him in the mist, shows the group one of their number that had gone out to find help but ended up dead (his covered body is slung over a second horse),  summarily dismounts, goes into the saloon, sits down, and lights up his pipe do we get the closest thing we’re ever going to get to an explanation here.

“Me and the captain, we came here when they gave him nary another ship. They were cruel men, them that run the ships. Company men.”

So, he was the narrator we heard at the beginning. Him and the captain came here (to the middle of Texas?) when the captain got put out to pasture. Company men are bad news. And that’s all we find out before he rides out again.

More people get killed in equally ineptly-staged ways. More scenes play out in such near-total darkness that it’s impossible to tell what the hell is going on, not that it really matters because you won’t care anyway. And then we get a kinda-bloody sickle sitting on the saloon floor and it’s never made clear if everybody’s dead at this point or what. But things are definitely over. How do we know this?

The murderous (I guess) Captain

Because next thing you know, we’re back in the house from the beginning, and back at the mantle, and “treated” to a long, slow crawl that shows the decapitated dolls, the chiming clock (it’s midnight again) and a new painting, this time a portrait of the unnamed Captain, dated 1891. And once again we hear the flat, but admittedly smooth, monotone of Woody Strode telling us:

“Me and the captain, we came here when they gave him nary another ship. They were cruel men, them that ran the ships. Company men.”

I just don’t know, friends. I guess the murderous spirit of  “the Captain” haunts the ghost town he came to when the company men clipped his sea legs and if people show up there, he kills them. But it sure could have been a lot more, well — clear, I guess. Especially for the victims. Call me old-fashioned, but if you’re gonna get killed, I’d like to know at least who is doing it, if not why.

"Scream" DVD from Code Red/ Media Blasters

Scream had a long, torturous path to its recent DVD release. Originally announced by Code Red, who assembled the extras, it was canceled due to low pre-orders, but appeared about a year later as a joint release from Code Red and Media Blasters, under their Shriek Show label. The print has some flaws, explained by the fact that it was shot in 16mm but blown up to 35mm for theatrical release, so there’s some understandable graininess to the image throughout. The digitally remastered anamorphic transfer does look as good as it probably can, though, all things considered. The sound is remastered mono is suitably crisp and clear. As far as extras go, there’s a theatrical trailer, a TV spot, a selection of other Media Blasters trailers, and then one giant missed opportunity in the form of the feature commentary.

Scream is a movie that has perplexed horror fans for years, and exerted a kind of strange allure over those who actually knew about it. Simply put, people want to know more — specifically, what the hell were these guys thinking? Unfortunately, in the commentary, writer-director Quisenberry proves to be somewhat untalkative, with Bill Olsen of Code Red and moderator Marc Edward Hueck literally having to pull information out of the guy. The best explanation we ever get for why the killings are so bizarrely staged is “we were going for a European thing,” a pretty unsatisfactory fallback explanation that Quisenberry resorts to on numerous occasions. When the dead air gets to be too much, Olsen and Hueck literally change the subject to completely unrelated matters just to get this guy to actually talk about anything. When the subject comes back to the movie itself, though, Quisenberry obviously can’t remember that much about what they did or why they did it and can’t really be bothered to have his memory jogged too often. So anyone watching the commentary hoping for some concrete answers is going to come away understandably disappointed.

But maybe it’s for the best, since the most obvious explanation, “we had no idea what we were doing,” just isn’t going to cut it for many hardcore horror aficionados at this point even though it’s probably the God’s-honest truth.

I can only recommend Scream for true slasher junkies and those who seek out cinematic curiosities for their own sake. It plays by its own set of rules and it’s quite clear those rules are being made up as they go along. There’s next to no onscreen bloodletting, there’s no nudity, there’s barely any foul language, there’s no “final girl” — the list of standard slasher ingredients that it just outright ignores is endless. Quisenberry makes clear that they weren’t actually trying to make anything here but a standard horror flick with a little bit of a supposedly “European” feel to it. What they ended up with is something entirely different, and entirely unlike anything else you’ll ever see.

It’s just that most people really won’t want to see it.

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