NOVEMBER 1998 | VOL. 2, NO. 6


CURRENT

FEATURE | The Scream Effect
Apt Pupil

LAST | Simon Birch | Urban Legend

ARCHIVES | Movies



Short Takes
Grading from A-F

APT PUPIL (R):
Originally, the formula seemed like a good one: combine the directing talents of Bryan Singer (Usual Suspects) with a screenplay based on a short story by Stephen King (Shawshank Redemption). Unfortunately, the mix blow up in their faces. Or more aptly, fizzled weakly.

Billed as an edge of the seat horror story, the picture moved forward timidly, save for one five minute scene. Once again, King is victimized by a too glossed-over version of an intriguing story with definite cinematic potential. The potential for horror, both physical and mental, was bubbling somewhere beneath the surface, but was never completely brought to the forefront. Fans of the horror genre won't be losing any sleep over this one. B-

URBAN LEGEND (R):
Cookie-Cutter teen scream flick. Seriously lacking in substance and originality, Urban Legend rides the coat tails of "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer." At the very least, "Scream" offered something new, "Urban Legend" basically offers a way to waste an evening.
C

THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (R):
While "Saving Private Ryan" is the best drama of 1998, this twisted love story is easily the best comedy in years. From start to finish the Farrelly Brothers prove that bathroom humor and grotesque physical gags have univeral belly laugh appeal. And to top it off, the laughs are carried by the perfect vehicle: a formidable plot.
A

SIMON BIRCH (PG):
Based on the book "A Prayer For Owen Meany" by John Irving, this movie was completely frustrating because, despite featuring such good actors and being based on such a great book, it fall so far from expectations. (more)
B-

- Kevin Ridolfi, Rob Gallo



  

 

 
 
The Scream Effect


 
REBECCA GAYHEART stars in the "Scream" clone "Urban Legends"
KEVIN RIDOLFI

Little did Wes Craven know, back in December of 1996, but he had just completed the most influential movie of the second half of this decade. Not the best movie, not by a long shot. But certainly the most trend-setting. The little film that made such a big splash: Scream.

Craven, who had found much success in the eighties with the excessive Nightmare on Elm Street series, produced "Scream" as his tongue-in-cheek tickling of the very horror industry that he helped build up. Fresh, trendy faces chuckled about thriller cliches and the almost carved-in-stone conventions of on screen gore fests. The irony is rich and two sided. For starters (and the most obvious), Craven was winking an eye and pointing a finger at himself and his peers, questioning the creativity behind the genre that made him an extremely rich man. The second irony took a while to develop, but now looms dangerously over the entire movie industry. With Scream, Craven has managed to construct a new set of cliches, formulas and corner stones for the modern thriller.

"Scream," a decent even suspenseful movie in its own right, has developed into a money making Pied Piper and all of Hollywood is following close behind.

First in line was Jim Gillespie's "I Know What You Did Last Summer" ten months later. I remember seeing the trailers for this movie -- which incidently was written by Kevin Williamson, one of "Scream's" screen writers -- and thinking that this was the anticipated sequel to "Scream." The ads were similar, the ominous over tones were the same and the actors were interchangeable. As with "Scream," fans, mostly between the ages of 16-22, flocked to the theaters and the powers that be noticed.

Hollywood noticed and big money advertisers noticed. After all, this high school/early college age group has the most disposable income (not to mention the age old herd mentality). So, with cash registers clicking in their heads, production companies set their sights on the teen market.

The next movie to roll off the assembly line was hardly a shock. As is the tradition with horror movies a sequel is always necessary (Friday the 13th is good for one a year) and "Scream II" appeared a year after the original on December 12, 1997. Craven replaced the stars he killed off in the first picture with ease and brought back Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox. The result? Another box office hit.

Once again as the seasons slide towards winter, it's Scream-clone time again, and this time there were three major releases: "Disturbing Behavior" in the late July, "Urban Legend" in late September and "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer." "Urban Legends" is the first movie from this mold not to utilize either Craven or Williamson, but none-the-less the rest of the elements are frighteningly similar. "Scream III" was originally scheduled for this December, but is supposedly being pushed to December 1999.

The creative -- which in this case may be a contradiction -- forces behind each of these movies has followed such a strict formula that you can't help but wonder if it's written on the wall of a men's room somewhere in a black tie restaurant in L.A. Like the eighties cliches for which "Scream" provided the Craven Notes outline, the Cookie-cutter High rules are universal with variances only when it comes to the murder weapon of choice. However the ideals have changed since the days of Michael Myers and Jason.

The actors, especially their appearance and recognizability, are the most important ingredient. "Scream" used Drew Barrymore, already quite famous, to capture the audience; Courtney Cox of the equally trend-setting "Friends"; and Neve Campbell of Fox' "Party of Five," which targets the same audience. You had the Rat Pack and the Brat Pack, now meet the Mall Rats. The rule is: all actors and actresses (with the exception of Cox) must either be or appear to be in their late teens, they must have magazine cover looks and must demonstrate the pent-up sex drive of a dog in heat. They must also have appeared in some teen-focused television show or something quite similar.

The actors for the other movies fell into line from there. "...Last Summer" grabbed Jennifer Love Hewitt from the ranks of "Party of Five" and Sarah Michelle Gellar from The WB's hip cult hit "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." "Urban Legend" used Rebecca Gayheart (the Noxema girl), Alicia Witt of "Cybil" and Joshua Jackson of The WB's other smash hit "Dawson's Creek." "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer" brings back Hewitt in even smaller and wetter outfits and adds Brandy, star of "Moesha" and probably the most famous teen R&B singer. You can add "Disturbing Behavior," which featured Katie Holmes of "Dawson's Creek", into the mix as well.

You can practically predict the actors in the next installment of movies: James Van Der Beek (Dawson's Creek), Keri Russell (Felicity), Reese Witherspoon (Fear, Pleasantville), Usher (singer), Michelle Williams (Dawson's Creek, Halloween H20), Nicholas Brendon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

The next key ingredient is a plot that just tries too hard to be smart. "Scream" was built around horror cliches, "Scream II" focused on horror sequels, "Urban Legend" dealt with the replaying of urban myths. The writers seem to sit up late, wired on coffee or Surge and come up with ideas that seem great at 3 am, but come out flat and actually comical in the finished product.

A must in putting together the overall movie and marketing package is for the entire cast of stars to host an hour or even a full afternoon of programming on MTV. The actors are the same age as their audience, so their taste in music, fashion and over-powering hormones are very similar. This creates an even greater bond for the potential audience that transcends physical appearance. They can actually see themselves hanging out with the characters and being forced into these same horrible circumstances.

The last piece of the puzzle involves taking advantage of peer pressure. Huge marketing budgets and relentless scatter bombing of ads makes every teen who's anyone want to go to these movies. Need to go. With ads being constantly run on The WB and on Fox, the message is reinforced every night: go see this movie the weekend it opens if you know what's good for your reputation. The advertising firms are earning their money; they are creating not only the interest in a product, but also an overwhelming wave of urgency. If you can't keep up with the study hall conversation come Monday, kiss your social life good bye.

"Scream," to its credit, has managed to form an entire industry around some rather simple principles, consequently earning millions upon millions for those at ground zero. However, this cookie-cutter technique does nothing to promote cinematic quality or enhance the movie-going experience. For eight bucks a pop, the audience has the right to expect originality, at least in some form. The Pied Piper needs to throw away his assembly and start marching to a different drummer.



KEVIN RIDOLFI of Pawtucket, RI, is the creator and editor of Renaissance Online Magazine. He can be reached at kridolfi@renaissancemag.com



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