SCREAM (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Graphic Horror Violence and Gore, and for Language

Directed by: Wes Craven

Written by: Kevin Williamson

Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, Joseph Whipp, W. Earl Brown, Liev Schreiber & Henry Winkler

Wes Craven became one of the most well-known horror filmmakers with his imaginatively terrifying NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, but Freddy Krueger wasn’t the only iconic killer that Craven brought to the big screen. Working from a cleverly self-referential script from Kevin Williamson, Craven introduced Ghostface to horror fans in December 1996. Inspiring four total films and three seasons of an MTV horror series, SCREAM is one of the most important slasher films in cinema history and also holds up as a fantastic scary movie on its own merits.

As the first anniversary of her mother’s untimely death approaches, depressed high school student Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) braces for an inevitable wave of turbulent emotions to arrive…much to the dismay of her sex-starved boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich). Hormones and angst aren’t the only things that Sidney, Billy, and their group of teenage friends (Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, and Jamie Kennedy) need to worry about though, because someone has taken their love for horror movies a bit too far. By “a bit too far,” I mean that someone is running around in a creepy costume and slicing/dicing teens. This masked psycho seems to have his eyes set on Sidney for some strange reason. Bodies pile up, laughs ensue, and this film parodies slasher films while simultaneously being a slasher film.

There are so many items to talk about with SCREAM, so I might as well start with a quality that usually makes or breaks 99% of slasher films: the kills. SCREAM is notably set in a more real-world environment than almost every other slasher movie in existence, because these characters have seen PROM NIGHT, HALLOWEEN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, etc. They already know the dumb clichés and rules that they need to follow in order to successfully survive a horror movie. This more realistic meta-feeling bleeds over into the film’s kills. This is especially present during the film’s infamous prologue that packs in plenty of humor and scares, while also distinctly reminding horror fans of the disturbing phone calls in WHEN A STRANGER CALLS or BLACK CHRISTMAS.

KNB Effects utilized 50 gallons of blood for various wounds and designed chest pieces for the many stabs and slices. Though SCREAM’s kills are mainly of the knife variety, there’s a certain grisliness to them that makes them pretty damn effective to watch and some of the gore effects are downright disturbing to look at. This more “realistic”-ish spin on slasher kills positively offsets the film’s light-hearted, comedic atmosphere into darker directions. It reminds the viewer that this slasher, as fun and funny as it may be, still has kids meeting their untimely demises and that’s a horrible thing.

As far as the teenage characters go, Kevin Williamson’s script feels refreshingly grounded in a subgenre that can range from ridiculously over-the-top to unbelievably stupid. Though there are a couple of dumb mistakes made by the teenage victims that lead to a rather high body count, the film remedies these “errors” by pointing them out and winking at the camera in a knowing fashion. Right before Sidney’s first encounter with Ghostface, she references a stupid mistake that she unwittingly commits in the heat of the moment during the very next scene. Little details like those seemingly correct annoying decisions that are all too commonplace in hundreds of slashers.

As far as the cast goes, the young actors and actresses make for convincing teens, while the adult performers seem fairly realistic. Every character is colorful and sticks out, making their absence (due to being butchered by a masked psycho killer) much more noticeable. Special mentions go out to: Neve Campbell as the film’s tragic final girl, Matthew Lillard as an obnoxious smartass, Jamie Kennedy as a diehard horror fanatic, David Arquette as the geekiest cop around, and Courtney Cox as a bitchy news reporter. The film’s two worst performances belong to: Skeet Ulrich as the obviously creepy boyfriend and Rose McGowan as Sidney’s airheaded gal pal.

It’s worth noting that SCREAM keeps its fast-paced storytelling up throughout the entire running time. Even though the film clocks in at slightly under two hours, nearly half of this time is dedicated to an incredibly funny, entertaining, and satisfying finale that takes place in/around a single house. Kevin Williamson was able to pack so much development into the smart first half of the film (including little pieces about Sidney’s past tragedy that don’t feel like forced exposition at all), and then Wes Craven let loose with his suspenseful and violent slasher fun during the film’s second half. My only complaint with Williamson’s script is that it’s fairly easy to identify the killer early on, even though the film throws a couple of half-assed red herrings into the mix. To his credit, a big twist during the final 15 minutes still remains remarkably effective and forces viewers to watch repeated viewings through a different lens.

SCREAM’s self-referential style may not be for everybody, but (at the very least) this film must be respected for what it did to the horror genre in the 90s. At the point when this film was originally released, horror was in a rut. Lots of crap was coming out, tons of films were bombing at the box office, and most folks thought that the horror genre was as good as dead. Then SCREAM came along and injected much-needed new blood into age-old clichés. Though it gave birth to a wave of mediocre 90s slashers (e.g. URBAN LEGEND, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, etc.), SCREAM is also the first installment in one of the most consistently entertaining slasher franchises in existence. If you haven’t seen SCREAM before, now is the perfect time to do so!

Grade: A

HACKERS (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Sexuality and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Iain Softley

Written by: Rafael Moreu

Starring: Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie, Fisher Stevens, Lorraine Bracco, Matthew Lillard, Jesse Bradford, Laurence Mason & Renoly Santiago

Ah, the 90’s. A decade where the futuristic capabilities of technology seemed boundless. In the 80’s, Hoverboards graced the screen in BACK TO THE FUTURE Part II. In the 90’s, we now had computers that were seemingly capable of anything and everything. HACKERS is the epitome of dated 90’s clichés mixed with a techno-thriller in the same vein as WARGAMES. While there is definitely cheesy so-bad-it’s-funny pleasure to be taken out of this teenage oriented comedy-thriller, HACKERS is a film that’s riddled with style over substance, half-baked writing, and a running time that feels entirely too long for its skeleton of a plot.

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Dade Murphy (a.k.a. Zero Cool) is a notorious hacker who was arrested at the age of eleven for crashing over 1,500 systems in a single day. Now legally an adult, Dade has finally been allowed near a computer again and is hacking away at his leisure. Straight from the often-used well of teenage movie tropes, Dade finds himself relocated to a new high school where he makes enemies with a female rival hacker, Kate (a.k.a. Acid Burn). Though he finds himself at odds with the hackers in the school, he begins to blend in with their clique. The group of teenage cyberpunks find themselves in hot water when a newbie accidentally hacks into the files of a corrupt businessman and a world-threatening computer virus is unleashed with a ticking clock. It’s up to Zero Cool, Acid Burn, Phantom Phreak, Cereal Killer, and a bunch of other walking 90’s clichés with silly handles to save the day.

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The intentions behind making HACKERS were reasonable enough. Rafael Moreu was inspired to pen the screenplay when he saw hackers evolving as an entirely new clique in society and police cracking down harder on cyber crimes. For the most part, he’s sort of right in that both senses. You hear stories about Anonymous and their secret society way of doing things (hacktivist movements which I mostly find to be downright admirable). Meanwhile, Lizard Squad and the Deep Web resulted in a whole lot of arrests. In general, hackers have definitely gotten to a point in society where Moreu was predicting they might end up. That being said, I find this film’s annoying too-cool-for-school style and by-the-numbers plot to be rather dull. HACKERS is a movie that cares more about how it looks than what it’s about. While certain visually engrossing movies have succeeded without a clear defined plot, HACKERS mistakes clichés for style.

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The 90’s is my personal favorite decade in cinema, but this time period definitely had its fair share of flops and misses. HACKERS falls into that latter category of 90’s filmmaking. The style is forced to a point where it’s simply unbelievable and unintentionally hilarious. There’s a constant techno-soundtrack running in background that has a couple of good songs, but mostly sounds repetitive. This film also has tons of establishing shots, annoying montages (using old movie clips to convey emotions of a character as opposed to convincing performances or good writing), and pointless dream sequences (from three different characters). These three annoyances comprise about 25% of the running time. The rest is designated to these characters playing video games, ogling laptops, rollerblading through traffic, and pulling pranks on each other to win a competition. Oh, there’s also a good vs. evil plot somewhere in there, but that makes up 30 or 40 minutes of the actual film. It’s a shame too, because the goofy villain (played by Fisher Stevens) is probably the cast’s biggest highlight.

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While it’s certainly fun to watch young Jonny Lee Miller and barely legal Angelina Jolie trying to take this film seriously, the nearly two-hour long running time is still a drag to get through. The plot is a jumbled mess of 90’s styles, teenage clichés, and a ticking clock plot that occasionally pops in. The movie does have an undeniable cheesy charm to it, but the obnoxious style (movie clips, montages, and dream sequences) kills a lot of the momentum. As this year’s hacker thriller BLACKHAT demonstrated, colorful visuals and “intense” scenes of people typing away at a computer screen are not going to help your movie if the characters are bland and the writing sucks. While I think HACKERS is a slight step above that dull as dirt would-be thriller, I still recommend that you pass on it. The only circumstances where I’d recommend watching this movie are if you have a bunch of sarcastic friends who enjoy so-bad-they’re-good movies as well as a steady supply of beer and pizza. In that case, go for it. Otherwise, skip HACKERS.

Grade: D+

SERIAL MOM (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Satirical Presentation of Strong Violence, Vulgar Language, and Sexual Episodes

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Directed by: John Waters

Written by: John Waters

Starring: Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, Matthew Lillard, Scott Wesley Morgan, Walt MacPherson & Patricia Dunnock

John Waters is an odd guy. His more than likable behind-the-scenes persona is instantly recognizable, but his filmography is definitely hit-or-miss and aimed at a very specific audience. With severe gross-out exploitation, low-budget satire, and a no-holds-barred sex comedy under his belt, would it be any surprise to discover that John Waters wrote a 50’s-esque serial killer comedy? Not at all. Whether that comedy comes off successfully is another matter entirely as 1994’s SERIAL MOM has its moments, but ultimately falls victim to heavy-handed satire in the final third that simply doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the film.

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On the outside, Beverly Sutphin appears to be your average, suburban mother. She cooks, cleans, and chats with friends. However, this tidy homemaker has a very dark side as she has a secret habit of knocking off anyone who gets on her bad side. Beverly Sutphin is a mother first and a serial killer second. Two local detectives have stumbled across her web of murders and are hot on her trail. Meanwhile, Beverly’s family begins to suspect that there’s something not quite right with her.

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One thing that John Waters really nails down in SERIAL MOM is a picturesque sort of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER suburbia that happens to hold a serial killer. On a budget of 13 million, Waters makes every shot look good. The kills are easily the best parts of the movie as each one is creative and has an over-the-top quirk that makes it funny in spite of all the dark deeds on the screen. The film also has a number of other comedic moments that work very well. The best of these involves Beverly’s harassment of a poor unsuspecting neighbor with extremely obscene phone calls. There are a number of jokes that fall flat though. John Waters seems to want us to laugh merely from him putting a serial killer story in a seemingly peaceful setting. Though that is pretty silly and makes for some good dark comedy (including Beverly trying to clean a murder weapon), that long running joke only works for so long before it becomes a bit tedious.

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Kathleen Turner (THE WAR OF THE ROSES) seems to be having a blast as the title killer/mother. As Beverly, she keeps a chipper smile plastered across her face for a majority of the running time and plays the character as a deranged “do-gooder” in getting rid of her victims (who set her off through minor annoyances like not recycling, stealing parking spots, and failing to rewind VHS tapes). The rest of the family members are played well by Sam Waterston (as the naïve husband), Ricki Lake (as the hopeless romantic daughter) and Matthew Lillard (as the horror-obsessed son). There’s nothing to complain about in these performances, but the script simply doesn’t hand them a lot to work with (especially in the final third of the film).

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While the plot of SERIAL MOM seems very straightforward, the film works well as a decent brand of demented comedy up until a certain point. The film reaches its peak at an hour into the story and there are still 30 minutes of screen time to fill. This is where the film takes a serious nose dive as it becomes a wacky courtroom comedy for the final third. Waters was clearly making an obvious point about how our culture and the media turn murder trials into sensations that light up the country as well as turning the accused into cultural icons. I felt these points weren’t necessarily bad ones to make, but they felt like they belonged in an entirely separate movie (maybe, SERIAL MOM 2). As a result, the plot feels wildly uneven and lacks a lot of the simple laughs during the finale.

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Though I love John Waters as a unique personality in the world of filmmaking, I always find his filmography to be a bit of a mixed bag with hits and misses. SERIAL MOM is a decent enough hit for the first hour and then becomes a disappointing miss in its final act. There are merits to recommend this movie on in that Kathleen Turner is hugely enjoyable as the suburbanite murderer and the cheery atmosphere makes for a unique dark comedy. However, the faults are too big to discount. In the end, SERIAL MOM should serve as passing fun for those with a twisted sense of humor, but I can’t imagine it doing much for anyone else.

Grade: C+

THIR13EN GHOSTS (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Horror Violence/Gore, Nudity and Some Language

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Directed by: Steve Beck

Written by: Robb White, Neal Marshall Stevens

Starring: Tony Shalhoub, Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Lillard, Shannon Elizabeth, Rah Digga, F. Murray Abraham

William Castle was a connoisseur of campy horror gimmicks. This was a man who stuck joy buzzers underneath seats in order to convince his audience that a monster was loose in their movie theater and had death insurance policies in case one of his movies scared you…to death. He also had an inflatable skeleton wiz across the theater ceiling and let the audience “choose” the fate of the sadistic Mr. Sardonicus. In 1960’s 13 GHOSTS, William Castle provided each person in the screenings with a “ghost viewer” a special set of glasses that could add or remove the ghosts from the theater screen.

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Dark Castle is a studio that began by specializing in remaking two of William Castle’s biggest films. 1999’s underrated HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL was a hit over that Halloween weekend. Two years later, they updated 13 GHOSTS into a gleefully cheesy and fun horror flick with really cool production values. The rest of the movie isn’t up to the superb level of the ghosts themselves and the great set design. This makes THIR13EN GHOSTS just okay entertainment that could have been a lot better.

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Arthur Kriticos, a father of two, is struggling with the loss of his wife, who died in the fire that took their home. To make do, he is living in a cramped apartment with his two kids (teenage girl and young son) and their annoying nanny (who really doesn’t serve a purpose at all). A lawyer unexpectedly shows up to inform the family that their long-lost uncle died and left a house in his will. This house is a glass plated construction in the middle of nowhere and harbors a deadly secret.

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Actually, it’s more like 13 undead secrets (see what I did there?). There are many tormented souls hidden in the basement and the house is actually a machine that unleashes these spirits one-by-one. Aided by a couple of psychics and using specialized glasses that reveal the unseen, Arthur and his family must find a way out of the house before they join the spirits in the afterlife.

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THIR13EN GHOSTS has some amazing production values. The set design is phenomenal and the look of the house, a literal place with glass walls, is wholly original. Then there are the spirits themselves. Instead of using cheapo transparent effects, the wise decision was made to cast the ghosts as real people in creative make-up designs. The look of each spirit is totally unique and very creepy. If you dig on the spirits, it’s also a good decision to watch the “Ghost Files” special feature on the DVD, which gives a cool background story for each individual.

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The script itself is a bit of a mess though. The dialogue is really cheesy too. There is more camp to be had here than actual scares. In this sense, THIR13EN GHOSTS is a fun time-waster that doesn’t do much in terms of terror, but is entertaining enough. Plot-holes litter the place like crazy, including the laughable idea of ghosts being frightened of flares.

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Then there’s Rah Digga. She’s a rapper turned movie star and THIR13EN GHOSTS was her debut. She’s every single bad stereotype that people associate with the black character in horror movies and amped up to 11. While none of the acting from anybody else is great (Matthew Lillard is annoying in places), Digga is the worst part of this entire movie. She’s annoying beyond belief and single-handedly ruins some of the potentially fun scenes. To add insult to injury, the film ends with her ranting and then a rap song over the credits….by her.

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THIR13EN GHOSTS is a guilty pleasure. It’s not a good movie and I am aware of this. There are definitely some really awful moments and one of the worst performances in the history of modern horror cinema. However, the special effects are good. There is some ghoulish entertainment to be had and it still remains a fun time, despite the major problems. Sometimes, that’s all you need.

Grade: C+