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

JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Nonstop Crude and Sexual Humor, Pervasive Strong Language, and Drug Content

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Directed by: Kevin Smith

Written by: Kevin Smith

Starring: Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Ben Affleck, Jeff Anderson, Brian O’Halloran, Shannon Elizabeth, Eliza Dushku, Ali Larter, Jennifer Schwalbach, Will Ferrell & Jason Lee

After starring as memorable supporting characters in four movies, stoners Jay and Silent Bob became the main players in Kevin Smith’s fifth View Askewniverse flick. Lampooning countless films, featuring a bevy of cameos, and resembling an R-rated cartoon, JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK isn’t necessarily Kevin Smith’s most heartfelt or well-written effort. Instead, this is a stoner comedy that focuses on being entertaining and funny. It accomplishes both of those things in spades.

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Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) have spent most of their lives peddling pot outside of the Quick Stop convenience store (from CLERKS). When pissed-off employee Randall (Jeff Anderson) slaps them with a restraining order, the two stoners find themselves looking for a new place to hang out. This leads them to a comic book store…which in turn leads them to discover that they are the basis for upcoming superhero blockbuster BLUNTMAN AND CHRONIC. Unfortunately, Jay and Silent Bob never received their big Hollywood check and, to make matters worse, anonymous internet trolls are calling them names. Jay and Silent Bob decide to travel from New Jersey to Hollywood in order to stop the film from being made…or at least receive some cash. This road trip leads the pair of stoners to a stolen orangutan, a group of sexy jewel thieves, a loose-cannon wildlife marshal (Will Ferrell), and lots of movie references.

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JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK isn’t going to win over anyone who already hates Kevin Smith. This film was tailor-made for Smith fans who already loved the titular pair of stoners/drug-dealers in CLERKS, MALLRATS, CHASING AMY and DOGMA. The film isn’t as grounded as CLERKS or CHASING AMY, but it’s definitely not as fantastically outlandish as DOGMA. JAY AND SILENT BOB plays everything as a goofy stoner comedy, defying logic and physics when it results in a laugh or furthers the plot along. I’d like to think of this film as Kevin Smith’s equivalent to HAROLD AND KUMAR before there was even HAROLD AND KUMAR. It’s JAY AND SILENT BOB GO TO HOLLYWOOD with lots of stupid humor, general craziness and tons of movie references. I can’t even begin to tell you how many movie references and big name cameos are in this film.

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One of my favorite moments lambasts the then-upcoming SCOOBY DOO flick. There’s also a hilarious chase through the Miramax backlot that’s more than a tad reminiscent of PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and also serves as an excuse for plenty of in-jokes. My point is that JAY AND SILENT BOB is hardly original. The plot is a giant road trip and intentionally borrows from many other movies. However, JAY AND SILENT BOB is well-made where it counts, in being funny and entertaining the whole way through. Whether it’s three of the best fourth wall jokes I’ve seen in a film or the sheer absurdity of a romance between Jay and a hot criminal with a heart of gold (Shannon Elizabeth), this film just worked for me. Is it stupid? Absolutely. Is it Kevin Smith’s best movie? Not at all. Did Jay and Silent Bob really deserve their own feature? Probably not. Yet, this film still inexplicably manages to be funny and engaging for well over 90 minutes.

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It’s also worth noting that JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK predicted the future in regards to internet trolls bitching about superhero movies for the sake of bitching about superhero movies. The flick makes that into the main plot point behind Jay and Silent Bob’s nationwide quest to Hollywood, also providing colorful profanity and insults along the way. Though it’s far from Kevin Smith’s best movie in the View Askewniverse (I think that title will always belong to CLERKS), JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK is highly entertaining for Smith fans. Film references, gross sexual humor (one joke about a cup broke me into a hysterical fit of laughter), the screenplay’s sporadic craziness, and the buddy-pairing of real-life friends Jason Mewes (foul-mouthed Jay) and Kevin Smith (almost mute Silent Bob) make this film well worth watching!

Grade: B+

THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Terror/Violence

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Directed by: Wes Craven

Written by: Wes Craven

Starring: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J. Langer, Ving Rhames & Sean Whalen

In a filmography populated by supernatural killers, cannibal mutants, Voodoo, and shocksploitation, I’m pretty sure that THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS is Wes Craven’s strangest film…and that’s saying quite a lot. This urban horror story has lots of creativity on display and tone that seems deeply contrasted to the rest of Craven’s work. The story constantly straddles the line between goofy exaggerated comedy or demented brilliance. Sometimes, it leans a little too heavily on the comedic side of things. For the most part though, this is a grisly, fun horror flick.

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Fool is a young boy living in the Los Angeles ghetto. His situation is not ideal, especially when strange landlords give an eviction notice with 24 hours to comply. Desperate to keep his family under a roof, Fool joins up with Leroy, his sister’s criminal boyfriend, in order to break into the landlords’ house to steal a rare coin collection. This isn’t as simple as it sounds, because the Robesons are not quite your typical landlord couple. By that I mean that they’re an incestuous brother and sister who have a collection of “people” chained in their basement and a house decorated with deadly booby traps. Fool quickly finds himself stuck in the Robesons’ home and trying to escape from the nightmare that he’s found himself in.

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Wes Craven is a mixed bag director for me. On one hand, he’s directed great films that have stood as classics in the horror genre. He penned one of the best slashers of all time (involving a certain burnt, razor-glove-wearing psycho). However, a number of his scripts have great ideas, but no one to help reign them in. PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS has one of these scripts. This film is almost like a gorier version of THE GOONIES crossed with something the vein of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or SPIDER BABY. Simply put, the material is absolutely bonkers. While that works for the most part, there are also scenes that feel like they go on for a tad too long. The climax of the film especially feels like there were great ideas that have ultimately wound up becoming too ridiculous.

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Fool comes off as a pretty bland protagonist and doesn’t appear nearly as terrified as anyone else would be in this crazy scenario. He also delivers cheesy dialogue that made me roll my eyes a few times. This was especially true during the finale. Leroy (played by Ving Rhames) has a strong presence as a hardened gangster who isn’t too bright. However, these protagonists are more than made up for in the Robesons. This insane couple are two of the most demented horror villains to ever grace the screen. I loved every scene featuring Everett McGill and Wendy Robie as the psycho siblings. They chew the scenery like it’s going out of style. Robie is entertaining as a 1950’s-style loon with a painted face. McGill is a blast to watch as a shotgun-toting maniac (wearing full BDSM gear) who constantly screams profanity-laden insults at the top of his lungs while shooting holes in his own house.

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Every moment involving the Robesons is a neat combination of depravity and hilarity. An early scene involving the “Daddy” picking buckshot out of his dinner perfectly introduces these deranged mental siblings. The dark humor works in the scenes involving the couple, but doesn’t work at all during scenes involving their flesh-eating Rottweiler. These are mainly made up of Fool’s confrontations with the dog. Know that I’m not exaggerating when he actually distracts the killer animal by yelling “Your momma slept with a cat!” and we get a dramatic shot of the dog looking up from his victim like “What did you just say?” I was rolling my eyes, but as much as when Fool punched the dog in the nose and we get a “bop” sound effect to capitalize on that.

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THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STARS mainly entertains due to its villains who steal every bit of screen time they’re given. The Robesons are two of Wes Craven’s most disturbing characters and the wild creativity on display also boosts the film. On the bad side of things, the protagonists are sort of bland other than being hapless kids. The tonal shifts between humor and full-blown horror also don’t work as well as they should. However, there’s a lot of insanity and fun to be had in watching Wes Craven’s weirdest creation.

Grade: B

THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Wes Craven

Written by: Richard Maxwell & Adam Rodman

(based on the book THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW by Wade Davis)

Starring: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae & Paul Winfield

Voodoo is creepy, but few horror films have taken full advantage of that. Of the handful of memorable scary movies that involve voodoo, Wes Craven’s SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW ranks among the very best. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, but this is certainly an underrated gem of Craven’s filmography. SERPENT manages to feel unlike any other horror film I’ve seen and I’ve watched a ton of horror movies. Blending an otherworldly adventure with truly nightmarish imagery, SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW serves as an eerie horror flick that’s ripe for rediscovery.

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Dennis Alan is an anthropologist hired by a drug company to investigate mysterious happenings in Haiti. It seems that somehow, someway, a man (named Christophe) died and has been brought back from the grave. Dennis journeys to Hispaniola and meets with the lovely Dr. Marielle. Together they investigate how Christophe seemingly died and was resurrected. The mystery deepens when Dennis’s investigation has him witnessing dark voodoo rituals and meeting mysterious witch doctors. With Haiti in political turmoil, a black magician has set his sights on Dennis. The American anthropologist has unwittingly plunged himself into a living hell of madness, hallucinations, and deadly magic.

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Though it takes its title from a non-fiction book by Wade Davis and claims to be based on a true story, SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW plays fast and loose with actual voodoo and source material. The rituals and magic are certainly exaggerated to make for an insane horror film. I can’t really fault the film in this regard because it makes for great entertainment. The plot is interesting from beginning to end, even if it has brief stumbles along its journey. Wes Craven already practiced delivering nightmares on film with a certain famous slasher that involved a razor-gloved killer. He seems to have perfected his craft in SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW’s dream sequences. Not to state the obvious, but the horrific visuals in these moments are the literal stuff of nightmares. Some of these images include a bottomless pit, a hallway full of outstretched arms, and a decaying corpse bride rising from the grave. However, the scares aren’t just reserved for the dream sequences as the actual story has creepy moments that include a cringe-worthy torture scene, a dread-soaked POV sequence and much, much more.

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As far as the cast goes, Bill Pullman serves as a leading man here. I’ve seen him give good performances and I’ve seen him give bad performances. SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW delivers Pullman in an Indiana Jones sort of role. The film is also narrated by Pullman in a sort of noirish way that felt a little out-of-place, but helped serve easily digestible chunks of exposition. Cathy Tyson is good as the doctor/love interest, but her character is only developed in one moment that seemed a tad half-assed. Brent Jennings is great as the witch doctor Mozart and serves as Pullman’s main guide into the world of zombie drugs. Finally, Zakes Mokae is absolutely fantastic as Dargent Peytraud. This villain serves as both a sadistic secret police officer and an evil Voodoo priest. In a story that features political tensions and supernatural happenings, this antagonist is a threat for two entirely different reasons. For my money, Mokae delivers the best performance of the whole cast.

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SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is definitely an 80’s movie. This brings a distinct set of positives and negatives. While the practical effects and insane visuals are definite highlights, the last third feels like it came out of an entirely different story. The excuse for its progression (which has something to do with possession from a country away) was far-fetched and didn’t fully jive with everything seen up to that point in the film. Things progressively get over-the-top from there with a scorpion conjured in someone’s throat and a cheesy Jaguar spirit being released from a jar. It all comes down to a ridiculous showdown that remains entertaining in spite of all the silliness, but feels like a severe change in tone from the rest of the film.

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SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is Wes Craven’s most underrated effort and one of his best films. The story is interesting and you’ve never seen Voodoo brought to the screen quite like this. Though it does get over-the-top in the final third, the film is fueled by a creeping sense of unease and plenty of nightmarish visuals. SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW made me wish that a great modern horror film would tackle Voodoo in an interesting way (SKELETON KEY came close, but didn’t take full advantage of it). In the end, SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is one of the more unusual horror flicks out there and comes highly recommended as a result.

Grade: B+