Saw SCREAM (1996) again last night. I never saw SAW but seen SCREAM four times now, and it just gets scarier every time, not an easy feat. Due to its metatextual knowingness, the way characters are hip on horror movies (and die anyway), the idea we're going to be killed while watching it only increases with each viewing. The only thing close to that kind of meta is THE RING, but a ghost girl coming through the TV is too literal. In SCREAM the danger comes not from where we're facing on the couch but from behind it. If you catch a knife's reflection on the screen, from behind you, then the scene onscreen switches to an audience watching you and gasping in fear, shouting "Look behind you!" And it's too late. Your watchers shrink in terror mid-popcorn shovel, especially if after SCREAM you watch HALLOWEEN (1978), which the characters in SCREAM watch (after that, watch THE THING (1951), which the kids in HALLOWEEN watch). And when the characters inside these films die, they switch sides, and joint heavenly-hellish living room of the entities watching me watch the characters in SCREAM watch HALLOWEEN --and the name of the film is 'real life.'
What was new in HALLOWEEN more than any other slasher trope was the banal suburban environment, and it scared us because that's where we lived. We didn't live in sororities or Bavarian ballet academies, or the woods, or Manhattan--and yet those place held the most killers: New York City horror movies weren't as scary unless you happened to see them there, but New York itself was scary back then--and I imagine going there to see a movie like MANIAC (1980) would be terrifying even before it started--but if we were out in the suburbs, we presumed we were safe. In the city you had sicko Vietnam vets and street gangs, in the country you had rapists and cannibals. Now, in the suburbs, there was Michael Meyers.
All the subsequent slasher films between HALLOWEEN and SCREAM tended to neglect that suburban element, even Canadian rips like PROM NIGHT wound up in condemned old buildings and high school attics, places no normal, repressed teen would have to go, by order of gym teachers and parents, not costume parties held on trains, or gold mines, or even sorority houses. Rhese films were only scary to us kids if it felt like being killed not only could but what was going to happen later that night. They weren't scary unless the whole movie felt like a cosmic message aimed square at us and we just sitting there, all unaware and unsuspecting trying to sleep and then some small noise downstairs, or upstairs. For me it was the branches against my 2nd floor windows, scritch-scritching, like little fingernails, in the dead, Central NJ silence.
If you were to die by fire the TV would show you The Towering Inferno the night before... the Cassandra signal. (Jason was the exception to the suburb rule and was scary because we all went to summer camp... sooner or later.) Even more than the suburbs, what the successful horror films know is that we all watch TV. And if you look at TV long enough you know it starts to communicate with you, it takes you over like a cult, making it impossible to turn it off without pangs of fear and alienation, making all your other activities--friends, school, kickball--fade into unreality, warping your mind like living too long next to a magnet; suddenly normal silence seems curiously empty, and scary, so you need to turn the TV on and just find something to watch with no slashers in it, leave the set up bright and loud and forget it.
If you live chained to the TV like I did in the early 80s and now do again you live with all of this death coming at you--interrupted only by endless commercials rattling off catastrophic side effects of prescription drugs; cancer patients finding a center that makes them feel like there's hope; twisted up old townies nearly dead from smoking croaking their ghastly warnings; abused killer whales gasping in the sludge; tigers hunted near to extinction; starving kids in Africa--it all gathers inside you like maggots on a rotting corpse, eating up your still healthy cells like greedy capitalists at a money trough. The single overall media message is clear: you are riding an eternal journey of ghastly mortality. You will never escape, so better get Geico!
The TV works you like any good cult brainwasher: terrorizing you and then comforting you, back and forth, over and over. In its overall guise as a continuing soap opera it hides the fact that it's your soul that's being soaped cleaned of its wallets and keys and sanity and precious dirtiness. Like raging waters in a flash flood that never ends the TV draws you under, promising any moment now the bubble bath soap salts will be added to the water and suds will life you up from the lead albatross of your body, blocking the sight of all the flooded black oil death below, and leaving free you to wander in Elysian Fields of bubbles and to Wendy's and through the mall, and the monsters taking shape in the ominous twirl of water by the black void mouth drain...
See, you don't even need the suburbs if you have a TV in your horror film, because no matter where you live you are watching TV-- and filmmakers like John Carpenter and Wes Craven understand how to bring you back to the suburbs of childhood via their films, to re-capture the terror of adult ambivalence and antipathy towards your early teen life or death struggle, until you start to feel like you're drowning. Carpenter and Craven are all about taking advantage of their audience's kids up to the antipathy and numbness caused by excessive TV, and how a very real threat is buried under signs and THEY LIVE sunglasses. So in SCREAM even after many murders have rocked the community the kids go to school and tease each other with fake blood and knives because they can't quite take their own deaths seriously (unless they see themselves on TV as it happens). Thus there is no more 'real' in horror films after SCREAM made horror characters self-aware. We all imagined waking up in a slasher movie, figuring we'd survive since we knew the rules. And now we knew even that awareness was no guarantee.
If we see the film in the theater we have a moment's grace afterwards, a moment where we the audience are all safe in an exiting herd. we shuffle nervously out into the near-deserted mall parking lot, spooked cattle ready to stampede in giggling fits back into our cars the minute someone lets out a playful scream, and we sneak into our darkened homes to not wake up mom, and then we're finally all alone with the upstairs darkness of our frail, vulnerable bed rooms, full of easily broken windows and doors, flipping on our radio or TV or white noise machine just as fast as we can to drown out 'the house settling,' and the mirthless, accusatory voices calling our names from deep inside the layered silence.
His passion for the tapes his mom made even has its own weird mirror in the trans-existence love affair between executed criminal (Sam Worthington) and terminal cancer patient (Helena Bonham Carter) that begins in our present day and decade later morphs into SKYNET Helena luring Sam--now an unwitting amnesiac terminator-- back into the mechanistic fold.
McG may not be a James Cameron but he handles the vast scale of T4 well: the depressing combat zone high contrast greys of the landscape are a respectful advancement on the Hong Kong blues and obvious miniatures of the 1984 original. Then again we're not quite--in the time loop of events--up to the era that 'begins' the first film. T5 will hopefully bring us right up to speed, with Skynet developing time travel thus necessitating Connor's sending Reese back in time so he can ensure his own birth. As Connor said in 1991, "this is deep."
Deep? Maybe in 1991 but such time travel glitches are not even eyebrow raising in our age of a thousand screens seen swirling around wide-eyed families in 4G commercials, everyone plugged into their laptops and phones, reacting and laughing to different things at different times while in the same room, and seeing horror and science fiction movies over and over to the point they--creative visualization-style--make them happen in real life--via endless sequels and pop canon quotes slowly shaping one's reading of the world--like mini-religions. Just realize that if you watch TERMINATOR: SALVATION you ensure this fate will overtake us. If sooner or later we will master time travel, and rest assured we will, then time travelers are already here. We who watch sequels to films that won't be made until after we're dead know these things, and we keep quiet as a tomb lest plot spoilers destroy the world. Above us sleeps a giant mom, oblivious that we're up at dawn taping monster movies and surely disapproving of our slacker ways. But for now, she sleeps. John Carter, I mean Connor, I am your father. Put down your headphones and behold the soap of power! Shhhh, it has already begun.
Some screencaps borrowed from inside the Stale Popcorn