Sinister Summer 2020 “Misery” Retrospective

Do your ankles hurt just at the thought of this film??? Well, they should because this is one of the most unnerving horror movies of all time. In fact, each semester when I show my students the hobbling scene, they visibly cringe at that moment, and often remark that it was one of the most nightmarish scenes they’ve ever witnessed in a film. Based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King, Misery is widely regarded as one of the most terrifying psychological horror films ever. Directed by Rob Reiner, it stars then-newcomer Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, and playing opposite Kathy is James Caan as celebrity author Paul Sheldon. Just a quick note, the sultry Lauren Bacall also makes an appearance in this horror film as Sheldon’s agent. While this role is little more than a cameo, very few icons of the screen could’ve commanded it as beautifully as she did for those few scenes. Not only is this a brilliantly written and directed horror film, but Bates captivated us with her outstanding performance as the terrifying Annie Wilkes. In a quintessential Hitchcockian fashion, Rob Reiner crafts a phenomenal adaptation of the King novel that turns us into the prisoner of a disturbed and frightening fangirl. Annie convinced us that anyone who claims to be your No.1 fan may actually be your No.1 worst nightmare. Next time a nondescript motherly figure invites you to her picturesque cabin in Colorado, you may want to consider staying at the local Holiday Inn instead.

Clearly, Reiner studied Alfred Hitchcock’s methods for shooting a thriller. Evidence of this tone is witnessed in the framing, character blocking, and lingering shots. In fact, I argue that if you were to replace Reiner’s name with Hitchcock’s, it would be easy to convince (non cinephile’s) that it was in fact directed by the Master of Suspense. Reiner provides audiences with one of the most iconic horror films from the 90s that holds up incredibly well. Even with the typewriter, the sheer terror that Caan’s character of Paul Sheldon felt as he was kept prisoner by his sadistic No.1 fan Annie Wilkes (Bates). One of the biggest differences between the book and movie is the famous and painful hobbling scene. The book depicts Annie chopping off one of Paul’s feet versus the crippling of the ankles in the movie. I feel this was a good choice because the sledgehammer scene is far more painful than the former. I mean, every time I see a sledgehammer, I am reminded of this scene even to this day. Misery takes a minimalistic approach to the American horror film at a time that it was about being bigger and better. This approach was contrary to the trends of the day in that it felt far more intimate than other horror film contemporaries. As such, Reiner’s Misery is also largely takes place in one location (only flanked by quick moments in others). The combination of truly appalling, gut wrenching, darkly humorous, and sadistically amusing nature of this film enables it to hold up incredibly well and boasts one of the single most horrific scenes in horror cinema history.

Talk about a character with incredible depth! Annie Wilkes is one of those exemplary characters in horror that provides ample opportunity to apply critical lenses to analyze her psychology and sociology. Clearly she displays signs of psychopathy, but there is so much more to her character. And those layers are what makes her one of the most terrifying characters in horror film history. On the surface, she is a monster-like human; but beneath that sociopathic behavior, she is clearly suffering from severe mental disorders brought on by past trauma. Collectively, we can surmise that Annie’s past traumas left her feeling that everyone and everything is out to get her. Therefore, she runs a countryside farm in mountainous Colorado away from everyone. Her only interaction with outsiders is when she has to run to town to pickup food and supplies. In addition to her mental disorders, she also displays signs of agoraphobia. Although some of her mental disorders have direct impact on her violent nature, other disorders are largely indirectly responsible, such as her likely obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Evidence supporting this can be seen in her immaculately clean and organized house. Her OCD contributes significantly to her obsession with Paul Sheldon. The only joy in her life comes from the romance novels that she reads–a vicarious way to experience a full life–namely the Misery series by Paul Sheldon. Essentially, she is the perfect storm of psychological and emotional disorders all wrapped up in a an unassuming citizen of a small Colorado town. She could very well be your neighbor or one of your social media followers. Perhaps she is YOUR No.1 fan.

Although screenwriter William Goldman adds in a subplot of the town’s sheriff investigating the disappearance of Paul Sheldon, which works very well for the film even though it was not in the novel, the story is about two characters (representing two sides of the same coin) trapped in a room together, locked in a psycho-social battle of wills. Ostensibly, this story features two characters whom represent the creative mind of Stephen King during his real addiction to alcohol. I mention this real-life time of darkness in King’s life, not to glorify it because it helped inspire one of his greatest novels turned film, but it helps us to understand the depth and power of the story and characters. Both Sheldon and Wilkes have incredible chemistry because they represent real life villains in the life of King. King’s real battle between his healthy mind and drug-induced state parallels Paul Sheldon’s battle for freedom with Annie Wilkes standing in his way. In a most brilliant fashion, the sadistic former nurse Annie is the manifestation of how controlling a drug addiction can be–how it makes the user a prisoner of one’s own mind and body. This subplot is strategically woven into the main action plot then delivered through the character development and character-driven scenes in the story.

Annie is not completely evil. Early on, she shows us that she cares about victims as she could not have known that it was Paul Sheldon that she was rescuing from the car crash. Being his No.1 fan, as soon as she saw him, she knew precisely who he was and therefore her obsessive nature takes over. There is a moment that encapsulates one of the film’s themes that is often overlooked. Prior to caring for Paul, Annie takes his attache full of manuscripts and tucks it under her arm thus symbolizing that Paul’s work is more important than Paul’s life. But that doesn’t confirm her psychopathic nature. Even upon the more formal introduction of Annie, she shows us that she cares about Paul’s recovery as she crudely splints his broken legs. Why not take him to the hospital? Well, because she is his No.1 fan and no one can take care of him the way she can. She goes on to shower Paul with accolades. Claims to have read his Misery novels several times, even committing them to memory. Furthermore, she closely identifies with Misery Chastain (the series’ central character), so cares deeply what happens to her. Albeit being hospitalized in a stranger’s private residence is a little disconcerting, Paul grows to trust and even like Annie. He trusts her so much that he allows her to read the unpublished manuscript for the final Misery novel. And this is where things take a turn for the worse, Paul’s hospital is about to turn into a prison ran by the sinister warden from hell.

The plot of Misery works on multiple levels to generate the fear that it elicits from audiences. It’s a combination of exploring the effects of isolation on the mind and body, depicting various interpretations of captivity, and the overwhelming sense of dread that cruel intentions are lurking in the background of everything. And it’s not abstract feelings of isolation that Paul experiences, but he is literally isolated from the world due to being snowed in and downed phone lines. Despite being just outside of town, he may as well be on the moon. Without phone lines, Paul is cut off from anyone that is not Annie. Not only is Paul a prisoner of Annie’s house and his room (and eventually the bed specifically), but he is a psychological prisoner as well. He only has Annie to talk to, and he has to play her game or risk her violent mania. Failing to play her game, the role she would have him play, has grave consequences. And those grave consequences give way to the ominous sense of impending cruelty. Even before Annie completely loses it, Paul sees through the cracks in her homespun veneer, and what he sees terrifies him. I absolutely love Annie’s long drawn out monologue about the Kimberly Mines before she hobbles Paul. Paired with the creepy rendition of Moonlight Serenade, this scene plays out with methodic brilliance. The suspense of what is to come will make even the bravest crumble under the fear.

During Annie’s rage over the offensive swearing in the unpublished manuscript, she spills the hot soup on Paul and we begin to see the signs of her mania, twisted morals, paranoia, and negative effects of OCD. Obviously, we learn more about her psychopathy as the scenes unfold, but in retrospect, we witness the signs in big bold letters from this moment on. But she doesn’t continually behave in such a neurotic manner. She oscillates back and forth. This oscillation is an important aspect to her character because it drives up the tension and suspense because we don’t know when or where to expect her dangerous behavior. There are moments that we anticipate a violent outburst, but then she fools us by not delivering. By the same token, there are moments that we don’t expect it, and she terrifies us. The character trait of Annie’s that makes her one of the most terrifying in the Blockbuster of horror is her lack of feeling. Everything she does, she rationalizes without regard for quality of life or humankind. The very definition of sociopath.

The psycho-social disorders affecting the behavior and psychology of Annie are never confirmed, and don’t need to be. We don’t need to know precisely why or what causes Annie to behave the way she does. Because if we fully understood her, she would cease to be as nightmare-inducing as she is. It’s important that Annie Wilkes remain a type of Boogeyman. However, we can gather from the film that she suffers from a form schizotypal personality disorder, OCD (which I’ve mentioned), and meets most of the criteria of borderline personality disorder. A trifecta of disorders that creates the monster that we encounter in the film. She copes with these disorders by executing numerous defensive mechanisms including denial, projection, rationalization, regression, fantasy, and more. Whereas we often talk about her psychopathy and sociopathy, we often neglect to recognize her highly intelligent mind. Too bad her intelligence isn’t matched by empathy and and human kindness. Her intellect is observed through how she anticipates Paul’s movements and knowing when he’s been out of his room. And an intelligent villain is the most dangerous and unpredictable of all.

Aside from her disorders, unpredictable behavior, and lack of empathy, attributes that can be found in other horror villains, she stands out because she is a women. It’s her feminism that enables her to stand out against similar villains such as Norman Bates, Jack Torrance, Buffalo Bill and others. When we typically think of female characters or women in general (and I realize I am over-generalizing), we think of someone whom is kind, hospitable, nurturing, passive, and empathetic. Annie subverts those notions in so many ways, many of which have been outlined in this analysis. She makes Joan Crawford from Mommy Dearest look like Mrs. Brady. As out of control as Annie behaves, she is very much in control. She IS the one holding all the cards and calling the shots in this prison. While other characters (male or female) with similar disorders or backgrounds that parallel Annie’s have lost their minds, Annie knows precisely what she is doing, and is supremely strategic when she does it. We may be cheering when Paul finally kills her with the typewriter, in brilliant ironic fashion, but she is an incredibly strong female character who can hold her own, backs down to no one.

Not only is Misery one of the top psychological horror films ever made, but Annie is a noteworthy female character in the horror genre. While the final girls get most of the attention when we talk Women in Horror, it’s important to not forget that horror has given us terrifying women as well. Whereas so often the most interesting villains (or characters of opposition) get to be played by men, this film would not be as powerful is the roles were gender swapped. The fact that this psychopath is a women makes her all the more disturbing. She crafts such overwhelming sense of dread that is more frightening because we aren’t used to female characters as the main villains. Kathy Bates was a perfect choice for this role, and she has gone on to play all kinds of roles but the horror community gets extra excited when she plays a horror role. While horror doesn’t often win awards at the Oscars, Kathy Bates won the Academy Award for an actress in a leading role for her work in Misery.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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“Romeo Kills Juliette” international short film review

German writer-director Leon Zitz is back with his newest short film, which reinterprets the classic story of Romeo and Juliette through a post-modern lens that places Romeo and Juliette in a hopeless, dismal society from which Romeo and Juliette are desperately desiring to escape. Zitz has demonstrated his penchant for auteur filmmaking through his previous shorts Bus Stop, The Applicant, and Time’s Up. His cinematic approach often delivers a stylistically “indie” aesthetic similar to many A24 films. Unfortunately, like with many auteur indie filmmakers, the character development and plot often suffer. While the plot is weak and asks far too much of the audience, the strength of this short is in the cinematography and production design. There are many wonderful shots and sequences in this film; furthermore, Zitz showcases an innate talent for capturing the emotion of a scene. From the lighting to the camera angles, Zitz beautifully demonstrates how to create that cinematic look and feel. Each and every frame is intentionally crafted to deliver a particular mood. Story-wise, this rendition, of the most famous and tragic love story of all time, follows two star-crossed lovers in their will to escape their gritty, grim. depressing hometown. When Juliette unintentionally reveals a secret about Romeo, she seals her fate. Perhaps Romeo Kills Juliette falls short in writing, but it benefits from strong technical elements and overall aesthetic appeal. The potential of this reimagination of Romeo and Juliette is held back by lack of exposition and coherent plotting. Even when I encounter an aspiring filmmaker that shows weakness in an area or two (in this case, screenwriting), I do my best to focus on and highlight what they do well. And Zitz consistently demonstrates a love for the art of motion pictures in terms of the visual appeal. There is a refreshing, unfiltered organic nature to each and every frame in his work. So, show this aspiring filmmaker some love by watching his short today.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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My Return to the Cinema at Universal Orlando Resort!

On Friday, July 17th, I returned to the cinema! I’ve been waiting for this day since the middle of March when movie theatres closed during the COVID-19 shutdown. From the moment I learned that the theatres around me (Tampa & Orlando) would begin reopening in mid-July, I was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to once again sit in a recliner in an auditorium in front of a giant screen with surround sound to experience the magic of motion pictures as cannot be replicated, even in the very best at-home VOD experiences. The smells, the sights, the people (in their respective masks), and the energy all help to create the immersive cinematic experience that has been a staple of motion pictures since the earliest days of film distribution. And what better way to return than seeing E.T., Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and Jurassic Park over the weekend at the Universal Orlando Cinemark at CityWalk. The former two, I had never seen on the big screen before, and I never turn down an opportunity to see the latter. There is a magic to arriving at the box office to pickup your ticket, walking inside, being greeted by a smiling face and directed to your auditorium where you take a seat to watch a movie at the exact same time as other others in attendance. You will laugh together, cry together, scream, together. That “togetherness” creates an infectious energy in the room that transcends the mind and heart. Watching movies at the Universal Orlando Cinemark also provided me with the ability to watch the movies then ride them! Both E.T. and Jurassic Park are attractions at Universal Orlando (while T2-3D is a former attraction), so I could watch the movie then experience the ride! How cool is that?!? Although some of you live in areas that have not reopened movie theatres, others do live near cinemas that have reopened; and I hope this article serves as encouragement to leave the couch in your living room behind, and return to the cinema!

Friday, July 17th couldn’t come quickly enough for me. As soon as I heard that was the day that movie theatres would begin reopening, I was primed to return to the cinema to properly experience motion pictures. It’d been nearly four months to the day since I had watched a new movie. Yes, I know what you’re thinking–why not just watch “new” movies on streaming services? That’s one band wagon that I refused to climb aboard. Although I could write an entire article on just why I don’t care to watch “intended to be theatrical release” movies at home, in short and among other reasons, I am far more at ease and comfortable sitting by myself in an auditorium than I am sitting alone in my own living room. And it’s not just the temptation to look at my phone or have my MacBook close by. Watching “theatrical” first run movies on VOD at home lacks the experiential factor that comes along with theatrical movies, not to mention the lack of structure at home. Also the sheer number of films to choose from can be quite daunting; I prefer knowing that there are 1-3 new movies coming out most Thursday nights. When I wasn’t attending press screenings, I would watch whatever was new on Thursday evenings. VOD doesn’t offer that. With the VOD platform, there are dozens of titles that release weekly. It’s overwhelming. Plus, after-movie conversations with the staff at the movie theatre or friends are so much fun! Watching at home deprives us of the opportunity to share in discussions and heated debates over what we just watched together for the first time.

This article is about my experience at the cinema; but in case you’re wondering, Universal Orlando Resort has been a model company in our post-shutdown economy and world. Disney World: we are going to open in July; Universal Orlando: hold my beerand we’ll do it better. From the passholder days on June 3-4 (to which ALL UOAPs were able to attend) to today, Universal is keeping guests safe whilst delivering the magic and opening up the gateway to epic adventures. Even before you get to CityWalk, all Guests and Team Members undergo temperature checks. And yes, Team Members and Guests were wearing masks and following social distancing markers. So any reports to the contrary, are grossly exaggerated. Take it from me, I have literally been there ten times since the reopening, so I’ve seen the park on multiple days. That same attention to health and safety in the theme park was carried directly over to Universal’s movie theatre partner Cinemark.

Much like Universal, Cinemark was on their A-game from box office to exit. When I bought my ticket to E.T., I was able to see on the seat selection monitor just how the company was implementing social distancing. Every row was divided up into two-seat sections. After every two available seats, there were two empty seats. And with the theatre using big recliners, that put six-ish feet between parties. Yes, that means that if you’re a party of three or more, that you cannot sit immediately together. However, if you are a larger travel party, you can purchase tickets together early, and seats will be blocked off on either side of your travel party. The concession stand had social distancing markers in place, and even turned-off every other Freestyle Coke machine. But the Coke machines weren’t the only things that were intentionally turned off to promote social distancing; even the restrooms were setup to accommodate the “six-foot rule.” In the men’s room, every other stall was cordoned off. Of course, what funny is that most guys know that you never take the urinal stall directly next to another guy. So, I thought that was kind of humorous.

Inside the auditorium, I observed that all guests were wearing masks except when eating or drinking. Now, before you get your feathers all ruffled, just like restaurants permit dine-in guests to remove masks when eating, then movie theatres should NOT be thought of any differently. And I’ve also heard the “what about the ventilation system” argument why theatres shouldn’t reopen. If we do not expect Target, the supermarket, schools, places of business, libraries, and gas stations to turn off their environmental systems (and some of those are places that you spend extended amounts of time at, especially if you are still reporting into an office or store for work), then movie theatres should NOT be held to a different standard. Upon leaving the movie, I observed (what appeared to be).a third party cleaning company that was preparing to go inside and clean the auditorium for the next showing. Clearly, Cinemark and Universal have thought through how to maintain a safe environment for all guests and staff. As John Hammond would put it, “sparred no expense.”

The first movie I chose to watch on my return was E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. This is a movie that is particularly dear to my heart because it inspired one of only two remaining opening-day attractions left at Universal Studios Florida (the other being the Horror Makeup Show). I adore the movie, but it’s the attraction that gives it a special place in my heart. Whenever I ride it, I am reminded of my family, and in particular my sister since she comes down to Florida to visit me a few times a year, and we always go to Universal together. When I am riding that bicycle through the forest and through the Green Planet, I feel that my sister is next to me saying “I’ll. Be. Right Here.” Watching this timeless classic on the big screen for the very first time was a breathtaking experience. I cried so many times during the movie, and yes I laughed too. It was like watching it for the very first time, period. I’d like to say it took me back to seeing it in theatres as a kid, but this came out before i was born. Compared to watching it on TV at home, this was a totally different experience that immersed me in the world of the movie. For the runtime, I could shut out the chaos and confusion of the world in which we presently live, and get lost in this cinematic fantasy that has delighted audiences for nearly four decades.

After I watched the movie, I went to visit a friend of mine working in Islands of Adventure before heading back to Universal Studios to ride the E.T. Adventure, then take in the new Bourne Stuntacular show that is in the former T2:3D show building. Although I had seen the show during it’s opening weekend, I wanted to go back to the former home of the T2 attraction before watching T2: Judgement Day on the big screen for the first time! So after returning ET to the Green Planet and following Jason Bourne, I went back to the Cinemark to watch Terminator 2: Judgement Day. And WOW! That film still holds up incredibly well. more than twenty-five years later, and that movie still delivers the spectacular in spades. Yes, even the old CGI effects still look killer (well, most of them anyway). The picture, the sound, everything transported you from that auditorium to the streets of LA along side John, Sarah, and Arnold. Words cannot capture the magic of the moment of sitting there, watching another timeless motion picture on the big screen.

The next day, I met up with the Always the Critic podcast to watch Jurassic Park together! Since there were four of us, we couldn’t all sit together, but we were all able to watch the movie together, and that’s the most important element. Now, Jurassic Park is a film that I did get to see in theatres in 1993 and upon re-release in 2013, 2015 (leading up to Jurassic World), and in 2018, so this was not as mindblowing as the former two; however, it is my favorite movie of all time and I never miss a chance to see it on the big screen. Having the opportunity to watch it with new pod-friends was an experience that will long be remembered. It was so much fun when we all go together immediately following the movie to talk about how amazing it was to see on the big screen surrounded by incredibly sound technology. We even commented on how we jump at certain parts even though we know that they are coming up. Something about seeing it in a movie theatre with other people that still makes you jump and react much in the same way you may have done when you did see it for the first time.

There are other movies that I plan to see on the big screen such as Jaws, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, select Harry Potter films, and more. I hope that this idea of running old and new classic movies continues into the Halloween season so we could get screenings of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, Halloween, Friday the 13th, SCREAM, Misery, Carrie, The Shining, and so many others! Perhaps this is how cinemas will reimagine their business model. In addition to the new movies that will eventually be released in theatres, they will continue to show motion pictures that have contributed significantly to the human experience over the decades.

Should you choose to attend your local cinema, make sure they are following local, state, and federal guidelines and ordinances. Many movie theatres will require masks even if local government bodies do not, and that’s okay. I don’t like wearing one when I go out, but I wear one without complaint because I want to be cooperative and responsible. If your cinema is taking the recommended CDC and DOH precautions, then return with confidence that your health and safety are priorities for your cinema. You will probably see the theatre staff happier than ever because they (1) have their jobs back and (2) are incredibly thrilled to welcome you once again to the movies. By returning to the cinema, this will provide the empirical data necessary for distribution companies to justify releasing new movies in theatres once again. Without butts in seats, it makes it difficult to make a decision to release a movie theatrically. Your return to the cinema will do your mind and body good, it will help to bring back jobs, pump money into the economy, keep the cinematic experience alive for generations to come, and bring a smile to your face.

There are inherent risks with life; everyday we get out of bed, there are risks. Yet, we still get up and go about our day. You don’t allow the possibility of a car accident to stop you from driving, so don’t allow the possibility of contact with COVID-19 to stop you from living your best life ever. Do your best not to treat your return to the cinema (or theme parks) any differently. Now, don’t be selfishly reckless either; follow the guidelines and ordinances for your state or city without complaint. Wear your mask, if asked to do so (which is probably all movie theatres and theme parks right now), maintain the 6ft rule as reasonably possible, and above all, exhibit a positive, optimistic attitude in order to continue to build the general level of confidence that we will not live in fear but take the necessary precautions to promote health and safety for all. So, it is plain to see that movie theatres CAN and WILL intentionally make accommodations and implement precautions to promote health and safety to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. I never once felt unsafe at any point in my return to the cinema. Return to your cinema this weekend!

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Sinister Summer 2020 “I know What You Did Last Summer” Retrospective

Keep your eyes on the road or else you may find yourself running from a meathook-handed serial killer. It’s been 24 years since I Know What You Did Last Summer convinced us to pay attention to the roadway at night after our July 4th celebrations; interestingly, this is consistently one of those 90s horror movies that is either loved or despised. Won’t find much middle ground here. Personally, this ranks highly for me when talking 90s horror. While this movie has not seen the legacy and timeless influence that SCREAM has, there is still a lot to like if you are a slasher fan or simply enjoy the excellent chemistry in our lead ensemble cast in this incredibly fun slasher. For instance, we would not have Scary Movie if it wasn’t for I Know and Scream, we may not have the Hash Slinging Slasher from Spongebob Square Pants. Sure, if you think too much about the plot, it falls apart, but isn’t that the case with many slashers? Everything from the twists and turns, to the suspense, to the red herrings, a murderer screaming “you’ve got no place to hide,” not to mention the classic horror score, deliver a movie that is fun to watch, highly entertaining, and even rewatchable.

Last summer, a group of four partying teenagers accidentally strike a fisherman in the middle of the road. But instead of alerting the police, they dump his body in the ocean to cover up their crime as they all go their separate ways after high school. This summer, one of the friends receives a letter confronting them with the crime—I know what you did last summer. While tracking down the author of the letter, one of the secret-sharing group of friends is ironically run over by a man with a meat hook. The terror only increases from there, as the killer with the hook continues to stalk the rest of the friends.

While many horror movies take place around Halloween, other holidays have their own share including Black Christmas, My Bloody Valentine, and even the 4th of July, which brings us to day’s Sinister Summer selection! While I love to watch Jaws every July 4th, I also enjoy rewatching, the quintessential 90’s slasher I Know What You Did Last Summer. Written by Scream co-writer Kevin Williamson, directed by Jim Gillespie, starring a then-allstar cast including: Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Junior, and Ryan Phillippe. Despite the R-rating, the violence is quite minimal in this movie, and that’s what I want to highlight here. One of the most telltale elements of most 80s/90s slashers is the entertaining, explicit, and even campy gore! Surprisingly, you won’t find a prolific amount of gore and violence in I Know but the implied violence works very well to drive up the tension and suspense as we try to solve the mystery of the identity of the hook-handed slasher before all the friends meet their demise.

While some horror movies are just plain scary, this one provides audiences with a story that is worth investing time and interest. There’s nothing supernatural about the scares in this movie, there’s nothing particularly grotesque either, and the atmosphere is not inordinately creepy or ominous. The real horror in I Know is not the meat-hooked slasher, but the helplessness of our central characters. Moreover, each of them feels completely helpless as they desperately try to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it. It’s one part serial killer and one part mystery. There is a ticking timebomb plot device employed in this movie, which translates to a race against the clock at the night of the 4th of July approaches. One by one, the slasher dressed in a rainslicker and fishing hat is picking off our high school friends as the anniversary of the inciting incident comes to pass. Often this movie gets compared to Scream and found to be wanting; however, this is an unfair comparison because there isn’t any movie (especially from this decade) that will be as good as Scream. Some people forget that Williamson wrote both Scream and IKWYDLS. But if this movie is looked at of its own accord and not in comparison with the decade-defining Scream, then it is able to be recognized as the classic that it actually is.

Believe it or not, there is a hidden strength in the story that rarely gets talked about. It’s a great psycho-social commentary on perception as reality and the cognitive elopement of a young adult. Moreover, I Know’s real genius is in how it confronts each of the lead cast with questions that all of us ask ourselves. It functions very well as a study of every individual teen’s mental state. Just like the characters in the movie, we (the audience) are wondering exactly who can be trusted. The central themes in this movie center in and around concepts such as: if you make a mistake, you should own up to it or else it will grow to haunt you; you will never forget a grave mistake you made, and should instead confess it; and if you now the right then to do, then you should do it. In summary, each of these posited ideas can be traced back to varying degrees of self-centeredness. Knowing who to trust, self-centeredness, and whether to stand up and fight or flee are all ideas that are such a part of growing up during the transition from teenager to young adult. Fortunately, this movie does a brilliant job of exploring these ideas through the vessel of a slasher. Whether in this movie or in real life, if you do not address your past, it will most certainly come back to haunt you. There is also a clear message of not driving while intoxicated; again, something that some young people struggle with and most assuredly encounter or perhaps are tempted to do.

It really doesn’t get anymore 90s than this movie. And perhaps that contributes to why it is looked at with more disdain than with fondness. While Scream takes place in the mid-90s, Williamson’s script and Wes Craven’s direction give it a timelessness that works even 24 years later. From the costume designs to soundtrack to the teenage angst, there is so much mid-90s in this movie. And unfortunately, much of that does not hold up; however, this movie should be seen as a product of its time. I mean, if for no other reason, we ALL know what you did last summer because it’s all over your social media. No longer does that accusation hold much threat.

Before you dismiss all of the plot and design elements and dialogue as unable to transcend the decades, I want to highlight a few elements that do. One of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s lines about her boyfriend Ray delivered while they are on the beach at night, “we can’t all sit in a Village coffee house and ramble esoterically on a laptop” could have very well come from a more recent slasher movie. The movie’s even ahead of its time in regards to the present socio-political climate in which we find ourselves, [referring to the slasher’s weapon] “the hook is really a phallic symbol, ultimately castrated.” And who doesn’t love the flagship, quotable line of “what are you waiting for, huh, what are you waiting for???” This line worked great then, and continues to hold up almost as well as “do you like scary movies?” Williamson certainly knows how to pen a line of dialogue that completely defines the movie.

When on one hand, it should be easy to dismiss this movie as a Scream ripoff, the movie saves itself from being completely dismissed because it knew precisely what it was, and unapologetically rocked it.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in the Tampa area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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Sinister Summer 2020 – SCREAM

“Do you like scary movies?” Master of horror Wes Craven redefined the boundaries of horror with what many argue is the definitive example of meta horror SCREAM. Although I argue in my Sinister Summer 2019 article that Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was the first to explore the idea of meta horror, there is no doubt that SCREAM is the more popular and truly more meta film. One that not only comments on itself, but on the slasher genre specifically. With the recently greenlit SCR5AM sequel, I thought it would be fun to start out my Sinister Summer 2020 series with the OG! Scream is among my favorite horror properties because you can tell that Wes Craven simply loves the genre and finding new paths to original stories. There are plenty of reasons to love SCREAM. If, for no other reason, it boasts the most brilliant and shocking opening in–not only horror movies–but movies in general. Craven took what Hitch pioneered in Psycho, and amped up the speed at which a popular actress is killed. Whereas Marion Crane was killed off within the first act. Craven kills off American darling Drew Barrymore in the prologue of the film! Still to this day, the opening scene in SCREAM is still the most terrifying opening ever. By killing off Drew Barrymore at the beginning, this communicated to the audience that all bets are off. With the general public, let alone horror fans, becoming all too knowledgable of the rules of horror films thus possessing the ability to predict the outcome and plot turning points, Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven crafted a horror film that changes the rules by using them as a plot device to completely deconstruct the American horror slasher film genre.

But more than a satirical horror film, this film is equally scary. Whereas Scary Movie (the original title to Scream) would do similar things but through parody, slapstick and dark comedy, SCREAM maintains a serious tone throughout the film and never falls into parody. This serious approach is one of the reasons why this innovative film performed incredibly well then and still holds up today. Highly entertaining! This film holds your attention from beginning to end through an incredibly well-developed plot, complex characters, and conflict driven by the actions of the characters. This plot is simple–brilliant–but simple. By relying upon the characters to carry the story, the movie contains more subtext and substance than many others. When you have a character-driven plot, you need solid actors to bring it to life. And all the performances by the principal characters are absolutely perfect for the film. Everyone is so committed to their respective characters. Like bookends, the ending and beginning answer one another.Just as shockingly intense the opening scene is, the climax of the film is surprisingly noteworthy as well, and threw audiences for a loop as it abandons more conventional endings.

As you may know, Drew Barrymore was offered the role of Sidney Prescott. And this was in the mid 90s at the height of Barrymore’s star power. By her taking on the role of the lead character, her name would draw in even more people than would already be excited to see another Craven horror film. After reading the script, Barrymore suggested that she play the role of the opening death. She predicted many people would believe she would survive until the end, and audiences would be shocked by her character’s early demise. And you now what, she was right AND made horror history! Placing Barrymore prominently on the front of the poster, the studio featured her heavily in the various promotional campaigns, leading audiences to believe that Barrymore was the lead in the film. This marketing technique, taken right from the Psycho handbook, reinforced the twists and turns that SCREAM would deliver throughout the film. After that opening scene, audiences knew that all bets were off and that no one–not even American darling Drew Barrymore was safe.

Not only was SCREAM a pivotal horror film that redefined the versatility of the genre, but Sidney stepped into the shoes of all the legendary final girls before her, and took the role in a new direction that cemented her in with the likes of Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, and others. Unlike other Craven final girls, she stands as the only one to survive a Wes Craven franchise. Yes, Nancy is brought back in New Nightmare but she is killed off in Dream Warriors. While the final girl conventions had been well-defined up to this point, Wes Craven used the character of Sidney as a conduit for the audience since the rules of slasher horror were all too cliche at this stage in the evolution of the American horror film.

Much like with past final girls, Sidney is resilient, resourceful, sensible, and has an uncanny survivor’s reflex that is so incredibly well developed that she can simultaneously manage life’s complications and death with demonstrable hyper-focus. Furthermore, Neve Campbell’s Sidney was a powerful character for women because she demonstrated strength amidst adversity and responsibility when faced with difficult decisions. However, Sidney is not always the “good girl.” One of the longtime tropes of a final girl is one whom is chaste, but Sidney has had sex with her boyfriend prior to her mother’s brutal murder; however, she chooses when and only when she is good and ready, and when she isn’t dealing with the demons of her past or the serial killer of the present. Much like in the vein of Nancy Thompson, Sidney’s ability to outwit and survive Ghostface is based upon her cunning, not how “good” she is. She is ready and willing it fight for her life, and will stop at nothing until she rescues herself. 

Prior to SCREAM, slashers rarely targeted a single victim. For example, Laurie Strode happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in Halloween, the same can be said for Alice in Friday the 13th. Less so with Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street where Freddy eventually targets Nancy because she discovers his vulnerability. Even different from how Nancy was eventually targeted, Sidney was the sole focus of Ghostface from the very beginning. This target on Sidney means that killing her is the singular focus of Ghostface; and like Sidney’s internal need to survive, Ghostface will stop at nothing until Sidney is dead. But because Ghostface (Billy and Stu) has a flare for the theatrical, he torments, manipulates, and singles her out until Sidney finally fights back in that climactic third act where she turns the tables on Ghostface by using his own tools and knowledge against him. From using his own voice modulator on strategically creepy phone calls to using his own costume to frighten him, Sidney makes intentional decisions that greatly effect the balance of power. While Ghostface holds significant power in the beginning, Sidney erodes that power and takes it for herself.  She proves that she has an even greater understanding of horror movies than Ghostface himself, or perhaps the versatility of the rules. Eventually audiences witness Last House on the Left levels of revenge. Interesting because Last House on the Left is Wes Craven’s breakout writing-directing project and redefined the genre with its sexploitation revenge plot.

While a lot of the attention paid to Sidney involves her relationship and confrontation with Ghostface, she is the conduit through which we explore the power dynamic in romantic relationships as well. And the fact that her boyfriend is also her tormenter, offers bountiful material to explore. In many ways, the relationship between Billy/Sidney and Ghostface/Sidney parallels one another. Ghostface wants to penetrate Sidney with his knife, but she refuses to give up on resisting; likewise, Billy desires to penetrate Sidney with his own weapon but she withholds until she has worked through her personal demons. Billy attempts to make Sidney feel guilty for not engaging in her “girlfriendly” duties, as a misogynist such as Billy would put it; likewise, Ghostface tries his best to make Sidney feel guilty for the death of her mother. These parallels are why Sidney defeating Billy/Ghostface is so important and meaningful. Not only does she kill the demons that are presently haunting her, this defeat also allows Sidney to finally close the book on the demons of her past trauma.

There is more to a great slasher that the final girl and villain; those elements alone do not a classic make. Although there were many fantastic horror films in the 1990s, I argue that SCREAM is THE decade defining horror film. Other significant contributions to 90s slasher horror are I Know What You Did Last Summer, Halloween H20, and The Faculty. Because of how well it holds up, it’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly twenty-five years since SCREAM began terrifying audiences around the globe. With witty dialogue, twisted plot lines, and pop culture references, SCREAM has earned its tenure amongst other classic horror motion pictures. The strength of SCREAM is in the screenplay by Kevin Williamson brought to life by the brilliant Craven direction. In any film, the screenplay is responsible for the very framework of the film. More than a map between the beginning and end, the screenplay dramatizes conflict and manifests ideas in either a linear or nonlinear storytelling structure. Think about it: a screenwriter is the very first person to see a movie–even before the director. He or she knows this cinematic story inside and out. And it’s the challenge of the screenwriter to take the cinematic vision from his or her mind, and translate it for the screen in an effective method for crafting an emotional and psychological connection between the audience and characters.

Screenplays are responsible for crafting a compelling narrative out of otherwise disconnected ideas, simple plots, or premises. This is where the very foundation of a motion picture lies. Without a well-crafted screenplay written by a writer who cares, the characters lack motivation, there is little cause & effect or meaning to the plot devices. The words of a thoughtful screenplay form visual statements that allow for the motion picture to be supported by subtext or purpose. One of the most important elements in a screenplay that so often gets overlooked is the task of creating a cast of extremely likable and realistic characters that the audience instantly becomes invested in. Kevin Williamson’s SCREAM screenplay offers audiences an exciting film with ample twists & turns, with an almost whodunit quality about it. As mentioned earlier in the article, SCREAM is one of the first horror films to approach horror from a meta perspective. The film takes a self-referential look at horror cinema by poking fun at the clichés for which the genre is well-known while simultaneously playing into almost every single one of them. But the film never patronizes its audience nor acts as if the audience is not in on the joke.

Often imitated, but never replicated, SCREAM is a pivotal horror film that pushed the boundaries of the horror genre and cinema at large. It represents the third time that Wes Craven was instrumental in redefining the genre: the first time was Last House on the Left then A Nightmare on Elm Street and lastly SCREAM. More than any other director, Craven has been the most pioneering in the genre. While he may have more box office flops than successes on his filmography, his films consistently sought to be trailblazers. In terms of studio history, he quite literally saved New Line Cinema from closing when he wrote and directed A Nightmare on Elm Street. And one could even say that Craven saved the slasher genre from extinction with SCREAM.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in the Tampa area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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Twitter: RLTerry1