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. 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 movie. 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. 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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Sinister Summer: Wes Craven’s “New Nightmare”

Before “meta horror” became commonplace, to the point that the once innovative concept has become all too cliche, Wes Craven wrote and directed his triumphant return to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (although, he did co-write Dream Warriors). Made, not only for horror fans but also for general horror audiences, New Nightmare is a horror film within a horror film that successfully dances the line between reality and fantasy. One can easily liken that to the very character of Freddy Krueger who exists in our dreams but can inflect real pain. A fascinating parallel! Craven’s revolutionary approach to one of the most iconic franchises in horror history begs the question asked of horror filmmakers whether the effects of the diegesis on screen cross over into the real world, affecting the actions and thoughts of people who love to watch horror films. Beyond the meta nature of the plot of New Nightmare, there is also a self-reflexive element to the plot because the story, lore, and movies of Freddy loops back on itself by confronting the creators of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Wes, Robert “Bob” Shaye, Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, and even future horror star Lin Shaye (Robert Shaye’s sister) are all playing themselves, and even referencing the Nightmare movies in the same way we do. Heather even references all the movies in the franchise, not just the one’s she’s in.

While other franchises force a reboot or revival in order to bring back an iconic horror icon–by way of just chalking the return up to being a superhuman, resurrected, or supernatural with little to no reasoning–New Nightmare provides evidence (albeit supernatural) for why more Freddy films need to be made. Therefore, Freddy will appear in one more movie (two more, if you count this one). One more, because we do not count the 2010 remake (it does not exist). While few will dispute that the original A Nightmare on Elm Street is the best, it is quite possible that this self-reflexive entry is the second best. During graduate school, when studying horror films, I used Carol Clover’s pleasurable unpleasure and Freud’s uncanny often when exploring the subtext and themes of horror. Both of these theoretical approaches to reading and understanding horror films are clearly visible in this brilliant story. We get pleasure out of and attracted to that which should repulse us. Therefore, we do not want Freddy to be dead. In many ways, we need Freddy to live, and New Nightmare brings Freddy back for an encore in the present story and Freddy vs Jason. Of course, we’ve had the first appearance of Robert Englund as Freddy in last year’s Halloween episode of The Goldbergs and there is massive social media support for Englund to play Freddy one last time.

It had been ten years since Freddy made his debut in cinemas worldwide! The once near-bankrupt New Line Cinema rose up from the ashes to become a powerhouse of films and distribution. While the first three Nightmare on Elm Street movies are solidly horror, the franchise took a different route than Halloween or Friday the 13th by relying upon comedy to the point that the franchise became a parody of itself. The worst offender being Freddy’s Dead. We watch them because we love Englund as the iconic horror villain, but the movie’s plot and other characters were complete garbage. Fun garbage, but garbage nevertheless. With the downward trajectory of the franchise heading to “direct to TV or DVD” territory, why make another Freddy movie? Simply stated, Bob Shaye said “because the public wants it.” This line is from a Shaye cameo in New Nightmare, referencing the Nightmare movie that is being produced within the film we are watching, but is also very much why New Nightmare was made. Although I have no empirical data to back up this statement, I imagine that Freddy has more fans than Jason or Michael. From his self-deprecating humor, memorable one-liners, and creative kills (despite a low body count), he has found his way into our cinemas, homes, and dreams.

New Nightmare represents a return to true horror for the franchise. Not that Freddy doesn’t have some funny lines, but the focus of the film is on the horror of Freddy manifesting in the real world. Under the direction and writing of the brilliant Wes Craven, the Nightmare franchise was about to get a heaping helping of genuine horror infused back into the series. The strength of this movie is in the script and direction that was about to take horror to new frontiers by pioneering the largely untapped sub-genre of meta-horror. Whereas Craven’s Scream is the definitive meta-horror, he used New Nightmare as the training ground. Therefore, we can consider New Nightmare as the proto-meta-horror film. Upon a close reading of New Nightmare, the groundwork can be witnessed that would support what would become Scream. In addition to exploring a new sub-genre, this film delivers the horrifying, murderous, Freddy that we were first introduced to in 1984 instead of the sinister clown that he became in Freddy’s Dead. Once again, he becomes the centerpiece, only this time his claws are sharper and he’s been given a more sinister makeover. None of this could come together if Englund wasn’t reprising his iconic role. But instead of more blood, Freddy and Craven deliver quality scares, kills, and drama versus shallow kill after kill gore fests.

The central question in this film is: where does the line between fantasy and reality lie? Moreover, is it a dark, bold line or it is one that is blurred or delineated? The first movie was inspired by the series of real articles in the Los Angeles Times that chronicled people who claimed to have been nearly scared to death in their nightmares, but then they actually died. This film takes the idea of a dream-like killer to the next level by using the past Freddy movies as a springboard, as a source of energy for the idea of Freddy to cross over into our reality. What’s crazy is that we have witnessed this IN real life. Here’s a great example: in Se7en, the film never actually shows Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in the famous box; however, countless people report to have seen her head in the box. It is an idea that is so largely collectively shared that it becomes part of our reality. So, Craven is taking that same idea and applying it to A Nightmare on Elm Street. The fascination I have with this particular installment in the franchise is just how brilliantly Craven dances that line between fantasy and reality; he does it in such a way that it comments on our fascination with horror movies. Much like Craven’s line I referenced earlier is both about the movie within the movie and about us (the audience), Heather Langenkamp questions “don’t you people ever think about the effect your movies have on the people who watch them? A question for (1) Craven and (2) Shaye in the film and (3) by extension, a question to us (the audience). Deep, right?

The concept of Freddy crossing over from the screen to our world is a fascinating approach to take in this film that laid the groundwork for Craven to forever change the landscape of the American horror film just two years later in Scream. Craven’s masterful grasp of horror storytelling is highlighted in his speeches within the film. Furthermore, his years as a humanities professor certainly provided a critical lens through which he analyzed what makes horror special. There are few other writers/directors who understand the genre as well as Craven did. I absolutely love the idea Craven posits in the film that when a horror story dies that an evil force is released upon the world because it needs to live somewhere. And if not in its story, in our world. A terrifying prospect. Furthermore, once can extrapolate from Craven’s monologues in the film that we need horror films to contain as much of the evil in the world as possible. These films keep nightmares from consuming us in real life. He urges us to keep these stories alive because they are how we work through so many of life’s perils, traumas, and conflicts that tap into our most primal fears.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting 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!

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Sinister Summer: “The Exorcist” Retrospective Review

Pea soup anyone? Not only one of the most profitable horror films of all time, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains timeless. Celebrating its 45th anniversary last year, this truly is the definitive possession horror film. Thematically, it takes the concept of the external “monster” and moves it into the mind and body (of a little girl). In many ways, Linda Blair’s Regan takes the psycho-social horror of Psycho and combines it with a classic monster and adds in a Rosemary’s Baby spin. This trifecta of excellence works together in order to provide the plot and characters of The Exorcist with substance. Much like Psycho was the first modern horror film and proto-slasher, The Exorcist is widely regarded as the first modern possession film. There are elements of possession in Rosemary’s Baby, but I don’t technically consider it a possession film. This film also takes the idea of the “home invasion” to the next level by having the innocent Regan’s body invaded. There are many past horror films that were once viewed as terrifying, but over the course of time, do not evoke the same degree of fear in contemporary times; however, this is a film that remains nightmare-inducing for many who are brave enough to watch it. Furthermore, adjusted for inflation, it remains among the top 10 highest grossing films of all time.

For more than 40 years, this was highest grossing horror film of all time (until 2017’s IT), this is the one that started the possession film sub genre of horror. A visiting actress (Ellen Burstyn) in Washington, D.C., notices dramatic and dangerous changes in the behavior and physical make-up of her 12-year-old daughter 9Linda Blair). Meanwhile, a young priest (Jason Miller) at nearby Georgetown University begins to doubt his faith while dealing with his mother’s terminal sickness. When the little girl begins to spiral violently out of control, lashing out at her mother and everyone in the Georgetown manner, and even levitating, her worried mother seeks medical help, only to hit a dead end. The young priest, however, thinks the girl may be possessed by a demon. The priest makes a request to perform an exorcism, and the church sends in an expert (Max von Sydow) to help with the difficult job.

While many films prior to The Exorcist depicted the occult, few (if any) have endured like this icon of horror has. Perhaps what frightens us most about this film is the fact of how close to home it hits. The MacNeil family could be our own or our neighbors. By default, the very setting and atmosphere of the film is relatable and realistic. There is a high degree of vulnerability on display. Not only can our homes be invaded, but our bodies can too. Whereas some may only see the effects of the demonic possession and focus on them (the vomiting, masochistic behaviors, or focussed vulgar profanity), these are all incidental. The point of The Exorcist is to provide social commentary on dehumanization and how evil forces and behaviors can affect us in such a way that we feel like animals unworthy of God’s love. But no matter how dark times get, redemption is possible. Whereas demonic possessions are not a daily part of our lives, by extension, this can be explored as a metaphor for the dehumanization witnessed today such as sexual assault, physical/emotional abuse, and other ways in which people are devalued.

There are few films that I would say this about–The Exorcist is a perfect film. Other examples are AlienPsycho, Sunset Boulevard, and The Shining. Compared to the schlock-fest horror movies that we often get today (until more recently with films such as Hereditary, Midsommar, and Us), this is a beautiful, bold work of cinema that pushed the envelop then, and even pushes the boundaries by today’s standards. There is a sense of prestige about this film; and not just a classy for the sake of pretense–there is a sense of purpose in this motion picture. Do all horror films need to mean something deep or provocative? Certainly not. Some have the purpose to simply entertain, frighten us, or even make us laugh. But The Exorcist is a special horror film in that there is immense depth to the story that takes us to incredibly dark places–to the point of no return if you will. Then in a brilliant fashion, turns it into a story of sacrifice and redemption. Not only was this one of the most frightening movies of all time when it was release din 1973–commonplace as possession movies may seem now–this was groundbreaking back then, it was also nominated for multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture! This was the first time that a horror film had ever been nominated for this most prestigious award. Furthermore, there are few other films that come with such an infamous status inspiring legends, curses, and more. Much like with Poltergeist, this film has also spawned macabre rumors. Everything about this film: direction, screenwriting, cinematography, cast, set design, score, and the editing work flawlessly to combine to become one of the greatest films ever made.

In screenwriting, there are two types of plots: action-driven and character-driven. That isn’t to suggest that an action movies don’t have great characters (Die Hard certainly has great characters) nor does a character movie lack gripping action (Nightcrawler has great action sequences), but the principle focus is on one or the other. Look to see wherefrom the conflict is derived. In a character-driven film, the conflict is derived primarily from characters, whereas in an action-driven movie, the conflict is primarily derived from the action. The characters of The Exorcist are utterly fascinating and relatable. We might remember Regan the most from the movie, but the other lead and supporting characters are also incredibly interesting. Part of the reason why this film resonates with us so, and is the material of nightmares, is because of how realistic it is, despite the supernatural element; this realism is brought to life by the incomparable performances. There is so much more to this movie besides the spinning head, spiderwalk (in the director’s cut), and the famous pea soup scene. Those scenes, and others, contribute to the overall experience of the film, but it’s the character-driven conflict and relationships that keep us coming back. Not only do we come back to the film over and over for the character, but we were able to experience memorable scenes and action sequences for ourselves at Halloween Horror Nights 26 at Universal Orlando.

Before we talk about the most famous character from the film Regan, let’s analyze the other two leads and chief supporting character: Regan’s mom Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), the young priest Damian Karras (Jason Miller), and the exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow). Both Burstyn and Miller were nominated for Academy Awards for their respective performances.

Chris MacNeil is first and foremost a mother, but her acting career is also important to her. But when her daughter needs her, she is willing to put her career to the side to go to great lengths to help her. Beyond her role as a mother, she represents a person whom does not have faith in God. She is also faced with the life crisis of growing frustrated with her divorce and career as a mainstream actress. Father Karras is a highly educated man of faith, but his faith is strained because of his mom’s illness and death, causing a crisis. He is struggling with what many of us struggle with: if God is love, then why do bad things happen to good people? Furthermore, he represents the qualities of self-sacrifice and redemption, as well as personifies the empathy of psychiatry and a pragmatic priesthood. By extension, Father Karras can also be read as someone whom exemplifies that “science” and “faith” are not independent of nor negate one another. Lastly, Father Merrin is not only the very silhouetted image that is engrained in your mind when you think of this movie, but he is the inverse of Father Karras in that–whereas Karras is a pragmatic priest, Father Merrin is a zealous priest. Because Merrin was unable to defeat the demon Pazuzu (the one that possesses Regan), he is faced with his own redemption story. He is also going through the life crisis of failing health.

All three adults are each faced with their own respective crises that are explored through the possession of this little girl whom is also facing her own biological life crisis of puberty. Without knowing much about any of these characters during the first act of the film, we know that each one is vulnerable and doubts their own abilities and the direction they are going in life.

Central to The Exorcist is Regan (played by Linda Blair). Regan is both our central character and our character of opposition. Technically the character of opposition is Pazuzu, but the demon is manifested in Regan. Much like with her adult counterparts, Regan is also facing a crisis. She is experiencing what every young person goes through (to a greater physiological extent, girls)–puberty. As we know, at that stage in life, the human body undergoes what can be equated to psychological and physiological trauma. This trauma is manifested in the behaviors that we witness on screen from Regan’s explicit language and masochistic sexual assault. Regan can also be read as a home that has been invaded by an external monster, but this monster has not only defiled a home but has gone further, and more intimate to defile an innocent girl. Essentially, we’ve taken the idea of the external monster and placed it in the mind and body to exponentially increase the level of trauma and terror. Through another lens, we can witness the conflict that exists between parents and adolescents in which parents may view their kid(s) as a monster that has taken over the previously agreeable, obedient child, and how both parties must work through the conflict in order to emerge healthier and closer.

From page to screen, the cinematic excellent continues. The Exorcist is full of nightmare-inducing special effects that stick with you for the rest of your life. Not only does the very image of the transformation terrify the eyes of the audience, the minds of the audience are also confronted with the frightening realization of what the demon is doing to Regan’s body. From swearing at the central characters every chance it gets to displaying severe traumatizing masochistic behavior, the brutality is intense as you have sympathy for this young girl that you established a connection with from the beginning of the movie. One of the elements that I find particularly interesting, given the extent to which special effects are used, is just how real the movie feels. The supernatural elements of the story could have very easily pushed the film into the unbelievable category (like many others), but William Friedkin’s cinematic masterpiece stays grounded in reality. Looking to the characters themselves, the performances are so genuine that you feel that you are going through the very same crises that are on display. For those whom believe possession is real, it hits scarily close to home; and for those whom are skeptical, it is an equally terrifying possibility.

The showdown and realization of the film are just as deep as the first and second acts by playing around with the externalization of that which was internalized and the physical and mental journeys of the characters. Not only is duality and possession shown through the context of demon possession, but the film also comments that internalized physical and psychological trauma can be a powerful force that ostensibly takes control on ones body. And that is another reason why it still terrifies audiences to this day.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting 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!

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Sinister Summer: “The Birds” Retrospective Review

“You’ll never look at birds the same way again” (Jurassic Park). Although Dr. Grant was referring to velociraptors, you can say the very same thing about Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature length films, only two of which are horror (Psycho and The Birds). However, he is widely credited, and rightly so, as the director who ushered in the modern horror film, with Psycho being regarded as the first modern horror film. On the heels of the success of Psycho, a film that revolutionized so much about the movie-going experience from movie start times to “not spoiling the ending” (now where have we recently heard that???), Hitch set out to deliver another horror film at the height of his powers. But what would it be about? He turned to past collaborator Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, Hitch’s first American film. Her best-selling novella The Birds had previously been adapted for radio and stage (I’ve actually seen the stage adaptation, and incidentally I prefer the film), but Hitch decided to adapt it (loosely I might add) for the small screen. That’s right, small screen. He originally intended The Birds to be adapted for his wildly popular and successful series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But like Jordan Peele did with Us, which I am convinced started out as an idea for his Twilight Zone series, Hitch decided to take the idea from TV to the cinema! So with the decision to adapt du Maurier’s novella into a cinematic experience, Hitch made history. Not only is it one of the most famous films in cinematic history, it sowed the birdseed for all the “when nature attacks” movies to follow including Jaws and Jurassic Park. This film was also influential in John Carpenter’s The Fog and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. With the question of why did the birds attack never being answered, it leaves the events of this movie lingering in our minds as a possible reality.

To hear a conversation with me on the CineMust podcast chatting about the must-see status of The Birds and Jaws, click HERE.

When wealthy well-known socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedron) finds herself to be the brunt of a practical joke played by lawyer Mitch Brenner (Taylor) at a bird shop while searching for a gift, she decides to return the favor by buying a couple of birds and dropping them off at his apartment. Upon finding that he spends the weekends with his younger sister and mother (Jessica Tandy) north of San Francisco in the small community of Bodega Bay, she drives to the remote town in order to deliver the birds. Soon after her unannounced arrival, the birds of the town begin to act incredibly strangely. Following a seagull attacking Melanie, and Mitch’s mother discovering her neighbor dead from an apparent bird attack, the town realizes that the birds are a real threat. Eventually birds, in the thousands are attacking anyone without reason or explanation as to why this is happening. Trapped in the Brenner household, survival becomes the number one priority for not only our central characters but everyone in the town.

At the heart of The Birds is relationships. Relationships ranging from romantic to familial and then between an outsider and the natives of a close knit town. Paranoia is a common theme in this film as well. The characters and their relationships between one another are so incredibly strong and well–developed that you can ostensibly remove the birds from the equation and the movie still works. Now, it doesn’t work as a horror film, but it works as a drama. The strength of this screenplay, written by Evan Hunter, lies in the complex characters and simple plot. Although the plot is largely changed from du Maurier’s novella, the setting, character dynamics, and the idea of the home invasion are extrapolated from the source material. Outside of the terrifying element of the attacking birds, the film’s subplot is about an outsider invading a close knit community and a de facto love quadrangle between Mitch, his mother, his sister, and his ex. Essentially, Melanie upsets the normal order of the town much in the same way that the birds upset the pecking order of humans vs nature. The screenplay also delivers some outstanding tonal shifts that are seamlessly woven together. Way before the first bird attacks, The Birds begins as a screwball comedy right out of the 1930s, then changes into a soap opera, then suspense, followed by horror. Lastly, the movie takes one final tonal shift from horror to apocalyptic, complete with dead bodies, foreboding birds, and a lack of resolution. This movie has legitimately inspired the real fear of birds (ornithophobia) in how the scenes were shot and the lingering possibility that this could happen in your own town.

There is a brilliant lack of explanation of why the birds are attacking not is there any real means of escape for the townsfolk of Bodega Bay, all while chaos reigns supreme in this otherwise innocent seaside landscape. Yet, this cinematic work is a permanent resident of our sociological zeitgeist. Even those who have not seen the film are aware of its existence. And it has gone from screen to live experience at the former Universal Studios Florida attraction Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies. The reason why we don’t focus on the lack of an explanation for the birds bizarre and violent behavior is for the same reason that we don’t ask why Bruce (Jaws) is attacking people. We accept it because the film is more concerned with its theme than points of origin expositional dumps. We don’t care about why the birds are doing what they are doing–that’s part of the horror. It’s the same reason why it’s important that we don’t know too much about Michael Myers; if we knew too much about him, why he ticks, then he would cease to be the boogeyman. These birds would cease to be terrifying if there was some sort of natural or supernatural explanation. The unknown is frightening. There have been many hypotheses over the years as to what the birds represent. The most popular one is rooted in the red scare or communism. And perhaps that is true, but the real villain (character of opposition) is not the birds but the townsfolk of Bodega Bay. The birds are the personification of the mistreatment of and unwelcoming attitudes of the residents toward Melanie. In a similar fashion, the villain of Jaws is the mayor because he is the personification of the folly of man.

When the true oppositional character in a screenplay is an entity, force, or idea, that component has to be personified in a character(s) because film is a visual storytelling medium, so the outdated, nationalistic attitudes of the locals is personified in the birds. Moreover, the ornithologist in the diner stated that if birds of different species flocked together, then all hope would be lost for humanity as we couldn’t stand a chance against them. That foreboding prediction came to pass as both crows and seagulls (who do not mix together in real life) massed together and terrorized the town and its people. As the birds are the original inhabitants of Bodega Bay, the humans represent the outsiders. This symbolism is also witnessed in how the townsfolk banned together to force Melanie out of the town and in how Mitch’s mother urges him to send Melanie back to San Francisco. All through the movie, there are images and sequences of the way outsiders can be marginalized by the majority of the native inhabitants. Human civilization has long sense been guilty of stigmatizing or marginalizing outsiders. At the root of the symptoms of intolerance is fear. So, Hitchcock took that root cause of unwelcoming attitudes and mistreatment and adapted it into a timeless horror film. It holds up so well because fear is still evident in how certain groups of people treat another in our lives today. Hitchcock used a combination of blue screen and practical effect technologies to bring the terror to life. And of those two approaches, it’s mostly practical-effect driven, all the way down to the real birds that were used during the production (with proper bird trainers/wranglers).

Three scenes that I want to highlight are the birthday party, downtown attack scene, and the upstairs room at the showdown. Nowadays, these scenes would be full of CGI and other post-production work. The actors would be acting with no birds on set, or very few anyway. For authenticity, puppets, mechanical, and real birds were used for these scenes to increase the realness and give the actors something to truly be afraid of. In fact, so many real birds were used that there were multiple large bird enclosures on the set that used as the temporary home of the stars of the film. In addition to bird wranglers, the American Humane Society was on set every day to monitor the treatment of the birds. The birthday party scene was composed of rotoscoping birds, blue screen shots of birds, papier-mache birds, and birds that were tied to actors and even more birds that were freely flying within the enclosure built around the set. Although most of the birds remained in the aviary, a few got out. And to this day, there are decedents of those birds living in the rafters of that sound stage on the Universal lot. In much the same way, the students fleeing the schoolhouse and down the hill to the town center–that scene–was accomplished in very much the same way. However, with this one, the added pyrotechnics were incorporated. The iconic phonebooth was covered in birdseed and shrimp to get the birds to go completely crazy. The upstairs bedroom scene at the end of the movie was completely constructed inside a giant aviary with hundreds of birds. In addition to the birdseed and shrimp that was strewn about the room, real birds were thrown at Hedron. The terror in her eyes that you see in the scene is all too real. No amount of acting can replicate that authentic fear. Despite the very real attack of the birds, Hedron is eternally grateful to have been a part of cinematic history.

The single scene that find is the most fascinating and shows the power of Hitchcock’s innate ability to create suspense with a camera is the scene immediately preceding the schoolhouse evacuation–the scene with Melanie sitting on the park bench with the jungle gym int he background.

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!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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