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April 11, 2011

Scream Week Midnight Top Five: The "Before Scream There Was..." Edition

With Scream 4 (or Scre4m, if you're mentally disturbed and don't like grammar) due out in theaters Friday, I figured there was no better time to take a look back at the film that is undoubtedly the most popular and socially relevant horror film to come out of the 1990s.  Thus, I present FMWL's Scream Week - an entire week dedicated to that movie and the legacy it has in horror.
We all know what Scream wanted to copy - it name drops most of the films it is inspired by - but what we don't often look at are some of the films that indirectly paved the way for Wes Craven's self-referential slasher film.  I want to take a look back at some of the films that looked at horror cinema in their own ways in the days before Scream.  Here are five of my favorite (mostly) horror films about horror films, and why they're important as we look at Scream itself.

Mark of the Vampire (1935, Dir. by Tod Browning.)
If you thought remakes were a new thing, you'd probably be surprised to know that this 76 year old film is actually a remake of the director's own (no-longer-in-existence) 1927 classic London After Midnight.  (Sure, I have no way of knowing that this lost film is a classic, but...duh people!  It is.)  In the film, a murder where a father and daughter team of "vampires" - played by the legendary Bela Lugosi and the haunting Carroll Borland (pictured below) - are the main suspects is investigated, and a wise Professor/Vampire Expert - played by Lionel Barrymore - is called in to investigate.  The film is a relatively modest story that lacks punch and is a bit dated - Browning had little ability to block studio interference after his now iconic film Freaks flopped at the box office - but it features a few haunting visuals and, most importantly to this article, a one of a kind twist that set the tone for future films.

Of course, to tell you what that means, I have to use some of those dreaded SPOILERS - so read the next paragraph at your own risk!

The trick of the film - which is revealed in future Scooby Doo fashion in the final minutes - is that the vampires and the professor are actually just playing a part to weed out the real murderer.  The professor is actually the chief of police, and Lugosi and Borland's vampires (who were written as incestuous before the studio blocked Browning from filming this subplot) are actually real life everyday ACTORS.  That's right.  The director and actor who made everyone terrified of Dracula four years earlier - had made a film which revealed on-screen that the man who terrified millions was actually a jovial actor who got a kick out of wearing a cape and scaring people.  Though the plot is a far cry from Scream, this is one of the first films to ever blatantly wink at the audience before implying that these monsters aren't always as ominous as they appear.

By the way, if you don't want my commentary on Mark of the Vampire, Trailers From Hell has some commentary on it...from the legendary John Landis!

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, Dir. by Frank Capra.)
I know.  Dudes, I know.  It's not really a horror film, it's a madcap comedy adapted from a play.  It also happens to be one of my favorite films, and it also happens to be a film about a family of feuding insane people who have combined for at least 26 murders. 

While Mark of the Vampire took its shots using Lugosi and Dracula, Arsenic and Old Lace uses Boris Karloff and the Frankenstein monster to create its torture.  Before Raymond Massey's Jonathan Brewster is even introduced Aunt Martha remarks about how she was taken to one of those "scary pictures" a few weeks earlier, and when we do meet Jonathan, she confirms our suspicions - Jonathan's face resembles that of Boris Karloff. 

Karloff is name dropped a couple of times throughout the film - though I don't believe the Frankenstein name is - and several scenes hinge on Jonathan Brewster flying off into a monster-esque rage when compared to Mr. Karloff.  The joke is even funnier when you learn the back story - that the role was originated by and made famous on stage by none other than - you guessed it - Boris Karloff.

The incredibly dark comedy - especially for the early 1940s - is also notable because Cary Grant's Mortimer Brewster is a dramatic critic, who spends part of the film explaining murderous acts that he's seen acted out - which then are acted out upon him.  Though Frank Capra's adaptation - and the play before it - aimed to create laughs - it's one of the first indications that characters who are wiser due to the things they've watched (like Scream's Randy Meeks) would be coming to cinema screens.

Targets (1968, Dir. by Peter Bogdanovich.)
Speaking of Boris Karloff, let's talk about Targets.  I've talked about Targets before, but I ain't gonna stop talking about one of my favorite films that easily.  But truthfully, Targets is kind of the Anti-Scream.

An aging Karloff stars as aging horror icon Byron Orlok, a man who spent his life playing the kind of characters Boris Karloff would have played.  In fact, the film features real works of Mr. Karloff, primarily featuring a few minutes of Roger Corman's 1963 film The Terror (that first-time director Peter Bogdanovich was required to use by Corman) as Orlok's latest film, which has pushed him over the edge toward requirement.  In the picture below, Karloff as Orlok watches himself on TV in 1931's The Criminal Code, and laughs about the things he's done to scare innocent people from behind a screen.

But Orlok knows something that most real world viewers were already realizing.  Real world horrors were a lot more frightening than gothic castles and the ghosts of the past.  These fears are personified in Targets not by Karloff, but by young Tim O'Kelly - who kind of looks like a mini 1960s version of John Cena - who plays a trained sniper who decides he's sick of the ordinary and heads off on a senseless killing spree.  The paths of the old ghost and the new killer path in the final scenes of the film, and the result is one of the most telling statements about horror cinema that's ever been filmed.  Like Scream, Targets knew that audiences were sick of the status quo in horror cinema.  And like Scream, the film dared to point out the flaws in the horror system that were holding the genre back.

Popcorn (1991, Dir. by Mark Herrier.)
I've also covered Popcorn before, but the 1990s' first horror-about-horror must be mentioned here.  Though it primarily connects to films of the '50s and '60s for inspiration, Popcorn blazes its own trail by mimicking cinematic kills, and also happens to connect with Scream by making the "survivor girl" be connected to the killer through her parents.  The result is one of the most fun horror films of the '90s, and a nice little piece of counterprogramming to offset Scream's shiny side.  What Scream offered in criticism of the slasher genre, Popcorn offered in love toward the drive-in and B-movie favorites of a simpler, less demonic time.  I love that about it.

(By the way, do you love Popcorn like I do?  Or do you want to see it, but are dissuaded by the poor transfer on the OOP DVD that is now available on Instant Netflix?  If you answered yes to either of these questions, I've got a treat for you.  The indomitable Kristy Jett - of FMWL favorite The Bloodsprayer and many other fine places - has spearheaded a campaign to get Popcorn the proper - nay, the FANTASTIC - release and restoration that it deserves.  You can check out the progress made by going to the production site HERE, or - more importantly - you can check out the Kickstarter campaign that's funding the project.  The project could certainly use your help, and I think it's a darn worthy cause to support.)

(Yes, I just skipped talking about the movie for a paragraph to insert a shameless plug into my list.  BUT IT'S FOR A GOOD DVD RELEASE OF POPCORN, and I'm willing to sacrifice for that.  Go read my earlier Popcorn post if you need more of it, OK? Thanks much.)

There's Nothing Out There (1992, Dir. by Rolfe Kanefsky.)
There's Nothing Out There is first and foremost a Troma release - within the first 40 minutes I felt like I had seen every pair of naked breasts on set, and the special effects rival those of a three year old playing with toy dinosaurs - but it also features a hero that any horror nerd - like myself, I proudly admit it - will fall absolutely in love with.  If you like Randy Meeks (And who the heck doesn't like Randy Meeks?  By golly, he was THE best thing about the Scream films!), you'll get one heckuva kick out of TNOT's Mike.  (Hey film, great choice of name!)

There's Nothing Out There offers a basic horror set up that combines elements of The Blob and The Evil Dead, in which a bunch of youngsters go to a secluded place to part and fornicate, without knowing that a bunch of carnivorous things with green slime are loose and hungry.  But Mike - who claims to have rented every horror movie possible - immediately sees the warning signs and starts to run through how horror films can help him and his friends survive the day.  As he tries to shed his nerdy exterior and save the day, he gets to say things like "This reminds me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and coach his friends on what they need to do to get past the threat around them.  The result is absolutely one of the most fun horror films to come out of the early '90s, and one of the few great male and nerdy heroes in the history of fright flicks.
And that's five.  I suppose I could have talked about Craven's own New Nightmare - in which Freddy Krueger visits actress Heather Langenkamp - but Craven will get his due throughout the week.  And though I don't think these five films directly influenced Scream, their place in history is worth noting.  Horror has a long history of referring back to itself - ask any horror film that takes a break to tell the story of some terror gone by.  Like, for example....
On second thought, that's another list for another day. ;) 
Come on back tomorrow for more of Scream Week!


Liam Underwood said...

Awesome post, I wasn't aware of most of these films but will definitely try and track them down.

Really looking forward to seeing what else Scream Week throws our way!

Andreas said...

This is such a fun list! I'm not a fan (at all) of Scream, and so whenever somebody mentions how groundbreaking it was, or how horror got all meta in the '90s, I just pull out some of THESE movies.

Or The Tingler, or The Old Dark House, or any of the many, many self-referential horror movies made before Scream. Basically, horror movies have been meta since they existed, and self-reflexivity is a fairly major part of the genre; I think it has something to do with the prominence of audience reaction in the cultural perception of horror.

But that's enough high-fallutin' analysis talk. This is a solid list and you have EVERY right to include the awesome, Halloween-set Arsenic and Old Lace on it!

Fred [The Wolf] said...

Great list! I've never seen MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, but I definitely should! ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is a classic, TARGETS is a great flick, and POPCORN deserves its cult status. Now to read your thoughts on SCREAM 3!

The Mike said...

Thanks guys. I tried to go away from the obvious self-referential stuff (The Monster Squad, etc.), so I'm glad to have shed some light here. Definitely recomend all of 'em highly, especially Arsenic and Targets.

R.D. Penning said...

Well done Mike.

thetruth said...

Very nice list. But you missed out on a VERY important movie in your essay. The movie 'Anguish' (1987) - this is a MUST-SEE if you are compiling a list of self-referential movies! The plot concerns two teen girls stalked by a killer in a movie theater showing a horror film about ANOTHER killer who stalks his victims - in ANOTHER movie theater in the film! In fact, the REAL killer in the movie theater murders random patrons one by one paralleling the picture shown on the silver screen! All this about four years before Popcorn! Granted, it IS a foreign movie (Spanish - but the language spoken in the film is in English) so availability is a problem and it's not well-know. Check it out if you get the chance - it's really good film and much better than the majority of movies listed here!