The Movies That Made Me: Teen Screams

I wasn’t what you’d call a “normal” teenager — if there is such a thing. See, most teens watch a movie like I Know What You Did Last Summer eagerly awaiting the bloody kills, rooting for the bad guy to gruesomely dispatch his sinful adolescent targets.

Me? I cried when they died.

When asked how I liked the movie, only three words could escape my lips:

“They killed Buffy!”

Oh, right — spoiler alert. Helen Shivers, the character played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, expires before the end credits roll, and so does Ryan Philippe. That leaves just Jennifer Love Hewitt and Freddie Prinze Jr. to tussle with sinister fisherman Ben Willis in the last act, a poor bit of planning if you ask me. Gellar and Philippe are by far the better actors, and their characters were a shade more interesting, too. Helen’s the former beauty queen who tried to make it in New York and ended up back at her family’s general store, while Barry is the star athlete who is now coping with alcoholism and excessive douche baggage (and guilt for running a dude over). Never mind that I can now totally relate with both of these characters — not the running over a fisherman, but the “life-didn’t-quite-turn-out-like-we-planned-huh?” of it all — though, if I end up gutted next to a giant stack of tires, I guess the trend has continued downward.I Know What You Did Last Summer is a much better movie than most give it credit for, mostly thanks to Kevin Williamson’s screenplay. These are real teen characters who would be interesting even if there wasn’t a sicko with a hook after them. Helen and Barry would fit right in on Dawson’s Creek — and, okay, so would Ray and Julie, but in a hate-watch kind of way — and the guilt they grapple with is more nuanced and complex than the moral complications of most teen horror flicks. Plus, Anne Heche livens things up with her backwoods crazytown. Always a good time. Yes, the killer’s shenanigans — like stuffing a dead man covered in crabs in Julie’s trunk, then miraculously removing any trace of said body or crustaceans within a window of 60 seconds — are totally implausible. But what do you want from a movie called I Know What You Did Last Summer? A second note that says: …And I’m Totally Fine With It! Let’s Hit The Beach?

So when Helen Shivers met her bitter end against a heap of rubber just inches away from the safety of a 4th of July parade, I wasn’t upset just because she was Buffy. I was upset because I was relating to her formerly self-absorbed, now-humbled Croaker Queen character. (And because I’d read the YA book by Lois Duncan, and dammit, all four of them survived in the book!) See, for a brief shining moment at the tail end of the 20th century, teen horror had a golden age, unparalleled before or since, when such films were actually clever and well-written (by Kevin Williamson, mostly); they had believable protagonists who didn’t all deserve to get butchered. (But then some did anyway.) It just so happened I was at the perfect age to be the target demographic for these films, and I devoured them the way teens in horror movies guzzle booze and engage in sex.

Promiscuously. Like a total slut.

And so teen horror, more than any other genre, is what made me who I am today.

(Sorry.)

But let’s back up a little, because I wasn’t always a horror fan. I used to be terrified of movies — not just horror movies, pretty much all movies. And TV. And music videos. And rides like Captain EO at Disneyland. Anything visual, really. Maybe I should’ve been born blind. I’m coming clean now: I was a pre-adolescent pussy.

It started with Batman and E.T., and possibly ended with Jurassic Park. (Read more about that in “The Reel Me.”) It wasn’t until I was 15 that I was even allowed to watch an R-rated movie, so there wasn’t much to be scared of the interim. I heard the buzz around junior high when Scream was released, but never caught it in theaters. It sounded terrifying. Finally, when it was released on home video (VHS!), I decided I was brave enough to give it a try.

Scream was essentially the first horror movie I ever saw, so all that meta-parody was lost on me. Of course I knew who Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers were, but I wasn’t yet familiar with all the tropes Scream was sending up. So for me, it worked as a genuinely scary movie. Now maybe I’m messed up for life, given that my first slasher flick was actually a half-parody of slasher flicks, so the bar was forever raised to a level of clever that simply can’t be sustained. Whatever. I like my horror like I like everything else — smart, with strong, savvy characters you can actually root for. I didn’t know at the time how atypical it was for the genre.

1996, SCREAM

Let’s not forget that Scream pulled a mini-Psycho on the audience by killing off a major star in the opening sequence. Many went into it assuming Drew Barrymore was the main character (by the time I saw it, I knew better). The effect of her gruesome demise was to make the audience actually feel — surprised, sad, and kind of betrayed that she was gutted and hung from the tree in her family’s yard, only to be discovered by her parents. It’s not a “fun” sequence; it’s pretty horrifying, made worse by the fact that Casey Becker isn’t some dumb bimbo who’s just asking for it, walking around topless in the woods. She’s a smart, relatable high school girl (even if she looks 30). Her death is brutal. How many other horror movies can you say that about?

This was about the time that Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer debuted, too, which also blurred the line between horror and comedy (and did both exceptionally well). Buffy wasn’t truly scary very often, but it was pretty consistently awesome (if you forget about the internet demon episode). It accomplished what Scream did in terms of finding the humanity and stakes (ha) amidst the body count. Both Scream and Buffy take place in a heightened reality where characters are aware of cliches even as they’re living them. You might think such entertainments would come off feeling less realistic, but it’s actually the dummies who populate most other horror movies we have a hard time relating to. Smart people who know what we know about the horror genre? That’s the new stupid.

Sidney Prescott, Randy Meeks, Gale Weathers, Helen Shivers… these characters are as iconic to me as Charles Foster Kane and Scarlett O’Hara are to others. I can’t help it! I’m a slave to the 90s, a product of my generation. The first “screenplay” I ever wrote was a parody of Scream, starring myself as Randy and my friends as various other characters. (I still think it was funnier than the “official” Scream parody, Scary Movie.) I can recite Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer by heart, the way some some people quote Shakespeare. If I came of age in Elizabethan England, maybe I’d be one of them. Instead, I’m a Scream baby.

The golden age of meta teen horror didn’t die off after those first two movies. Scream 2 managed to pull off the impossible — it took everything that Scream did right and pushed it even further. By making Scream a movie-within-a-movie (Stab) in that brilliant opening sequence, it managed to comment on horror in a fresh and even more meta way, and it was brilliant. It even had Sarah Michelle Gellar as ill-fated sorority girl Cici Cooper in the film’s best suspense sequence. By this time, I’d learned to manage my expectations and not cry every time Buffy died in a horror movie — especially since they’d shown her thrown off a balcony in the trailer.

Kevin Williamson also scored with Halloween: H2O, which brought Jamie Lee Curtis back to breathe life into a dormant franchise. (It worked, but just for this one entry.) It also had a promising cast, including Michelle Williams and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and a cute mini-cameo by Sarah Michelle Gellar as her Scream 2 character (they’re watching it on TV). And then there was The Faculty, Williamson’s script about aliens taking over a high school. All of these movies had clever quips and sexy cast members (many from my favorite WB shows of the era). There were imitators, of course, as well — like Urban Legend, a so-so copycat of the early Williamson films. (You can tell he didn’t write it.) By 1999, the genre had circled back on itself, with not only the Halloween sequel (featuring a cameo from Curtis’ mom, Janet Leigh) but also Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of the granddaddy of it all, the first slasher flick ever — Psycho.

And then the inevitable happened. Horror movies got dumb again.

At first, they were dumb dressed up as smart.

And then they went back to being plain ol’ stupid.

What happened? The same thing that happens to every trend. Too many people catch on, so the trendsetters abandon it for something else, leaving only the pale imitators. Too many Xeroxes of a sharp original. People try to copy it faster, cheaper, and with less skill. And Kevin Williamson can only do so much in a day.

The Blair Witch Project happened, and found footage was born. The Sixth Sense happened, and suddenly every movie needed a crazy twist. The Grudge happened, and they fucking killed Buffy again. New trends in horror were born, and Scream and its ilk were strangled. Scream 3, written by Ehren Kruger, had some clever set pieces, competent direction by Wes Craven, and a hilarious role for Parker Posey, but the Williamson spark was sadly absent. It’s by far the weakest film in the series. I Still Know What You Did Last Summer carried on Jaws: The Revenge‘s godawful tradition of villains following their victims to the Bahamas. Weak stuff. Kevin Williamson went on to write a vampire show, of all things, but the Twilight franchise had already temporarily ruined vampires, and hello. A human girl in love with a vampire? Buffy got there first, bitches. Pay your respects.

Meanwhile, Joss Whedon did end up giving us one of the most meta horror movies of all time, The Cabin In The Woods. But lately, he’s busy revitalizing comic book superheroes, so who knows if he’ll ever head back to horror?

It’s rare, these days, that I see a horror movie in theaters. What would I go for? Paranormal Activity 8? Saw XXV? Or one of those fucking Exorcist rip-offs that seem to come out twice a year? The last two horror films I saw in theaters were Scream 4 and The Cabin In The Woods, of course, because there still just isn’t any substitute for the masters. (Okay, neo-masters. You can stop rolling in your grave now, Mr. Hitchcock.) They weren’t perfect films, but they scratched a certain 90s horror nostalgia itch that’s been otherwise left lacking.

Alas, meta isn’t what it used to be — and it’s true, we always glorify the treasures of our youth far above their deserved elevation. Maybe if I’d been older and a little wiser, Scream wouldn’t have thrilled me. Even back then, I knew I Know What You Did Last Summer kinda falls apart at the end. (The unmasking of the killer always makes the final showdown less frightening.)

Yet I still watch these movies, and to me, they’re still just as good they ever were. Because unlike teenagers who drink and have sex, a classic never dies.

Or if it does, it comes back for a sequel.

(Originally posted on JustinPlusSix.)

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