The Last House on the Left (1972)
I was scared to watch this film for literally decades, and when I watched it for the first time only last year, I was blown away. I was not in the least bit prepared for the complexity of the film, the richness of the mise-en-scène, or the humanity of the “monsters”—Krug Stillo (David Hess) and his allies, who kidnap and rape two girls. In fact, my favorite moment comes in the aftermath of their stabbing and rape of Mari (Sandra Cassel), when the camera pans around the faces of those who participated in the act and we see their shame—realize they’re not as monstrous as we might want them to be. Craven’s camera shows us first that the rapists won’t look at each other, and then it turns to their hands—where we look, where they look. In that move, the camera functions to detach their hands, conveying how Krug and Weasel (Fred Lincoln) Sadi seem to feel, momentarily, that their hands acted alone: how could those hands have just done such a horrible thing to an innocent girl? The moment forces a kind of empathy for Krug and Weasel: haven’t we all done things we couldn’t believe we’d just done, as if our body acted without us . . . ?
To my mind, Scream is Craven’s masterpiece, and it doesn’t have a false or wasted moment: it’s brilliantly made from beginning to end and virtually every scene offers up a potential favorite moment—the opening with Drew Barrymore (of course), which begins in the supremely normal and slowly and inexorably ratchets up the terror for the next ten minutes; Gus Black’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” playing in the background when Billy (Skete Ulrich) climbs into Sidney’s (Neve Campbell’s) window—a reprise of the moment when Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Annie (Nancy Kyes) are in the car in Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) listening to the Blue Oyster Cult (which may or may not blind us to the song’s other meanings in this particular encounter between Sidney and her seemingly devoted boyfriend); Sidney punching Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox); Randy (Jamie Kennedy) explaining “the rules” of horror . . .
But my two favorites moments both illuminate what Scream did brilliantly—and why it single-handedly re-invented horror in the mid-1990s.
As the teens party because school is out (forget that it’s due to the brutal murder of two of their classmates!), Halloween plays on TV. As Laurie is stalked by Michael Myers on screen, a drunken Randy yells at her to “Look behind you!” He doesn’t call her Laurie, though, but “Jamie.” And as he tells one actor (Jamie) to look behind her, the viewers see Ghostface behind him (and he also happens to be called Jamie). Craven even shows the TV—looming centrally in the frame, with Jamie Kennedy’s image superimposed on Jamie Lee Curtis’s. It’s a brilliant moment in which Craven manages to express the interconnectedness, in the lives of 1990s teens, of media and reality—how media (TV, film, videos) really was an integral part of their lives.A second moment captures the same idea, the increasing blurriness of media and reality. When Sidney, Gale and Randy have finally managed to stop the killer, Sidney looks down at him and responds to the truism that the “monster” always gets up in horror films. “Not in my movie,” she declares (my favorite line!)—and shoots him in the head, making sure he’ll never get up.
Sidney was often afraid, often did the wrong thing (ran upstairs when she should have run out the door), had sex with the wrong person, and she still came through—dispatching the killer (with some help from her friends). And even though Sidney was more grounded in reality than most of her peers (hating horror movies), even she recognized that she was choosing her movie at the end—as well as killing a real killer.