(Written and Directed by Byron Quisenberry)
(Starring Joe Allaine, Ethan Wayne and Woody Strode)
Plot: A group of rafters decide to spend the night in a mysterious ghost town, but find themselves stranded with a killer- who might be of a supernatural origin. Also known as “The Outing“.
(Note: This is a re-review. It really has been interesting see how my opinions keep changing over the years)
“Scream (1981)“, not to be confused with the Wes Craven 1995 classic of the same name, and I have always had a love/hate relationship. This slasher is very avant-garde in its approach to horror. Whereas most movies would use dialogue to explain what is going on, “Scream” instead chooses to almost completely rely on imagery and implications. Instead of showcasing trendy gore and nudity, Byron Quisenberry would focus on creating a spooky atmosphere that forces us to use our imagination for the attacks…for nearly every attack. Conventional narratives have lead characters, but “Scream” features an ensemble cast who all share the same amount of screen-time, none of it being used to flesh them out. Most slashers have a slow burn style of suspense, but the pacing gradually quickens as time moves along, but “Scream” only seems to get slower. It wants us to experience the frustration of its characters, to feel the chill in the air and suffocate in the ambiance. The cinematography, music and sound design have a hauntingly patient feel to them, which can get under your skin. “Scream (1981)” boldly defied the slasher conventions and sometimes it really works in the films favor- delivering a creepy, thoroughly atmospheric experience.
But usually…it’s just kind of boring.
I consider “Scream (1981)” to be an interesting, albeit failed, experiment. But this is one of those cases where I’m not sure whether there is a stroke of genius to be found here, or if the director was merely a hack who didn’t understand how storytelling worked and why people watch slashers. Or maybe they didn’t have time to cobble together a script and had to make it up on the spot. I am optimistic, as I believe there is some really good stuff here on a production level, but regardless of the intention- “Scream” is not beloved by the masses. The set is pretty impressive and I like the idea of a slasher taking place in a ghost town, where the characters are isolated from the rest of the world. Quisenberry certainly had some intriguing visual ideas, such as the opening shot where we see three happy figurines. It’s followed with a slow zoom in on a background clock and casually transitions to those same figurines, except two have been decapitated and one has an intense facial expression. It’s a darkly humorous moment, but also creeps me out whenever I see it. Where this takes place or whether it even takes place within the continuity of the film is never clear, but that’s “Scream” for you. The camera crawls sometimes made me sleepy…Okay, they often made me sleepy, but they still were well done and when they worked, I’d shiver. There is one really cool transition where we see a character sit down and apparently hear someone approaching. The camera slowly moves to the side, showing a person walking in their direction, but it turns out that something terrible happened between when the camera left the sitter and when the newcomer arrived at that same location. It’s these effective moments that make me believe there was a method to Quisenberry’s madness. On the other hand, some shots are framed in such a way that it becomes difficult to tell what just happened. I attribute this to his inexperience, but once again there is always the possibility that I am giving him too much credit and that he was merely a crappy director.
The use of sound was one of this films best attributes. The ambiance really stands out, but when an alien noise overcomes our hearing, it is either startling or immerses us within the atmosphere. When Charlie Winters (Woody Strode) arrives, he is accompanied by the sounds of an ominous bell and the hooves of a horse. His segment is easily the best part, as Strode’s delivery is very unnerving, making an alliance with the slow crawling camerawork and the dense fog in order to thoroughly creep me out. The dog growling at an unseen menace was a nice touch too. The sounds of heavy breathing or a character crashing through the wall also did their job. The music is usually pretty good, when it’s not disrupting the tone. “Scream” is mostly very bleak, but there is a comedic relief character who feels very out of place…and yet, he gets his own goofy theme song. But in general, “Scream” has a maddeningly slow pace, which sometimes leads to some very suspenseful moments. Yet admittedly it lacks a good pay-off. By the time the movie ends, you feel like you’ve been watching it forever and the resolution is unsatisfying- even if the final shot was pretty good. You might think that I’m being very positive, but many disagree with my feelings towards the films visual style. I have heard accusations of bad cinematography, awful direction and crappy music, so please remember that my claims are intended to be subjective. I reacted positively to the atmosphere, but many didn’t.
“Scream (1981)” practically drowns in ambiguity. You never see the killer, nor are you even sure who the killer even was or why they were doing this. The implication is that the ghost of a pirate is haunting the town, but it’s never clear. I believe I’ve finally solved the mystery based purely on the films imagery, but the plot still doesn’t make a lot of sense. One character wakes up to find himself sleeping alone, leading to a startling moment where he’s in peril, only for the rest of the group to find him. They claim they were searching for him, but does that imply a supernatural force caused them all to leave? Or maybe caused him to leave? This level of vagueness doesn’t really feel fair or clever and ties into the most annoying problem: The stupidity of its characters. Everyone is outright hostile, annoying and incredibly stupid. They’re constantly splitting up, leaving so they can die without a struggle. Sometimes someone will see something scary, but will keep that information to themselves. This becomes especially apparent when someone gets trapped in the room with…something- a spectre hiding in a sleeping bag. Imagine if there was a practical explanation and the killer had merely been hiding with the bodies. Their silence would be responsible for every other death. There is a possibility that the ghost is manipulating them, which seemed to be the case when a frightened girl flees the supposed safe haven and into a trap, but not enough attention is drawn to this and I still felt cheated. “The Cabin in the Woods” had a similar idea, which was utilized in a way that felt clever and charming. There is nothing endearing about the characters. Their relationships- and sometimes even their names- aren’t clear, so why should we care about them? The acting is uneven. Some of the performers did very well, while others were terrible.
But I’m not going to lie, the slow, meandering pacing does often get old. As I said earlier, sometimes it works in the films favor, but often I found myself drifting off to sleep. The director might’ve had a different approach to the narrative, which I respect, but I did say that this was a failed experiment. ‘Slow’ only works if it’s building to something and “Scream” doesn’t really build into anything. I really liked the good parts, but they did not encompass the majority of the runningtime. Generally, when I wasn’t being annoyed by the character interactions, I was trying to phase out the nothingness that was happening on the screen. So is “Scream (1981)” a bad movie? Yes, but I don’t consider it to be a conventionally bad film. I think the director had an ambitious vision, filled with many creative and unique ideas- both for storytelling and visuals. But some rules are not meant to be broken and while I respect the attempt to be a pioneer, I can’t say I enjoyed myself…but…but…but…I have a nostalgic attachment to this movie. I remember my first viewing because it was the first time I was allowed to rent a movie on my own and Hollywood Video was awesome enough not to care about what I watched. I bought the copy when the VHS tapes were all purged. I feel compelled to occasionally put it within my VCR, much like how the characters are compelled to wander around alone when they know a killer is on the loose. These instances tend to not end well, but we just can’t help ourselves. I can’t bring myself to hate “Scream“, even though you probably will.
Violence: Enough to be rated R. One of the tamer 80’s slashers though.
Overall: “Scream (1981)” is a misfire and probably should not be viewed, but I am strangely drawn to it.
DISCARDED MATERIAL (the original review)
This is not the Wes Craven classic we all know and love. Instead, it was spawned from “Friday the 13th” along with many other bad slasher movies. In fact, apparently it was originally called “The Outing” but someone thought “Scream” sounded better. Wes Cravens “Scream” was originally called “Scary Movie”, yet somehow the name “Scream” is more memorable in an odd, generic way. Either way, Wes Craven’s film is great, Byron Quisenberry’s is not.
I’ll give this movie some credit. I actually like the location. I always thought the idea of a ghost town is creepy and while it was underused, I still dug it. I also thought Quisenberry was passable as the director. He had some cool shots (like the weapon rack bits), some decent atmosphere, and even a little suspense. I really dug the scene with the undertaker guy. It was creepy! I also liked the weird, abstract feel of the film(all about the opening and closing shot). At least Quisenberry didn’t try to copy Cunningham( Friday the 13th) in terms of style. I will also say I’ve seen this movie three times. It was forgettable the first time(I wanted more gore), but I liked it the second time. For some reason, it just didn’t jell with me the 3rd time.
Quisenberry actually wrote, directed, and even produced the film. He is a pretty good producer I guess….but as a director, he is sort of uneven. I praised him for some positive things in the above paragraph, but clearly the man knows little about good lighting. “City of the Living Dead” was accused of this, as well as the movie “Spookies.” This movie makes the lighting in those two look brilliant. The lighting is so faulty in this movie that at times, you can’t even see the characters!
However, Quisenberry’s writing abilities are awful. The plot is weak to begin with, but I can forgive that in a slasher. The issue is when some of the plot holes and idiocies begin. The movie takes an unusual turn by having them discover there is a killer on the loose after one victim. They meet up and decide too hold out until help comes. That’s fine, but then people start getting up and leaving for stupid reasons. One guy goes too get a beer (dumbass), one guy stays too investigate clues (even more of a dumbass), another goes too get coffee (to be fair, he wasn‘t around when the shit hit’s the fan). Then for some reason, everyone gets up and leaves a guy without any explanation.
Then we have the characters, who are mostly stereotypes (the asshole, the annoying fat guy, the bully, etc). No one gets really any character development, their relationships aren’t really established (was the a-hole married too that chick?), and I’m pretty sure most of the cast wasn’t even named. It also doesn’t help they are all annoying and spit out crappy dialogue. “Hasn’t there been enough pain? Must we hurt each other!?” was pretty funny. The irony is that when the movie tries to be funny, it becomes grating.
Finally, the mystery itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s strongly implied there is a supernatural route, but the backstory was rushed and the movie just didn’t end properly. It never really even explained if the killer was the ghost pirate and why he was doing the killing. In fact, in contrast to most slashers where the killer is revealed (in the case of mysteries, at the end), the killer is actually never shown. You just see his weapons really..
Most of the cast is very average, with the dialogue making them look bad. I’ll list the names I remembered. Joe Allaine (Lou) was pretty annoying as the clumsy, fat guy. I bought it when he was scared though. Ethan Wayne (Stan) & Joseph Alvarado (Rudy) are among the better actors as the leaders of the group. Yes, Ethan is the son of John Wayne. Woody Strode (Charlie) was pretty creepy as the mysterious stranger. Whoever played that angry guy (I can’t remember the characters name…lol) does well, but dammit I hate those kind of characters.
Overall: I’ve seen much worse films than “Scream”, and sometimes I even enjoy the film. However, it is also a mess that generally won’t even please a slasher fan. Perhaps if this movie had more gore and nudity, it could have been better. Unfortunately, saying what it could have been can apply to even the worst films…Original Rating: 1.5/4