In my bid to have some holiday-specific content on the blog this week, I started writing a post on what it takes to write a good slasher movie. A few paragraphs in, I was bothered by the feeling that I'd written something like this before. Turns out, I had, in a piece last year called "Lessons from Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson's Scream."
I briefly considered pulling out my DVD of Scream 2 and writing a piece on what makes a good horror sequel. And while I do enjoy Scream 2, it's clearly the anomaly when it comes to sequels. In the horror genre, I'd be hard-pressed to think of many good sequels. (Does Aliens count? Maybe Wes Craven's New Nightmare?)
And here's my problem - Horror sequels frequently turn into mindless rehashes of their predecessors because often the only continuing character is the killer - the antagonist. Most of time, there are few survivors in a horror film and when someone does live into the next sequel, they're disposed of rather quickly. After all, there are only so many times that the same girl can get menaced by the same villain before it starts to feel hackneyed.
Scream somehow manages to make this work by keeping the victim of Sydney as the protagonist while constantly shifting the person under the mask of the killer. Sure, the motive every time is the revenge against Sydney (and the ultimate revenge motive in Scream 3 is a little far-fetched and convoluted. I really can't argue with that.), and she's the axis that the film series turns on. (Again, Scream 3 messes with this somewhat by giving Neve Campbell less screen time, but she's still the prime target.)
And in thinking about this, I realize it's something I really like about Wes Craven's work: he really cares about character. From Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street to Rachel McAdams' character in Red Eye, Craven tries to make his protagonists - his victims - truly fleshed-out characters. It's screenwriting 101 - you can't have a compelling story without a strongly-defined lead. Most of the time, I find that Craven takes a more intellectual approach to his characters and story structure. Listening to his director commentaries backs up that impression.
(I confess I've not been able to see My Soul to Take yet, so I'm unable to incorporate Mr. Craven's latest work into my hypothesis. Also, I don't mean to diminish the contributions of the many screenwriters he's worked with, particularly Scream's Kevin Williamson. However, when you notice particular themes in a director's work across several writers, it's hard not to take that element as something the director is committed to.)
This is where so many horror specs I read fail. I see a lot of scripts that are clearly trying to be franchises, to the point where all they've done is work out the gimmick that will drive the series. So much time is invested in giving the killer a cool look, or a gruesome gimmick to his kills. Where they fail is in coming up with a strong dramatic arc to sustain the story. Too often the cast of characters is treated as little more than a future body count: a dead asshole jock here, a slutty girl with nice breasts there.
And sure, there are plenty of bad B-movies made every year. There's a long list of produced slashers that never dug deep.
But the horror thrillers that endure? The ones that future filmmakers grow up wanting to emulate? Psycho, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream - they all have an important element in common: strong character arcs for their protagonists. Your hero isn't the guy wielding the blade and drawing blood. Never forget that.
This is why I'm both anticipating and dreading Scream 4 next year. The nostalgist in me loves the idea of getting "the old gang" back together. The massive cast that seems to include every young actor and actress in Hollywood also should make for fun viewing. I'm guessing this is going to make for a high body count, and with so many stars, the "death order" will be less predictable. (Most of the time, the order of the deaths roughly corresponds to the reverse order of the billing in the credits.)
My big fear is that in order to "pass the torch" to younger generation, Sydney will be killed. That makes a lot of dramatic sense... and yet it doesn't. The series is Sydney's story. If she dies, she loses. Yet, if she lives, how can the story possibly continue? How many times can new madmen come after her? How can a genre driven by the teenage audience be sustained with an "older" protagonist like Neve Campbell, as opposed to the more teen-appropriate Emma Roberts?
(Confession: Emma's a cute girl, no doubt... but Neve was my crush in 1996 and she still gets my vote today.)
The place to kill Sydney might well have been in Scream 3. Coming in Scream 4, it might tarnish the construction of the first trilogy. A new story might have been launched at the expense of the old one.
So perhaps Scream 4 will give us the most unexpected ending of all - where ALL the teen protagonists who seem to be groomed as Campbell's replacements are killed and the next chapter of Sydney's life is launched. Dare I hope that Craven's history of commitment to character suggests this, particularly when those characters are developed under Mr. Williamson's pen?
I'm not saying that a good story can't be told with Sydney's death, but it could be a challenge to pull this off in a satisfying manner. Sydney's death could be an appropriate tragedy, but the challenge beyond that would be convincing the audience that a larger story will still continue beyond Sydney's death.
Is it possible? I don't know, but come this April, I'll be there opening day to find out. (Or more likely, I'll be there at midnight the evening before opening day.)