Saturday, July 30, 2011

3DS price slash has little to do with Apple, despite reports

So Nintendo is lowering the price of the 3DS. What bothers me isn't the questionable business decision that went into the price drop, it's in the tendency of some journalists to attribute that drop to smartphone OSs, Apple's in particular. Assuming the people who pay up to $3 (or nothing) for Angry Birds and those who spend $60 on the latest Rockstar game are the same people is ludicrous enough, but phones have long been able to play the kinds of casual games that are flooding the market now: the RAZR could play gems such as Tetris, Bejeweled and Doom RPG, and many more if you happened to live in Japan. Now you just have a prettier screen, greater functionality, and an easier means of getting those games.

Smartphones may be increasing in popularity, but so are portable game consoles. To date, the DS has sold an incredible 140 million units and 840 million games, during which time it was "competing" with the Android (130 million), iOS devices (222 million US, including iPad and iPod Touch), and RIM (55+ million) markets, not to mention the PSP (68 million), showing that game devices continue to sell independent of other mobile device sales rather than in spite of them. Flurry group followed the revenue to show that iOS and Android have gained 15% of the portable gaming market in the past year, but their 2009 figures did not account for tablet PCs, meaning that part of this jump may simply be the introduction of a new device to the market. Part of it may also simply be a temporary trend: the same report shows an inexplicable 4% move from portable games to console games. Any way you slice the pie, Nintendo is thus far still in the lead in the portable gaming market. The theory that $1 games are eclipsing traditional game sales is just that at this point; the only credence it deserves is that cell phones are becoming increasingly popular, reducing the "entrance fee" to a publisher's game library to zero, but if that logic worked then PC gaming would have eclipsed the console market long ago. Instead, console gaming has grown by leaps and bounds.

Few major developers have committed to high-end games on smart phones, both due to cost of production and the lack of traditional distribution models. While it's possible that digital distribution will become the standard, it has yet to come close, and $40 or more for the simple use rights of a title has proven a questionable method to consumers, excepting MMOs, where one can justify the lack of ownership of the game with server maintenance fees and the perpetual generation of new content (though, even now there are issues with physical discs of DC Universe Online becoming coasters). It's worth noting that iPhones and HTC devices commonly feature a touchscreen as the primary input method, which cripples its gaming potential over traditional control pads (the DS and upcoming Vita include both, but most games seem developed for traditional controls). So while the smartphone may infringe on DS Store titles or games like WarioWare, it isn't likely to replace the latest Mario, Dragon Quest or Uncharted.

Unlike many critics who make similar claims to mine, I believe indie developers and the $1 market have been a huge benefit to the video game industry: it has brought more people into the culture of gaming and challenged what it means to be a "gamer" in much the same way "geek" culture has become a fad in our society. Consider it similar to what rhythm games have done for music appreciation, or what YouTube has done for film. The difference between casual and hardcore gamers used to be the difference between console and PC gamers, but as home consoles moved to CD-ROM and 32bit systems, that distinction began to dissolve. Now it's all in how seriously you take gaming. Casual gamers are less willing to shell out a lot of dough and time for the habit, not competing either for trophies or good old school bragging rights like the hardcore do. Then there's the "mid-core" who enjoy story-based games and are willing to invest the time in completing them, but don't get too competitive about it. While the casual now likely make up the majority of those who play video games, video games have become at least as profitable and culturally relevant as the film industry, without the previous social stigma applied to gaming to hold it back. It is thus fair to say that trends in game sales should decline or increase as an industry whole, and that does seem to be true outside of smartphones, leading this writer to believe that the drop in revenue for Nintendo is due in large part to the cost of traditional games in general, with casual gamers purchasing cheap alternatives to expensive titles as the rest of us weather the silent storm. As the holiday season approaches and more of the E3 titles hit the sales floor, sales will almost certainly see an increase, though a more permanent increase will likely require a more stable economic condition conducive to generating disposable income.

Haven't I seen this before... OH WAIT
IT'S DIFFERENT THERE'S A CAT IN IT!
Beyond economic reasons, the lackluster sales of the 3DS are simply because the only "original" title for it that has sold well is Nintendogs+Cats, and Nintendo is aware of this problem. One need not go back very far into the past to realize that game hardware sales are driven by software as much as price point: just take the PlayStation 3. Most people who would buy the 3DS already own a DS and have no reason yet to upgrade (just like most who would buy a PS3 had a PS2). Right now, the 3DS has little more to offer than Super Street Fighter IV and Ocarina of Time, which we needn't stare at a 4" screen to play. Add that to a struggling economy where the majority are forced to weigh essential costs, and naturally you'll have a consumer base skeptical of your marketing and unwilling to shell out the dough for a gimmicky system without solid games. It's difficult to blame third party developers like Sega for pushing their releases back, as making as much as you can while the game is at its highest price point is just good business sense (Star Wars and Lord of the Rings delayed their Blu-ray releases for this very reason). Had Nintendo simply waited until the holiday season when most of their original first party games would be released, surely that $250 price point would have seemed less of an entrance fee and we could chalk up the whole sales problem to a premature launch. It happens. Lowering the cost at this point seems to express a lack of commitment to the hardware, which could discourage more third party developers and allow those who think smartphones are taking over portable gaming the benefit of self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, this wouldn't be Nintendo's first major blunder, as Nate Funaro reminds us by referring to the system as "Virtual Boy 2", though in the Virtual Boy's case the problem is a bit more obvious:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Something for Everyone and No One: Part 2 - Last Action Hero versus Scream

Part Two: McTiernan’s Last Action Hero versus Wes Craven’s Scream

"Hello, Sidney. How are you?"
Let me begin by apologizing for the length of time this entry has taken; when I set out on this project, I thought “Hey, this will be fun,” but the more I dug into the films the more I felt I had to say. This has quickly become a foundation for a book on film, though for now I’ll continue to produce it as a blog series with slightly more commentary and research than the average blog.

So, in opening this discussion, the first thought on your mind might be: “What could these two movies possibly have in common?” One is a family-oriented action film and the other is a very adult-oriented slasher film. Is it really fair to compare them? Let’s analyze the commonalities between these two titles to see why we might want to put them on even ground.

Both films are known for their metatextuality and postmodern analysis of their genres: that is, they acknowledge the clichés of the genre of which they are a part as if to say “This isn’t going to be like anything you’ve seen before.” Both include a main character (Danny and Randy respectively) well-versed in the world of film to openly address the clichés of the genre for the audience’s benefit, which shows the film’s self-awareness and allows anyone not familiar with the genre to see what the film is doing to address those clichés. Both bring this self-awareness to a climax in which a character says something like “This isn’t a movie; this is real life,” which both shows the main character at their most vulnerable moment and draws the audience out from behind the comfort of that invisible fourth wall, promising an element of unpredictability.

Transformers 5, written by no one
(Thank you, Tina Fey)
It is worth addressing here that if there’s one thing that appeals to a mass audience, it is predictability. The pressure to be original lies more in concept than in plot structure: Pixar’s films are so predictable that they probably write themselves by now, but where they succeed is in unique presentation and exceptional dialogue. We’re drawn in by the mythology of a world in which toys have lives we don’t see, and we are compelled to care what happens to Woody and Buzz through their actions and dialogue. Because we like both characters so much, we want to see them get along. We lack a direct relationship with Andy, but seeing him through Woody’s eyes makes us want to see them reunited. The plot is predictable, but the story is crafted so well that the audience feels invested in its development: what happens is what we want to happen. How it happens is the original part.

"But that lady in the beginning said
we'd commit suicide, so..."
Predictable stories give us a sense of control that allows us a brief escape from a world in which we have very little, but this principle can work toward endings we do not wish as well. Shakespeare’s tragedies are so well known for their predictable endings that the popular summary “everybody dies” is not too far off. Yet even knowing how the play ends, and in some cases even being told the ending in the first few minutes of the play, Shakespeare compels an audience to follow characters for two hours who are just going to die anyway. To do this successfully we must be convinced as an audience that there is no better way for the story to end: Romeo and Juliet succeeds because it creates a world where the two lovers cannot live together happily, and so escape (in the form of death) is their only real choice. The bittersweet tragedy ending is often that, though the characters die, those who survive them have learned something from the experience. Romeo ends with a truce, and Hamlet ends with Horatio relaying the story of Hamlet to Fortinbras, who stands to learn from the experience[1]. This predictability again reflects the audience’s need for control in the real world; experiencing tragedy on film or stage allows us to make sense of the tragedy in our personal lives, or in some cases to avoid such tragedy.

"All right, I'll explain my genius
one more time..."
Thus, when the unpredictable happens it is in danger of rejection from the audience. When it occurs at the ending, we have the term deus ex machina to express that breach of believability[2]: in layman’s terms you might call it the “Scooby Doo ending,” where the crime is revealed to have been committed by the person we’re given the least evidence to suspect. If a suspense story is well-written, then the ending would seem unpredictable, but the clues should add up perfectly on a repeat viewing. Some films belabor the point by including an ending montage to help piece things together, as the Saw series is famous for doing, but I tend to find these insulting and self-defeating: one guaranteed way to lower your ticket sales is to take away the incentive for a repeat viewing.

Where both Last Action Hero and Scream excel is in their adherence to predictability despite acknowledging that predictability. What this achieves is to raise the stakes against the audience’s predicting nature: if the rules we’re accustomed to in the fictional world no longer apply, will the outcome remain the same? Both films include scenes in which the characters argue over how the plot will unfold without the comfort of the rules of a fictional world, more directly casting doubt on how they will ultimately end (not to mention making both films delightfully quotable). Both films assume a comforting resolution, but for those rules to apply a greater effort must be made on the part of the characters: the indestructible Jack Slater becomes as human as John McClane to answer the question of what an action hero must be, and Ghostface goes to such extremes to set up a red herring that the eventual reveal still manages to surprise. Thus, these films craft endings which are predictable and comforting, but retain originality in how they get there.

Such intelligence and self-awareness do not come as complete surprises. Both films were helmed by successful directors who have shown a great awareness of the limitation of genre formulas. John McTiernan is best known for Predator and Die Hard, which respectively brought the plot of Alien to a Vietnam-like setting and introduced us to John McClane, an action hero with a rare vulnerability. Wes Craven is a household name for any horror fan; his 1984 offering A Nightmare on Elm Street has stood the test of time as a genre-transcending masterpiece, and remains one of the only teen slasher films I’ve seen where I could truly feel empathy for the main character, let alone the slasher himself. Of course, both filmmakers have had their share of mediocre films, too, but when they get it right, they get it right.

Having established similarities in form, approach, and leadership, let’s dive into the specifics of these films and see what we can learn.

Last Action Hero

To be fair, Last Action Hero is not largely considered a “bad” film; it’s certainly no Plan 9 From Outer Space. Critics often acknowledge what it did right, even if that was only enough to give it a score slightly above mediocre[3]. There isn’t a whole lot of scholarly writing on this film, but what there is often praises the film for its bold experimentation and its parallels to Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, though they’re often equally adept at pointing out its flaws. What the film is undoubtedly is a box office failure. With a budget of $70 million, Last Action Hero only made $50 million in its entire theatrical run in the US, leaving it to recoup from foreign showings as well as VHS and DVD rentals and sales. A lot of suggestions have been made to take weight away from how bad the film might be, such as its competition with the release of Jurassic Park two weeks previous, a film aimed at the very same demographic. Kim Masters and Nancy Griffin’s Hit and Run explains a lot of the production-side issues that went against Last Action Hero, but these facts are more useful to marketers and producers than to writers, and may not explain why Last Action Hero doesn’t hold up as well as other box office flops gone cult, so we’ll try to stick primarily to the elements that were intentional in this film’s creation.

"This is one hell of a time for a joke."
That being said, where do we even start? Perhaps the best place to start is by sitting down and just watching the movie so we can talk about the tone. The very first impression we get is rather dark: a swarm of police officers surrounding a building to the tune of Alice in Chains’s “What the Hell Have I?” A helicopter circles overhead. We then get our first line of the film, spoken by an important-looking officer: “This is one hell of a way to spend Christmas.”  A Die Hard reference delivered intentionally to be amusing to those who get it. So we’re looking at something kind of serious, but with a sense of satire.

The ever amusing elementary school
hostage situation on Christmas
Next we hear a machine gun firing at the squad cars, followed by a man yelling “I’ve got a present for ya.” From the roof of the building drops an automatic rifle, and then the body, presumably already dead, of a SWAT officer. We also get in this shot the name of the building: Lincoln Elementary. This is immediately followed by the important officer yelling “Damn you, Ripper, let the children go!” Here is a good point to stop and think about what we’re seeing. We have a hostage situation in which the hostages are children, the suspect is (presumably) a serial killer, on the roof of an elementary school, and on Christmas? Aside from the fact that this rules out small children as part of the audience, there’s the obvious logic problem: schools are let out for the Christmas week, so unless our villain went rounding up kids to take them to an elementary school, or there was some school play… Well, we know logic is out the window in favor of tongue-in-cheek humor, but is anyone expected to find humor in such a situation?

This film doesn’t quite feel like a comedy, even for an action comedy. If you look at the first five minutes of The Naked Gun by comparison, you see Leslie Nielson take out a room full of terrorist leaders single-handedly with a dim-witted sight-gag in almost every shot. Last Action Hero retains an odd sense of seriousness in its direction, perhaps because McTiernan had not yet made an action comedy and didn’t know what he was doing, or more likely because it intends to be a serious film. At this point the audience doesn’t really know.

Then Schwarzenegger appears on the screen, walking on the roofs of the squad cars in his snakeskin boots to get to the school building, iconic cigar in his mouth. The music by this point has moved from Alice in Chains to Kamen’s original score, which retains a gritty guitar hook to associate with Slater’s appearance. The other officer, who we learn is the caricature of a loud-mouthed, fast-talking chief of police, stereotypically threatens Slater’s job if he tries to go in. Slater responds unflinchingly by tossing his badge to the chief. Then he punches the Lieutenant Governor in the face and kicks a fellow officer in the groin, accompanying the assault with an action movie quip that is surprisingly labored for the situation: “You want to be a farmer? Here’s a couple of “achers”.” So far, the only people our hero has injured are the good guys, and we aren’t five minutes in.

Then we come to the rooftop scene, another place we need to pause for a moment. We finally see the Ripper (Tom Noonan) and learn that he is holding a child hostage, a child who yells out “Dad” so we know that he is Slater’s son; thus, the reason for Slater’s earlier comic defiance is to protect his child. Makes sense, I suppose. We get through the dialogue that these heavyweights have had a feud going for some time, at least since Slater had the Ripper put away ten years ago. The dialogue lacks any kind of humor in favor of an impressive dramatic tension, and the only moment the tension breaks for a potential laugh is in Slater throwing down his weapons. There’s a brief climax, and the film goes out of focus, which unintentionally seems to express what follows.

"Focus!"
At 7:39 we hear a boy’s voice yell “Focus!” We learn that everything up to this point has been a film within a film, and that our “real” main character is a 12-year-old boy named Daniel Madigan. Keeping in mind that we still don’t really know what kind of film we’re watching, we now find ourselves watching a Disney Channel Original Movie about a lonely kid obsessed with film, his saintly single mother, and the quirky old man at the movie theater who befriends him. It may be at this point that we realize we’re actually watching two movies, but we may figure that out at the halfway point instead. One is about a boy’s search for a male role model in a harsh reality, his discovery of a fantasy role model, his discovery of a role model reflecting that fantasy in reality, and a test of faith leading to a belief in himself. The other is about a superhero denied his powers and challenged to fight against his own seeming impotence to discover the true hero inside of him. While these two classic plots mesh together incredibly well, the problem is in the execution. Selling these two as a buddy-cop couple works about as well as Cop and a Half and takes up a majority of the film; coupled with the gags it pushes the runtime to 130 minutes, something many have cited as a reason for the film’s failure.

"Hey Claudius..."
If we wanted to tell Danny’s story, then putting so much pressure on Slater’s world is almost totally unnecessary; as I illustrated above, we know all we need to know about Slater’s world, Slater, and Danny’s relationship to him in the first 8 minutes of the film. If we didn’t get it by then, the Hamlet trailer certainly solidifies it, and that’s a mere 10 minutes in. Slater on the other hand is totally annoyed with Danny until his knowledge of film clichés becomes useful, so why not condense the in-movie portion to just these scenes and keep most of the action in the real world?

"Sorry, just kidding!"
Part of what drives the entire first half of the narrative is Danny trying to convince Slater that he lives in a fictional world; here’s another moment where we have to pull back. Look at the scene in Blade Runner in which Deckard, to make a point to Rachael, begins to describe a memory of hers that he should not know. Rachael finishes telling the story in a shaky voice as her eyes gloss over, and Deckard realizes that his insistence was insensitive, so much so that he tries to retract what he said. Compare this to Danny whining to Slater that because every number starts with “555”, he must be fictional. This is a complete shift of perspective; Danny doesn’t know that he’s threatening the fabric of Slater’s reality, because he’s just a kid. He is oblivious to how his words affect anyone but himself, and he is offended that no one believes him. The audience probably doesn’t consider the gravity of these exchanges either, because we already know Slater is fictional; we’re not invested in his reality, and the film doesn’t give us a chance to be. Slater doesn’t know, and his rejection is totally natural, which begs the question: why spend half of the film trying to convince him merely for comedic effect? We already know that seeing it for himself is the only thing that will tip Slater over the edge. Take out the naïve, self-absorbed child, and you take out the need for this self-assuring banter, but you also take out the charm of the dialogue.

Teens and action films can mix.
Another problem is that we’re expected to believe a 12-year-old is as well-versed in R-rated movies as the writer is. To a point, we can rationalize this; I was 8 when I saw Terminator 2, and I remember still being in elementary school when I wrote Schwarzenegger a fan letter praising his performance in Total Recall. But I can’t shrug the feeling that the film would have worked much better with an older teen in this role. It might have been harder to sell the whole “magic ticket” thing, but at least Danny wouldn’t come off as some whiny, irreverent kid and we wouldn’t have to question his mother’s parenting as much. Is there evidence that this would work? Terminator 2 came just two years earlier, and Furlong was a mere 13 at the time of its release. What a difference a year can make. Not calling your hero a “dumb idiot” helps, too.

"Let's push his son off the building.
Gives you nightmares for the rest of
your life. But you're fictional, so
who cares?"
I would argue that Slater’s story is the far more interesting and better told of the two, and most likely the story McTiernan and screenwriter Shane Black really wanted to tell. I’ve already mentioned McTiernan’s John McClane, and Black is best known for his work on Lethal Weapon, which features a character (Martin Riggs) with such a disturbing history that he is a suicidal wreck. For McTiernan and Black, the human story is as important as the action their characters bring about: their inability to protect those they love translates to an exaggerated aggression that gives these characters a sense of power and purpose. The moment that Slater realizes his life has been made up by screenwriters is one of the most haunting moments in Schwarzenegger’s career, especially knowing all that Slater has gone through[4]. Not only do we know a force equivocal to God is responsible for his heartache, redirecting the anger he feels for recognizable villains and placing it upon a force he cannot possibly fight against (in this world, at least), but we also know that he is now vulnerable, taking away the very means with which he could fight. It’s a powerfully human moment for any action hero, especially the indestructible Schwarzenegger, and it’s told in a surprisingly unique way.

I'm tempted to make my own YouTube account just to show this continuous shot.
The atmosphere of the scene is only enhanced by the late Robert Prosky, whose subtly humorous Nick tries to reassure the hero that there are worse things than being imaginary, like politicians. It’s at this point that the film stops trying to sell itself as comedy and really works on its own dramatic merits: aside from something about “rubber baby buggy bumpers” and an extended red carpet premier scene, the few jokes left feel totally natural, and the rest is taken up with gritty filmmaking. Slater’s boots now dent car roofs, causing him to lose his footing, and a game of chicken gone wrong is shot continuously, leading through a painful buildup to a very real car crash. The best dramatic moments are not Danny telling Slater how the movie world works, but Slater telling Danny how the real world works. All of this should have shown McTiernan’s brilliance as a filmmaker, but these details were probably lost on those who might have missed what the film was trying to do, or who might’ve just been bored by this point.

"I don't want to be no fourth wheel."
With all of that time spent developing the two main leads, how do the villains fare? The first we meet is Anthony Quinn’s Vivaldi, a stereotypical mobster whose only butchering is of English idioms. He develops a pretty impressive ruse, even if it does consist of an extended fart joke, but like Ronald Reagan, his delegation is his weakness.

The genuine article.
Vivaldi’s handiwork is carried out by marksman and strategist Mr. Benedict, who steals the screen as the main villain. However, we know nothing about Benedict or his motivation, even by Disney standards. While Jafar and Ursula have their hidden motives, Benedict’s only known interests are grand larceny and taking out Slater, though we never know why he cares about either other than just having fun being the evil mastermind. This leads to one of the biggest problems of the film’s logic: Benedict’s plot to kill Schwarzenegger in the real world. This would not negate Slater because Slater III and IV were filmed in the past. Benedict might stop future productions of the series, but it can be assumed each is a world in itself and Slater would continue to live in Slater IV. If Benedict had any common sense, he would know this; otherwise, no films would exist with actors who died after their production. If we give Benedict the credit of being a mastermind, then we must assume the whole Ripper plot on Schwarzenegger was bait to bring Slater to the roof of the movie theater where Benedict could ambush him: that’s a lot of assuming, especially when the Ripper gives evidence that Benedict told him to do something completely different. Normally, this would make no difference in a film whose premise is hinged on a magic ticket, but because the third act challenges us to take the film seriously, this lack of thought in the writing takes away from the audience’s ability to do so.

"Mo who?"
Then there’s John Practice, another unfortunate cardboard cutout of an FBI agent secretly working with the enemy. He only really exists in three scenes as part of Slater’s backstory and as a joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Practice is played by F. Murray Abraham, who played Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, the “guy who killed Mozart.” Danny is aware of this fact (though no kid too impatient to sit through Hamlet would be) and warns Slater of Practice’s eventual betrayal, offering another fun metatextual moment. There’s a weird importance to composers here: Abraham’s relationship to Salieri and Mozart is the subject of several jokes, but then there’s “Tony” Vivaldi and Mr. Benedict (whose name may be a reference to composer Julius Benedict[5]). This name scheme could have lent to the characters, but instead we have to accept that this is just a coincidence because the film never gives us reason to suspect a hidden message in it. It’s unfortunate that a film which is in other ways too smart for its own good shows such a lack of development in its villains. Strangely, the Ripper is the most understandable villain in the film, which contrasts with Charles Dance’s scene-stealing Shakespearean performances.

A sawed-off shotgun at point
blank range can't stop Slater.
Can we really call Last Action Hero an action comedy, as it seems to have been intended to be? As an action film, Last Action Hero spends a lot more time in character development and dialogue than most. Aside from an extended car chase, a brief comic shootout and a rooftop gunfight turned helicopter-versus-crane, there isn’t a whole lot of action to be had. Schwarzenegger-as-Schwarzenegger even comments that the violence was toned down in Slater IV due to pressure from censors. Knowing that the action is in a movie world where the hero can’t die doesn’t add at all to the tension that might be felt in these scenes. We only feel some concern for Danny, as he insists he is a “comedy sidekick” and therefore as immune to harm as Detective Nordberg or Leo Getz. Action in the real world carries much more weight, but is extremely brief as a consequence. Battles are fought with words and wits rather than exhaustive car chases and bullet exchanges, and this works marginally in the film’s favor; as with Die Hard and its brother films, the build-up to the action sequence can be as suspenseful as what actually happens, and McTiernan is fully aware of this. Compared to the first half of the film, however, these scenes might feel somewhat disjointed and rushed to a general audience.

Action 101: No stopping to talk
Overall, the film could have used more action. There is simply no excuse, even in a film with this much dialogue: consider The Terminator, in which everything we know about the plot is told in action. Even the exposition is told to Sarah Connor by Kyle Reese as they race away from the T-800 in a stolen car. There’s a brief repose in the police station, but the film’s tension never really breaks once it picks up. On the other hand, Last Action Hero’s atmosphere is more focused on detective work, probably to allow for the jokes to be told at a leisurely pace, but there just isn’t enough sleuthing to warrant the pacing. Slater even comments that he’s never had to do actual detective work: any time he is at a loss for clues, he can count on the bad guys to show up and kidnap him. The plot is only once pushed forward by an intelligent epiphany; the rest of the time it is by the actions of the villains, who always seem at least one step ahead even in the real world.

As a comedy, it suffers in two ways. The first is the obvious problem endemic to the genre: if the audience isn’t inclined to find something funny, they won’t. When your main character’s psychology is marred by having watched his son pulled from the roof of a building, there are only so many jokes you can make around that. This is taken to a further extreme when we realize that a lot of the in-universe jokes are intended to be written poorly, as though all of the good puns were taken in the first three Slater films. “That was a stretch.”

The second issue is that the comedy interrupts the pacing. One of the most amusing scenes in the film is also one that should have been cut in editing: the Blockbuster scene. This is where you get some of the most quotable Schwarzenegger retorts: “That’s why we have area codes,” and “No, this is California,” as well as the standee featuring Sylvester Stallone in Terminator 2. As a comic scene, it works, but in terms of plot structure, it is distracting and unnecessary. In the preceding scene, Danny is trying to convince Slater that he knows what the villains are doing because he’s seen it on screen. Then, there’s the Blockbuster scene, Danny’s “ten minutes to prove” they’re in a movie. Next, Danny tells Slater that he knows where Vivaldi’s villa is because he’s seen it on screen. So aside from a few jokes, the scene accomplishes nothing to move the story forward: we get a sense of how the fictional world gets around casting issues, but that’s it. Danny fails to cast any doubt in Slater’s mind, and the next scene is where the preceding scene was leading anyway.

Had Last Action Hero abandoned its attempts to appeal to young teens and children, which don’t really match with its overall tone and intelligence anyway, it might have done much better than it did. The superhero-turned-human who rediscovers what it means to be a hero is an extremely successful archetype that works well with a general audience, even when solely geared toward older audiences (X-Men, The Dark Knight). Last Action Hero introduced that plot to a dark parody of action films and could have worked on its own merits. If on the other hand it had softened its tone in favor of Danny’s story, it might have made an okay family film, as was the earlier Schwarzenegger vehicle Kindergarten Cop. In either case, it needed to go with one story or the other, in favor of Slater’s. Trying to fit two main plots, two main characters and four villains into a single film rarely works as it is, especially when you’re actually trying to develop your characters.

In so many words, Last Action Hero tried to be too many things for too many people, and it has thus become relegated to $5 DVD bins for the few cheap action nerds lucky enough to discover it. I’m sure I could write another 10 pages worth of what fans like myself loved about this movie, but it wouldn’t really lend to this discussion. I will give kudos to Schwarzenegger, Black and McTiernan for their willingness to poke fun at their own work.

Scream

Released three years after Last Action Hero, Scream is actually the second postmodern horror film directed by Craven since McTiernan’s film. The first was 1994’s New Nightmare, which revived the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise by placing the story in the “real world” and having Freddy stalk Heather Langenkamp, the actress who played Nancy Thompson in the first film. Heather Langenkamp plays “herself” in the film, blurring the line between film and reality. Coming at the end of a long decade of rehash after rehash of slash and losing its teen audience, New Nightmare was just what it promised to be, but at its core it was still a horror film. Aside from its self-awareness and fourth-wall defiance, there wasn’t enough to push it out of the limitations of its genre.

Ghostface lacks a unique costume or
weapon, allowing total anonymity.
Then Scream came two years later. Unlike New Nightmare and its adult cast, Scream looked like a return to teen slasher roots, but with new gimmicks: the killer now announced himself by mobile phone, and we were led to believe that it was a human killer as opposed to some supernatural figure, something that hadn’t been in a well-known slasher since the original Friday the 13th, Leatherface aside[6]. Unlike the usual silent slasher, Ghostface spoke to most of his victims prior to attacking, but eschewed the campy threats of Freddy Krueger in favor of a suspense-building guessing game in which victims were convinced they had some agency in their survival. Of course, Ghostface does remain silent while he is on screen and his movements are fast and almost totally inaudible, giving him a seeming supernatural element to add to the scare factor of his presence. This is enhanced by the use of a mobile phone, which allows the killer to achieve virtual omnipresence when unseen.

The fact that it is assumed Ghostface is a person rather than an actual ghost makes two major impacts on the story and the audience. The first is that the plot plays out more like a mystery/thriller than a horror film. Part of preempting the killer isn’t a gimmick like “don’t fall asleep”, but rather unraveling the clues and discovering his true identity. This draws the audience in and engages them more than telling them outright who the killer is and just waiting for those predictable “surprise” moments where the killer jumps out[7]. Anyone can be the killer, and a clue can be in any frame. One of my favorite minor details is in the bathroom scene, where we see Ghostface wearing a pair of boots that we see again later, worn by Dewey’s superior, casting suspicion even on such a minor character. Craven enhances this suspenseful tone by making much of the gore in the film off-camera, avoiding the alienation of audience members who might be disturbed or uninterested in it. We’re a long way from Tina Gray writhing on the ceiling in a bloody mess, but the simplified killing scenes work strongly in the film’s favor to appeal to a much larger audience, particularly those who might prefer suspense to horror films.

If the shoe fits...
Of course, a good mystery needs a good motive, but Scream retains its horror by declaring “motives are incidental.” To me, the principal difference between horror and mystery is the supernatural: that is, to maintain its scare factor, horror must retain a sense of the unexplainable. If a horror film is going to continue to scare us past the 90-minute mark, it cannot end tidily; it must destroy the sense of order and balance we rely upon and convince us that there’s nothing separating us from the victims in the film. A slasher’s victims are not chosen by a calculated process, despite the “rules,” but are totally circumstantial or even completely random[8]. Scream uses its postmodern analysis to convince us that motives are meaningless because a serial killer must be a psychopath anyway, and thus any rationalizing is retrospective. Several theories are tossed around throughout the film, such as Sidney doing it for the attention or Gale doing it to sell her book and each theory seems just as valid as any other. While the final reveal does offer a motive worthy of a mystery with a calculated plot, it’s a surprisingly strained motive that turns criminal psychology into the supernatural element needed for a horror film to work.

I blame Oliver Stone.
This was, of course, a very timely issue. It seems needless to say that teenage copycat killers were not a new phenomenon in 1996; just two years prior, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers was released, followed by several teen homicides in which the film was specifically mentioned as part of the motive[9]. By the time Scream 2 came around in 1997, it was assumed that blaming the media was a good enough reason to warrant an insanity plea. It’s difficult to blame those who scapegoat the media: trying to make sense of violent crime is difficult as it is, let alone such crime committed by someone with the assumed innocence that comes with adolescence; surely it must have something to do with the entertainment they’re exposed to. However, this directly contradicts the popularity of such films; it seems common sense to ask: “if films have such an impact on impressionable minds, why aren’t we all serial killers?” In Scream, it is commonly accepted that all of the teens have seen horror films and comment on them openly, so we have to rule out seeing such films as a possible cause. The film further addresses the issue more directly: “Movies don’t create psychos; movies make psychos more creative.” While this does, or should, take away from the temptation to scapegoat the media, it also denies us a means of making sense of horrific acts in the real world. Teen psychopathy continues to be a virtually impenetrable issue well into the new millennium.

The police ignore teens, especially
teens talking about murderous blobs.
The second impact of Ghostface’s identity is the way that it affects the teen to adult relationships. One of the characteristics of the teen horror genre is that the adults rarely believe anything the kids have to say, even if the kids have long figured out who or what the killer is. In fact, the adults may be totally oblivious to any danger at all. This is a trope that goes back at least as far as 1958’s The Blob, and it has even been parodied in films of other genres like The Goonies, in which Chunk is accused of lying to the police because he once pranked them with a phone call referencing Gremlins. Valerie Wee, in her impressive scholarship of Scream and its relation to the slasher genre, follows the notion that the slasher genre arose out of the growing gap between adults and teenagers and the increasing anxieties that came with growing up in American society[10]. Confronted with more mature issues at younger ages, teens are frequently confronted with a loss of innocence, “the sin factor” as Randy calls it. In the real world, teens are told that these acts lead to consequences which are often so exaggerated that it makes the acts themselves taboo, thus, engaging in these acts in a slasher film will always result in a violent death.

All great relationships begin with a
solid right hook.
Without getting too deep into horror theory, what makes Scream unique is that the teenagers have voices that are heard by the adults around them, particularly in the characters of Dwight “Dewey” Riley, the awkward but protective deputy, and Gale Weathers, the anything-for-a-story reporter. Though initially there is an obvious social gap between these characters and their teenage counterparts (Tatum and Sidney respectively), they develop a bond that leads to them putting themselves at risk to protect the teens. This allows an adult audience a window into teenage anxieties and vice versa, blurring the established lines that distinguished a teen horror film from the rest.

Subtle.
Discussing the tone, I don’t even have to give an opening scene analysis on this one, as it establishes its tone clearly[11]: as soon as the title appears flashing white and red, we hear string instruments trilling, a heartbeat, a telephone ringing, a girl screaming, a blade slicing, and a gunshot, all solely in the sound track and all before the twenty second mark. We know we’re about to watch a horror film, and in a genre known for turning a lot of people off, this may be the most helpful twenty seconds in horror.


Is that Drew Barrymore in the
foreground?
Of course, the opening scene warrants a good bit of discussion. While Last Action Hero had its line of random celebrity cameos (Chevy Chase?), Scream was mostly made up of young actors relatively new to the big screen. One of its most established names was Drew Barrymore, a Hollywood legacy known since her role in E.T. and retrospectively for her brilliant choices in film roles. One such choice was her role in Scream: offered the lead as Sidney Prescott, Barrymore chose instead to play Casey Becker, reportedly because it seemed like more fun or simply due to a lack of time to commit. Whether intentional or not, Becker’s death in the opening of the film is an incredible display of this film’s audacity to break with tradition: killing your major star power first negates the casting tropes we’ve come to expect in film, pushing us past our ability to predict what will happen solely based on casting.

"Did you really put her liver in the
mailbox because I heard that they
found her liver in the mailbox..."
Scream uses its postmodern analysis for comedy at times, but in a totally different fashion than Last Action Hero. One of the best scenes here involves the central teen characters sitting outside of the school discussing their questioning. Through the scene, Stu and Randy exchange accusations with increasing irreverence, culminating in a Jerry Lewis impression and a poor liver pun. Tatum insists the killer could have been a girl, referencing Basic Instinct. Grounding the tone of the scene is the presence of Sidney, whose facial expressions and words remind us of the gravity of the situation before we can get too comfortable laughing about it. If we still find it funny, Billy’s there to remind us we’re being insensitive. Later exchanges between Randy and Stu maintain this sense of grounding with an ominous presence: Billy in the movie store and Ghostface in Tatum’s house. The grounding of the tone works well for those who are not inclined to find humor in the situation, but for the desensitized horror fan, the comedic exchanges add a level of enjoyment to the film.

Himbry considers a new career.
Many critics argue that the characters in the film are very three-dimensional, but I’m going to differ slightly here. While Gale, Dewey, and Sidney are exceptional characters who evolve through the film, most of the cast is made up of stock characters summed up by one or two lines of their dialogue. The stroke of genius is that the stock characters Kevin Williamson selected are all very recognizable as three-dimensional characters: that is, we’ve all known someone like them, and can thus project complex personalities onto them. Craven doesn’t need to waste screen time developing these characters because they come with the benefit of already being known to the audience. There’s also a lot to be said about subtlety; though Principal Himbry chastises the youth of the day, we also see him don the ghost mask and boo himself in the mirror, a brief moment that adds a level of interpretation to an otherwise dismissible character.

In Summary

In comparison to Last Action Hero, Scream is not a film bogged down by problems with tone and character development. Williamson and Craven establish tone early, ensure that post-modern elements fit with the overall tone, and manage to work a mystery element into the film to help it appeal to a broader audience. In revising its genre, Scream harkens back to early slasher brilliance and melds it with Hitchcock’s sense of suspense while updating the themes to the sensibilities of a general 1990s audience. Its self-awareness sets a new standard for horror films to follow, a standard which even subsequent Scream sequels would have trouble meeting.

"Hey, come on! Focus!"
Last Action Hero is a jumbled mess of tone that leaves the audience to figure out what they’re supposed to be getting out of every scene from start to finish. The jokes do help the audience to decipher the genre commentary, but part of the issue here is that cliché is celebrated more than challenged: the audience of an action film doesn’t really care about literary realism, they care about action. Like the horror genre, plots, motives, and details like phone numbers are all afterthoughts and are easy to nitpick. Because the clichés only apply in Slater’s world, it fails to make an impact on an audience who knows they’re watching a movie prone to such clichés. The only real difference between this film’s use of cliché and something like Loaded Weapon is the insistence upon pointing out its self-awareness, and using Danny to do this becomes obnoxious over time.  Only one scene in this film involves Danny and Slater using this knowledge to solve a problem; the rest of the time it is being used to destroy Slater’s reality, only to restore it at the resolution of the film. The resolution gives us a message that through fiction we can find a belief in ourselves in a world where our efforts seem inconsequential, but this meaning is probably lost on most, and understandably so in the labyrinth of plot directions this film seems to take. In the simplest terms, what Last Action Hero needed was a writer willing to shout “Focus!”


[1] Fortinbras invades Denmark to avenge his father’s death at the elder Hamlet’s hands.
[2] Literally “God from a machine”, deus ex machina refers to a classical tradition of having gods descend to judge the ending of the story, represented by actors held aloft by cranes.
[4] We know that his wife left him, his son was killed by the Ripper, and he wishes for his daughter to be less of a tomboy, but there’s also an in-joke that so much of his family must have been threatened or killed that only his second cousin is left to be used as leverage by the film’s villains.
[5] Schwarzenegger’s character in Twins is also named Julius Benedict. There is, of course, the theory that Mr. Benedict is a reference to Benedict Arnold and that, like Practice, we can predict his betrayal; Arnold is Schwarzenegger’s first name, so calling the villain “Arnold” might’ve been problematic. Still, there are other classic double-crossers, and more famous composers, so it’s a bit of a stretch either way.
[6] This is debatable, of course, and depends upon whether or not one considers Michael Myers supernatural, considering his designation as “the shape.” Scream may directly reference this revisiting to a human killer in the opening scene, in which Ghostface challenges Casey Becker with questions about Michael Myers and Mrs. Voorhees.
[7] I give A Nightmare on Elm Street credit here, as the transitions from real world to dream world are virtually seamless, especially by the end of the film.
[8] There is typically a relationship to teen actions and their subsequent victimization, as Randy describes, leading to issues of teen morality in the film’s reading. However, this relationship would seem to be completely in the narrative structure and not something of which the killer is consciously aware.
[10] Wee, Valerie. Resurrecting and Updating the Teen Slasher: The Case of "Scream". Journal of Popular Film & Television 34:2 (Summer 2006) p. 50-61.
[11] If you would like such an analysis, Glenn Dunks of Stale Popcorn does an excellent analysis of the entire film, as well as its sequels. http://stalepopcornau.blogspot.com/2010/06/scream-to-scream-scene-by-scene-scream.html