The golden slasher movie year of 1981 featured a number of hits and misses in the sub-genre. Despite the low points, the sub-genre continued to thrive through the decade thanks to the invention of the home video market. One film that received a limited theatrical release, but made a comeback in the mid-80s on video, was Byron Quisenberry's masterpiece of boredom, The Outing...better known under its U.S. Beta and VHS title, Scream. Yes, there was a Scream long before Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson decided to reinvent the slasher almost a decade and a half later. How does the original slasher Scream compare to Craven's film? Most importantly, does it live up to its name? Well, let's take a look.
A group of people (Family members? Friends, perhaps? It’s not made entirely clear) on a rafting outing happen upon a strange, deserted town. Stuck for the night, they decide to make due with what they have…only, someone or something doesn’t want them to stick around, and I wish I could say the typical slasher hijinx ensued, but if there is one thing this movie isn’t, it’s typical. Minutes drag on with the amateur cast looking mostly lost, bored, and unsure of what to do. Then comes a bloodless death scene. Repeat. That’s the movie. And then, the ending comes. Woah boy, the ending. To say it’s a head-scratcher is an understatement. In fact, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my head that I scratched upon watching the film. It is quite possibly the worst slasher movie ending of the 80s. I say that with complete safety and without any hesitation.
Ever since I first watched Scream, I’ve been trying my best to decipher the events in the film. Some slasher films from the 70s and 80s feature bizarre killers whose motives are not completely known to the viewer (Final Exam and Black Christmas being good examples), but the killings in Scream really leave me at a loss. The murders in Scream are committed by seemingly unseen forces. In many giallo films and slashers, we’re given glimpses of the killer via gloved hands, a mask, or a silhouette. No such luck in Scream. We see weapons raised and then used (with little to no gore) by invisible means. Look ma, no hands! Were the killers actually spirits the whole time? I suppose that is one theory, but we’re not likely to ever get an answer. Maybe it’s scarier that way? No, not in this case.
The locations, in a better film, actually would’ve been a strong point. However, they are shot with little to no regard for cinematography. Watching the film, you truly get the impression that someone wrote a script on Monday, got together with some friends and family, and shot a movie over the following weekend. The film has no nudity and precious little blood. Made during the slasher boom of the early 80s, you have to wonder what audience Byron Quisenberry was targeting with this inept mess. If I’d had a budget like Quisenberry’s and had the opportunity to make a slasher movie in 1981, I would certainly hope mine would turn out better than this mess. After viewing the movie, I really think the original title, The Outing fit the movie better than Scream. There really wasn't much screaming going on, and it did feel more like you were on an outing with several dull and uninteresting people.
For what little it has going for it, Scream is just entirely too slow, too dull, and too vague. Some slashers that are considered slow by many (Final Exam), I enjoy. Scream was just too slow for even my forgiving tastes. If the action between the downtime was even remotely interesting, I’d find reasons to praise the film. But again, the film’s major flaw is its attempts to be mysterious. What/who is the phantom thing at the end? What is the meaning of the clock and statues at the beginning? What is the meaning behind the painting? Precious time…perhaps a minute to two minutes…is spent lingering on these images. Surely they mean something? Maybe? Maybe not. The film is a true enigma for the ages, never meant to be solved. I’m all for films that leave viewers thinking to draw their own conclusions, but in order to do so, the film must play fair and provide ample enough clues. In the original Black Christmas, imagine if ‘Billy’ didn’t talk or phone the girls at all. We would have absolutely no clue as to his personality and motivation. At the end of the film, we still don’t know why ‘Billy’ went nuts and did everything he did, although from the clues gathered in what he says and does, we all have our own theories. It’s fun to play detective when the film plays along. It’s like reading a good mystery novel before the resolution is revealed. Scream never really has any intention of being anything other than vague, and the result is extremely frustrating. By the end of the film, you feel like you’ve wasted your time. In fact, in even writing this much about this film, I feel like I have wasted my time, but you know…someone has to write about it. This film is, to paraphrase the saying, the turd in the punch bowl of horror fans everywhere. It has to be covered and discussed, so we can move on to better and more interesting topics.
The original VHS box featured somewhat cool cover art, with a creepy font and image of a hand holding a moon-like scythe in the air. That’s really as good as the film got. If you saw that cover in the mid-80s, you probably decided to check the film out, and boy what a mistake that was. I really can’t say many good things about Scream, other than, hey…it got made. Someone set out to make a horror film on the cheap, they secured funding somehow, shot the thing, and got it on to store shelves (perhaps a drive-in or two also, but not likely). Filmmaking is a dream that many set out to do which most always get derailed along the way. Others never even get far enough to dream. For the completion of a film, despite its shortcomings, I do applaud Byron Quisenberry. After this filmmaking experience, he decided to stick to being a stuntman. It wasn’t until 2004 that he decided to get behind the camera again for the family comedy Big Chuck, Little Chuck. I don’t recommend Scream unless you are a slasher movie aficionado with a non-discriminating, completist heart (like myself). Then, I suppose it’s worth one single look for curiousity's sake. However, you won’t become a fan, and you won’t likely revisit it within the next ten years. Trash it!