Scream (1981) Scream/The Outing (1981) -*½

     Although I certainly remember seeing the box at the video store back in the day, I never gave Byron Quisenberry’s Scream a moment’s thought until after Wes Craven’s came out, transforming it forever into “the other Scream.” That’s when I noticed the sun-faded old copy sitting neglected in the horror section of Metro Video, my main hookup for the weird and obscure during the late 1990’s, and got to thinking that I ought to give it a look someday. I never quite got around to it, though, before Metro went out of business at the turn of the century. The next time Scream entered my consciousness, I made a more serious effort to see it. Indeed, it was one of the first discs I added to my queue when I signed up for Netflix— and I’m pretty sure the ensuing comedy of errors is the reason why you won’t find this Scream in the Netflix DVD catalogue today. You see, the first copy they sent me had a great, big notch taken out of it, almost like someone at the post office had bitten the damn thing. The second copy they sent came snapped neatly in half. The third was structurally intact, but so badly scuffed up on the side with the data on it that only the first 30 minutes or so would play. And the fourth and apparently final copy arrived shattered into about two dozen pieces. I ought to have realized at that point that the gods were trying to tell me something. For now that I have seen it, Scream turns out to be shockingly free of point or purpose, even by the low standards of regionally produced first-wave slasher movies. Nothing happens very slowly for most of its duration, and what does happen is completely nonsensical. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a Dadaist horror film.

     The weird, arty pre-credits sequence is intelligible only if you know that the first of Scream’s several successive working titles was The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker— which itself has nothing to do with the main body of the story. The camera pans from a painting of a sailing ship across a set of figurines representing the aforementioned nursery rhyme characters, and thence to a mantelpiece clock showing midnight. (Well, I suppose it could just as well be noon, but this is a horror movie, right?) Then it pans back the way it came, revealing that the Butcher figurine has evidently decapitated both of its companions while we were looking at the clock. It’s a neat gag in its way, but it would have been neater if it were in any way relevant to anything else in the film.

     From there, Scream jumps to some river running through the hilly part of Texas. Riding that river are a group of rafts laden down with a dismaying surfeit of Expendable Meat. Leading the excursion are a pair of dude ranch cowboys called Stan (John Wayne’s youngest son, Ethan) and Rudy (Joseph Alvarado). The old guy with the Navy baseball cap is Allen (Alvy Moore, of Intruder and The Witchmaker), vacationing with his coworker, Ross (Gregg Palmer, from The Zombies of Mora Tau and The Creature Walks Among Us), and a rather younger woman named Janice (Cynthia Faria) whom I take to be Ross’s wife. The third old codger is John (Hank Worden, of Space Rage and Please Don’t Eat the Babies), accompanied by his daughter, Marion (Ann Bronston), and his ultra-prick son-in-law, Bob (Pepper Martin, from Evil Altar and Return to Horror High). The girl in the University of Houston sweatshirt is Laura (Julie Marine), and her quiet, dark-haired friend is Adriana (Nancy St. Marie). Last but unfortunately most, the chubby dope in the Oiler’s cap is Lou (Joe Allaine)— although I quickly came to think of him as Fat in the Hat— and the fuckhead who presents himself as Lou’s buddy even as he does nothing but to torment and belittle him is Andy (Bob MacGonigal). Several of these people will never be identified except via the closing credits.

     Anyway, the premise of this trip is that the vacationers will eventually leave the river to camp out overnight in the long-abandoned mining town of Terlinqua, which Western fans will recognize from every two-bit oater ever shot on the Paramount lot. It looks like nearly 20% as much fun as getting your driver’s license renewed. During the night, Fat in the Hat hears someone prowling around the old ghost town— which would be much spookier a development if we didn’t already know there weren three separate groups of his companions doing that very thing as if in the hope that one of them might accidentally stumble over the Plot Actuator switch. And you might think at first that that’s just what has happened when Janice discovers Allen’s dead body hanging from the front porch of the sheriff’s office, but do not be deceived. Although the rest of the gang briefly make a big show of acting concerned that there’s a murderer among them, they soon resume roaming aimlessly about Terlinqua by ones and twos, with the result that Ross and John have also been slain by the time dawn breaks over the deserted town.

     Stan and Rudy do at least have the sense to lead the survivors back to the river in the morning, but a fat lot of good it does them. The rafts are gone, and the overland trek to the nearest ranch is apparently 30 miles through steep, arid hills. The only thing for it, or so it seems, is to hike back to the dubious shelter of Terlinqua to await the park rangers who will no doubt be sent out after the vacationers as soon as they’re missed. Plot momentarily threatens to break out again when a pair of color-coordinated guys on dirt bikes show up out of nowhere, and drive back and forth through Terlinqua revving their engines in a threatening manner. Neither of them is the killer, though. Rather, Rod (Bobby Diamond) and Jerry (John Nowak) have merely gotten lost during a wilderness weekend of their own. Why they made their entrance doing a Toecutter impression is never explained. Recognizing the sound of opportunity knocking, Stan takes Rod’s bike and sets off with Jerry to fetch help.

     Inevitably, they don’t come back in time to forestall a second night of carnage. Rod is the first casualty this time, following a succession of false alarms. That’s when Scream takes a turn for the truly bizarre, for after Rod’s death, an eerie fogbank blows into Terlinqua, and out of it rides a grizzled black cowboy (Woody Strode, from Kingdom of the Spiders and The Final Executioners) accompanied by a second horse and a Rottweiler. Incredibly, the campers do not leap at once to the eminently reasonable conclusion that this guy is their hitherto unseen nemesis, even when Rudy notices Jerry’s corpse slung across the saddle of Weirdo Rider’s spare horse. Instead, they invite him into their makeshift base in Terlinqua’s saloon, and start pestering him about whether he saw any trace of Stan when he found Jerry’s body. Weirdo Rider smokes his pipe in silence for a bit before responding with this astounding non-sequitur:

I was a sailor, you know. For 40 years. Sailed the Horn 35 times. Many times, night like this, we’d run before the wind, me behind that big iron wheel and the captain standing her face into that watery hell. That old man feared nothing. Me and the captain, we came here when they gave him nary another ship. They were cruel men, thems that run the ships— company men. The captain gave me this [compass] the first time I sailed the Horn.

Then he climbs back onto his horse and rides away into the darkness whence he came, having accomplished nothing, contributed nothing, and advanced the story not a single angstrom from where it stood prior to his arrival.

     Stan has indeed survived, however, and he turns up soon thereafter, rather the worse for wear. Perhaps the killer is losing his mojo, since Janice also survives an attack around the same time. On the other hand, Andy and Bob still manage to get themselves whacked by leaving the relative safety of the saloon on various damnfool solo errands. Finally, the remaining campers shift their position to the one building in town with a door intact enough to secure against attack from outside— thereby provoking the killer into besieging them. Lou gets dragged outside as his companions scramble to maintain their human barricade, but just as the slasher raises his scythe for the most eagerly anticipated killing blow of the entire film, a shot rings out. It’s Weirdo Rider, belatedly justifying his existence! The scythe falls from nerveless hands, and an old couple we’ve never so much as heard mention of before (Alligator’s Bella Bruck, and Dee Cooper, from Fantasm Comes Again and The Amorous Adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza) drive up in a truck to carry the survivors to safety. There’s no sign of the killer’s body, but also no sign that anyone notices or cares about that. Then, in one last bit of gratuitous strangeness, we return to the knickknack shelf from the pre-credits sequence, where the Butcher figurine now lies gorily dismembered alongside the Baker and the Candlestick Maker. The camera pulls back to reveal a portrait dated 1891 on the wall above, while a distorted voiceover reprises Weirdo Rider’s line about “thems that run the ships.”

     It isn’t often that a mere slasher movie leaves me unable to muster any response more articulate than “Oh, bullshit!” but here we are. Scream demands nearly superhuman patience and an unlimited willingness to forgive repeated violations of basic human psychology, but offers nothing in return to satisfy even the most lenient fans of the genre. Writer/director Byron Quisenberry had no money for gore effects, and was unwilling to make any concessions to the exploitation market beyond the bare minimum of profanity needed to secure an R-rating. His avowed attempt to duplicate a European sensibility with regard to pacing and story structure might be worth a bit of commendation, but he carried it far beyond such appropriate points of reference as Mario Bava and Dario Argento, ultimately landing at an inadvertent parody of Ingmar Bergman. For fuck’s sake, Scream never even bothers to show the killer’s face or to reveal his identity! Now those of you who came here after reading this movie’s Wikipedia page will justifiably take issue with that statement. And I’ll concede that the synopsis given there is an available interpretation of Scream’s story, insofar as nothing that transpires onscreen directly contradicts it. But let’s just say that whoever wrote that recap was willing to do a lot more of Quisenberry’s work for him than I am. The most galling thing about Scream, though, is the particular strategy Quisenberry chose for burning up all those endless minutes between scenes of people wandering stupidly off alone to be murdered. Were we to judge solely by weight of celluloid, we’d be forced to conclude that Scream was really about Fat in the Hat blundering his way around Terlinqua being frightened of things for no reason, like an unlovable, Aspergery Lou Costello. If Scream can be said to have any merit— an “if” of substantial size— it lies in a small handful of incidents like the arrival of the Dirt Bike Boys and the first visit from Weirdo Rider. In those contextually precious moments, the audience receives an all-too-brief respite from Scream’s overall tedium to grapple with the suddenly compelling question of what the fuck is even happening. I suppose there must exist somewhere a person for whom that will be good enough, but I’m sure as hell not him.

 

 

There’s no copyright protection for titles, and the bar for titles deserving of trademark protection is set high enough that most movies never have a prayer of clearing it. Consequently, it often happens that a well-known film shares its title with another movie that’s much more obscure. This B-Masters roundtable is dedicated to those other movies, the ones people don’t think of when they hear the shared title.

 

 

 

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