Film critics see most movies in a somewhat artificial environment. Low-budget Sundance indies, documentaries, the latest Almodóvar or Haneke flick—they’re all shown in small, private screening rooms, where critics watch them surrounded entirely by other critics. (That’s assuming the distributor didn’t just send out a DVD, which is becoming more and more common.) The major Hollywood studios, however, are still having none of that. They want critics to see their big fat crowdpleasers with a regular audience, so they generally rope off a few choice rows at a sneak preview packed with civilians who received a free pass on the street. That way, the reasoning goes, pointy-heads will be swept along in the participatory tide, influenced by the crowd’s raucous laughter or loud sniffling or (if in Times Square) cries of “oh hell no.” They’ll enjoy the movie rather than sit there and silently judge it, as they do amongst themselves.
You can hear Rex Reed dismissing this idea at least 25 years ago, in the opening scene of Albert Brooks’ Lost In America. (“If it’s really funny, I’ll laugh. I don’t need 40 other people to laugh to remind me that I should be laughing. I don’t respond very well to mass hysteria anyway.”) But the studios do have a point, and the phenomenon has little to do with critics. Certain aspects of the moviegoing experience require audience feedback for maximum enjoyment. Just as there’s no point in watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show alone in your apartment (trust me on this), I would argue, at least based on my own experience, that it is now all but impossible to fully appreciate the finest sequence in Scream 2, even though it made such an impression on me in 1997 that it indirectly inspired this very column (by directly inspiring a Best Scene category in an annual movie-nerd poll I conduct.) We’re gonna skip the inconsequential part in which Ghostface murders two cops who’ve detained Sidney (Neve Campbell) and Hallie (Elise Neal); the real “action” occurs after Ghosty crashes the police car while trying to escape.
Kevin Williamson’s metatextual winking in the Scream series never did that much for me, but I give him enormous credit for devising this particular exercise in sustained tension, which he and director Wes Craven play entirely straight. (They do expertly tweak our expectations, which are derived from other horror movies, but that’s not the same thing as explicating the genre’s conventions via smart-ass dialogue.) My own knowledge of Z-grade slasher fare is far from encyclopedic—I would surely have been toast in the first Scream, with its homicidal pop quizzes—so I can’t say whether there are any previous instances of a movie’s psycho killer being knocked out cold. Either way, though, it’s an inspired idea that gets cranked up to 11 as Campbell finds one door after another locked or blocked, until finally she has no choice but to crawl directly over Ghostface’s unconscious form, placing her vital organs within easy reach of any sudden upward thrust with a giant butcher knife.
Of course, we pretty much know that Sidney’s going to survive her treacherous journey, seeing as how she’s the protagonist. (Hitchcock and Robert Bloch permanently retired that shocker.) That’s why she goes first, thereby allowing us to freak out all over again when Neal, who’s clearly far more expendable, has to go the same route. That she, too, survives (for now) is arguably more surprising than any of the countless moments in which Ghostface strikes from out from nowhere, as he’s about to do yet again; Williamson cannily relies on our assumption that a movie wouldn’t show us the same thing twice in a row, performing a kind of double-fakeout. One could plausibly ask, I suppose, why Campbell, after she’s escaped the vehicle, doesn’t just grab the heaviest object within reach and pound Ghostface into a more permanent coma—or, better yet, shoot him with the gun that’s still in the dead cop’s hand! (Hello?) But that sort of nitpicking seems contrary to the spirit of a movie like this. I’m happy to suspend my disbelief.
Or at least I was when I saw Scream 2 in a massive, jam-packed Times Square theater on opening weekend. Rather than show you a clip taken from the official DVD release, I dearly wish I could track down a crappy camcorder bootleg of that particular screening (which for all I know may actually have been for sale from New York street vendors the following week—it’s not at all implausible), so you could hear how absolutely freakin’ nuts the audience went during this scene. I’m not even sure how to phonetically represent the steadily escalating sound we made as first Campbell and then Neal crawled through the window—the best I can do is suggest you imagine a prolonged “ohhhhhhhh shiiiiiiiiiiiiit!!!!” but without actual words. Kind of a cross between a groan and a shriek, recognizably half male and half female, and rising in pitch as it went on and on and on before finally resolving in giddy, relieved laughter when they each make it. I’ve rarely heard a vocal response that dramatic—the only real contender is opening day of Malcolm X, also in Times Square, which was easily the most electrifying moviegoing experience of my life. (I was one of three white people in the theater. A story for another time.)
As fondly as I’ve always recalled that visceral reaction, however, I didn’t realize until now how much it influenced my perception of the actual scene, which seems unexceptional when I look at it all by myself. For one thing, it’s much, much shorter than I remembered—something about that steadily rising groan-shriek made time seem to slow down, so that I came away with the sense that each character spent a full minute vulnerably stretched over Ghostface, when in fact they move about as speedily as you’d expect someone to move when threatened. More than that, though, the sequence just seems surprisingly... unemphatic. Straightforward. Craven executes a couple of mildly nerve-wracking camera movements, pulling Campbell forward, but that’s about it in terms of stylish direction, and there’s certainly no memorable dialogue. It’s strictly the situation that’s suspenseful, and it’s a situation that really needs a whole room full of people to be audibly anxious. Had I first seen Scream 2 in crowdless circumstances, I doubt I’d have remembered this scene a month later, much less 14 years later.
So does that mean it’s actually a mediocre, forgettable scene, and I just got snookered by mass hysteria, as Rex Reed puts it? I don’t think so. It’s a scene that was expressly conceived with a mass audience in mind, and thus requires a mass audience to really work as intended. And it’s one of the reasons we still go to the movies, even now that you can easily download a crappy camcorder bootleg for free. (ATTENTION MPAA: I do not condone this. Leave me alone.) Ideally, they’re a communal experience, shared with a bunch of like-minded strangers. If we ever do reach the point where we’re all exclusively watching movies hunched alone over our laptops or iPads or whatever that year’s hot new device may be, not only will David Lynch commit seppuku, but certain varieties of popular entertainment are likely to become extinct.