Many, many spoilers ahead…
“You know me and organized religion.”
“It’s a sorority.”
–Sidney and Hallie, Scream 2
Knife-wielding killers of cinema have slashed bloody swaths through summer camps and trick-or-treat routes. They’ve also always been at home terrorizing the halls of higher education, though, and those hallowed halls are where I’ve thoroughly studied the genre.
As a teen who’d been scarred by the few horror flicks I’d seen at sleepovers, I was uneasy when my friends and I went to see Scream 2 in theaters. I was also a little lost since I hadn’t seen the original. But in less than two hours, I fell inexorably into the throes of the genre. Scream 2 had genuine pathos, humor, and scares, all in the type of college setting I only saw in movies. Twenty-two years later, I still love horror films. To this day, nothing gives me a nostalgic sense of homecoming like a college slasher. I took this as an opportunity to revisit one entry in the sub-genre while watching others for the first time, all while using Scream 2 as a point of reference.
Before we start, I just want to gripe that most of my smallish college campus was under construction all four years I attended. Sitting on the appealing campus greens I’ve seen in movies remains a casual, languorous luxury I’ll never experience. I’ll be forever bitter, though I’m not about to go on a murderous rampage over it. Yet.
So are you pledges ready? I said ARE YOU READY??
To be accepted into Alpha Sigma Rho, one must spend the night in Garth Manor. It’s there that a man supposedly murdered his family (except his youngest son) and then himself (except authorities never found his body) 12 years ago. Hopeful pledges recite this at the top of 1981’s Hell Night so readily, you’d think this overnight rite happens every year. There’s even a campus-wide party to commemorate Hell Night, even if there are only four pledges up for hazing. But the rusty lock on the manor’s gate and the fact that the mansion’s occupants end up killing everyone makes me think this is the first time the titular Hell Night has actually culminated at the manor. I can’t imagine someone new volunteers to spearhead this every year.
Hazing is the excuse to get victims in the house. From there, bottomlessly chauvinistic frat dudes haunt our protagonists with practical effects before the real baddies come out and kill everyone. That’s pretty much it: people go into a murder mansion on a dare and get murdered, save for final girl Linda Blair.
So, Hell Night has problems. The acting is garbage. The frat ringleader drops slurs about the developmentally disabled when describing the Garth family (he also calls the surviving son “gorked out,” and I’m still puzzling over what means). It falls short in slasher scares but occasionally works as Gothic horror, which is what it wants all along. In fact, the scariest, most memorable aspects of Hell Night are the grumbling, creaky son and (spoiler alert!) father who still clamber around Garth Manor. I honestly didn’t go into this movie thinking this was an option; I assumed someone had a grievance against these Greeks and would use this as cover to get even. But why do the Garths kill? Maybe they’re sick of college trespassers. Maybe they’re fed up with being called “gorked out.” We never know. They’re just creep-o’s.
Hey, any other movies have an urban legend about a campus-adjacent massacre?
I can’t find a more blatant Scream ripoff than 1998’s Urban Legend. But instead of using rules to horror movies—er, I mean, urban legends—to stay alive, these characters name-check folklore while walking into deaths sprung from those very tales.
An axe murderer hides in the backseat of a college girl’s car, beheading her while she sings “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (the “joke” just underscores how clueless these characters are). A friend of main character Natalie (Alicia Witt) is killed in the style of the “Boyfriend’s Death” legend. We learn Natalie accidentally killed a man in the manner of the high beams/gang initiation myth and, gee, maybe that’s related to all these urban legend-esque killings on campus? Am I too late for the Dean’s List?
I appreciate Urban Legend for having its own urban legend: the boarded up dorm on campus was maybe the site of a massacre decades prior. But it’s also a time-consuming red herring involving the supposed sole survivor: a professor played by Robert Englund. Another slasher where he literally and verbally rips his victims apart? We should be so lucky.
Like many slashers, the killer’s motive is dependent on the sins of our final girl. Turns out the guy she accidentally killed was our killer’s (Rebecca Gayheart) high school fiancé. The finale takes place in the old dorm, but it lends no atmosphere beyond cartoonishly boarded-up windows. I’d appreciate this movie so much more if it tied its own urban legend into the story in a more direct way. Instead, we get “you killed my man, so I’m going to kill you.” It has this wasted opportunity in common with Hell Night.
These characters remember urban legends when they need to look meta, but forget them to their own detriment whenever the movie needs to up the body count. Similarly, Hell Night could have equipped its characters with fleshed-out knowledge of the Garth tragedy or more agency against their antics-inducing friends. They would have had a dangerous sense of empowerment once the real terror scuttled up from the basement. And the reveal of Papa Garth could have been so much more momentous and troublesome. Wasted opportunities all around!
Actually, UL’s biggest waste of an opportunity is the fact that the newspaper for Pendleton College is called The Pendleton and not The Pendletimes. Come on, movie! It’s right there!
But my favorite part of Urban Legend is when Sasha (Tara Reid) holds what she calls an “early edition” of the ancient Kama Sutra. Her version has color photos and is printed in English, but…okay. This could be an indication of Sasha’s dubiousness as a scholar as opposed to evidence of incompetent screenwriting, but I just don’t know anymore, man. I just don’t know.
One more thing: Jared Leto plays an opportunistic journalism student because no slashers can ever just have, like, an ethical member of the media (though Joel from Scream 2 potentially bucks this trend? What say the jury?). He and Peter Barton from Hell Night look A LOT alike.
History repeats itself. While we’re on the subject…
Happy Death Day
I bubble letters with squiggly hearts around it LOVE the conceit of “Scream meets Groundhog Day.” But, despite that being how every critic described 2017’s Happy Death Day, I’m unconvinced.
Sorority mean girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes up in the dorm bed of a lame-o named Carter (Israel Broussard) one Monday morning. She doesn’t want anyone to know it’s her birthday, and she’s murdered at the end of the day. Cut to her waking up in Carter’s bed again, reliving the day over and over. She remembers more from each repeated scenario and uses it to extricate herself from her waking nightmare. Within this bloody Möbius strip, she becomes a better person, reconciles with her father (as well as the painful fact that she shares a birthday with her dead mother), falls for Carter, and stops her killer.
Tree surmises that she must unmask and stop her killer to end this spell, but during this cycle she is also hit by a bus and commits suicide. All deaths, not just murder, reset the day, so the governing rules here are fuzzy. But this slasher does have some humor going for it, though not nearly as much as it thinks. It also flubs the emotional element (more on that in a second), so it’s no Groundhog Day, no Scream.
But I do enjoy the baby mask of the killer, or rather, that the baby is the university’s mascot. Gotta love that reverse engineering. We have this creepy mask, how do we fit it in for the killer? Go Fighting Babies!
I wanted characters to root for in all of these movies. When I watch horror, dread and emotional despair are paramount to gore, not that I don’t also get a lowbrow kick out of cinematic viscera (HDD baffled me until I looked up its rating after watching and learned it was PG-13). But it’s hard to feel these emotions if everyone’s an asshole. And characters in slashers tend to be assholes. For contrast—yes, I’m partial—Scream 2’s Sidney (Neve Campbell) is a deserving recipient of our sympathy. Her pal Hallie (Elise Neal) and boyfriend Derek (Jerry O’Connell) are genuinely good, and I genuinely dread their demises. And don’t get me started on Randy’s (Jamie Kennedy) death in the news van. Every time I watch I want to run in and save him, even after all this time.
What about our comparison flicks? Urban Legend’s characters are uniformly assholes. Even final girl Natalie: her roommate might be far too sex positive for close quarters, but I still don’t like how Nat treats her. Hell Night is full of stock ’80s dopes whose deaths you relish. And a dead, undeveloped mom character is a lazy way to make us feel for Tree, but I appreciate that she fixes her crappy self. Some have said that Carter is a #NotAllMen nice guy. I’ll point out that he’s known Tree for a few hours and puts himself in mortal danger to help her. That’s more than letting a drunk girl crash in your bed and expecting something in return.
As for HDD’s emotional element: I don’t need this to be Scream. But it sets up a back story of a dead parent (hello Maureen Prescott!) and a birthday Tree’s desperately avoiding celebrating just to let said story languish. Pay this off, HDD! There’s no explicit reason to live this day over and over because her murder is not tied to her mother’s death. It’s not even tied to her birthday, despite a poisoned birthday cupcake being her killer’s primary weapon. Nope. Tree’s being targeted for the same reason Natalie was in Urban Legend: she stole the killer’s man. However, she’s stolen this man via sex rather than vehicular homicide.
Finally, a final look at our final girls. Linda Blair’s Marti isn’t much of one. She’s at least responsible for getting herself to safety thanks to her mechanic skills, aka the only thing we know about her. That was nice to watch, not because I was worried for her but because I could see this movie forgetting its own flimsy character work. Natalie does finally recognize danger and run toward it to try to save friends. Still, like Marti, she’s kind of a non-entity without believable emotional depth. Tree, like I said, catches on and tries to learn, so she earns a few more points than these other two. Oddly enough, she almost always has to just worry about herself, rather than protecting any friends. Halfway through Scream 2, Sidney tells her friends to stop treating her like glass because she’s not going to break. She eventually does, of course. Ever the survivor, she bares her claws.
Let’s wrap up class with some tallies from all four movies:
Times someone is thrown out a window: 5
Car crashes: 3.5
Costume parties marking the anniversary of a massacre: 2
Movies with both Rebecca Gayheart and Joshua Jackson: 2
Times someone breaks one of those “In case of emergency, break glass” cases to get an ax: 2
Times someone walks in on a murder in progress and mistakes it for copulating: 2
Alright, that’s it! Race you to the luscious green quad! Last one there is gorked out!