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Scream is one of the worst slasher movies ever made (No, not that one)

By Jon O'Brien
Scream 1981

Scream is quite possibly the most amateurish, bloodless, and downright tedious slasher ever to grace the big screen. Saying that about Wes Craven's mid-'90s game-changer would cast you as a horror pariah, but Craven’s Scream wasn’t the first slasher to bear that name. There’s a much lesser-known movie that somehow found its way into cinemas during the genre's first golden age.

Yes, 15 years before Drew Barrymore was killed in the opening scene, another Scream was attempting, and failing miserably, to terrify audiences with the actions of a mysterious killer. Unfortunately, their identity, methods, and motives remained just as much a mystery once the final credits had rolled.

Written, produced, and directed by former stuntman Byron Quisenberry, the 1981 Scream, now celebrating its 40-year anniversary, centers on a dozen campers who take refuge in an abandoned mining village while trekking the Rio Grande. Like everything in the film's utterly baffling 82 minutes, it’s never made clear whether the 12 are friends, relations, or complete strangers with a shared fondness for aimlessly wandering around ghost towns in the dead of night. The majority aren't even given names.

Inevitably, it's difficult to care when they start getting picked off one by one by an unknown assailant who's never shown on camera. That wouldn't be much of an issue if the kills were entertaining, of course. The slashers of the early 1980s were dominated by characters with about as much depth as a puddle. Yet the cinematography is so murky, the editing choices so inexplicable, and the acting so inept that it's often hard to determine whether there's been a kill at all.

The only members of the gang to make any remote impression are Joe Allaine's Lou and Pepper Martin's Bob. The former is a dim-witted fat guy cliché who spends most of the feature eating, talking about eating, or annoying his campmates with a persistent cold that has no bearing on the plot. The latter is the group's no-nonsense self-appointed leader who appears to be serving as the audience's bewildered inner monolog. ("You don't seem to be too upset about your friend's death."/"Well, is somebody gonna say something?")

You'll regularly find yourself asking the latter throughout a movie populated by interminably long establishing shots of the same old creaky buildings and endless scenes of the sitting ducks reacting to all the madness in total silence. For someone who'd previously made a living throwing himself about as a stuntman in disaster pics like The Hindenburg and Earthquake, Quisenberry makes for an oddly static filmmaker.

In fact, the man's inability to land even the most basic narrative beats leaves you wondering whether he'd actually ever seen a motion picture before. Pacing, characterization, structure — all the elements of cinema 101 aren't just lackluster here, they're non-existent. If Quisenberry's only other stint in the director's chair hadn't been for a cozy canine-based TV movie, you might suspect he was deliberately subverting horror conventions. Scream is almost avant-garde in its sheer pointlessness.

The ghost town location should have been a home run, too. From House of Wax and The Hills Have Eyes to, well, Ghost Town, it's a setting richly mined by the horror genre. Yet Scream plants most of its inaction in the same bland barn and its only exploration of the town's mythology appears courtesy of a brief, perplexing cameo.

Indeed, in the midst of all the off-screen bloodshed, a cowboy suddenly rides into view armed with a bulldog and a dead body. Before wandering off almost as quickly, he regales the group with the cryptic tale of an old sea captain whose ghost is apparently responsible for all the carnage. Woody Strode — a Golden Globe nominee for his performance in Spartacus, no less — appears embarrassed at having to utter the kind of dialog that leaves you thankful the rest of Scream is practically mute.

Strode later returns out of nowhere to save the day, shooting the culprit dead, despite the fact that he's apparently already a ghost. And the killer's cloak of invisibility means we never get to see his comeuppance, either, or any explanation for his reign of terror. It may well count as the most disappointing reveal in horror history, if it even qualifies as a reveal.

Who knows what inspired Strode to take such a role? Likewise Martin, a former Pacific Northwest Wrestling champion who a year earlier had twice gone head-to-head with Clark Kent in Superman II, and Hank Worden, a prolific Western character actor best known for regularly appearing alongside John Wayne. Interestingly, the latter's son Ethan also shows up here, although good luck trying to distinguish him from the various other nondescript ranch hands who barely say a word.

So does the vastly inferior Scream get anything right? Well, there's the mischievous cold open, which partly explains the original title (The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker): Here, the camera pans back to three figurines placed on a mantelpiece, two of which have now been decapitated by the inanimate butcher. Again, it bears no relation to anything else happening elsewhere, but it's a clever gag that wrongly suggests we're in for a playful ride.  

And then there's the official poster. With its outstretched arm holding a moon-shaped scythe against a neon-lit background and jagged blood-red font, the image hints at a lost classic of the early VHS age. Never has a horror promised so much with a piece of artwork only to deliver essentially nothing on film.

However, this is undoubtedly clutching at straws. From the terrible dubbing to the jarring soundtrack that sits somewhere between porn flick and demo settings on a Casio keyboard for beginners, almost every single aspect of the horror shouts ineptitude. And sadly not in a so-bad-it's-good kinda way, either. There's a reason why Scream hasn’t developed a cult following a la The Room or Troll 2. For it's the very worst kind of bad movie: one that can make you scream with pure, unadulterated boredom.