Cinema Fearité presents 'Scary Movie'
A few years before Wes Craven, Kevin Williamson, and The Wayans Brothers tossed the name around, there was Scary Movie.
By now, it’s a pretty well-known fact that the Wes Craven/Kevin Williamson slasher Scream began development under the title Scary Movie. The name was even co-opted by the Wayans Brothers for a series of horror parodies in the early 2000s. But there was another Scary Movie that predates both of those projects, one that goes all the way back to 1991.
Scary Movie is about a young man named Warren (future Oscar nominee John Hawkes from Winter’s Bone and The Sessions) who is introverted, geeky, and a little paranoid. That does not stop him from going out to a haunted house on Halloween night with his friend, Brad (Jason Waller), and Brad’s girlfriend, Shelley (Virginia Pratt), who have set him up on a blind date with a gorgeous girl named Barbara (Suzanne Aldrich).
While in line for the attraction, the gang hears a story about a mental patient who has escaped from a facility nearby. While everyone else thinks that it adds a sense of mystery and foreboding to the night, Warren starts to worry that the lunatic might be headed towards the haunted house. His fears are amplified when he gets stuck inside the fear fest. Is the madman in the funhouse with him, or is everything just a figment of Warren’s overactive and paranoid imagination?
The poster image and title card of Scary Movie is simply the name of the film with a generic bar code, and that’s perfect. The film embraces its vanilla-ness. The production company even called itself “Generic Movies.”
The story comes from the imaginations of three independent filmmakers named Daniel Erickson, David Lane Smith, and Mark Voges, all of whom, like just about everyone else connected with Scary Movie, went on the have very limited cinematic careers. Erickson also directed the movie, and it seems as if he’s more of a fan than a filmmaker, as he throws just about every trick in the book at the audience. And he does it without apology.
From the cardboard and paint haunted house to the urban legend of the escaped psychopath, Scary Movie has it all. It’s not nearly as meta as Scream, and nowhere close to as much of a spoof as the later Scary Movie series, but it does pay homage to its fright-flick roots. There’s not a lot of gore or nudity, which also means that the film’s body count is woefully low.
However, the movie does use the carnival haunted house setting and Hawkes’ considerable talent (he’s easily the best actor in the movie) to rachet up the suspense and tension, so by the end, the viewer is just dying to know what’s real and what’s not. The cookie cutter slasher tropes all fit in with the cheap-and-generic funhouse mood of the movie. Oh, and Butch Patrick from “The Munsters” plays one of the carnies, and his old TV pal Wolf Wolf the werewolf doll even makes an appearance. Icing on the cake.
To say that Scary Movie was shot on video is an understatement. While it doesn’t look bad for what it is, it definitely wears its micro-budget on its sleeve. It was shot by Ivan Bigley, who was one of the more seasoned film vets on the crew, having done things like run a camera for Heartbreak Hotel and work as a location projectionist for Hope Floats. Scary Movie has an analog look, like it was shot on Betamax or VHS tape. In the grand scheme of the film’s aesthetic, it works, since it’s a cheap and dirty way to shoot a cheap and dirty movie. But the cinematography in Scary Movie just screams “student film.”
The most genuinely high-quality aspect of the film (next to possibly John Hawkes’ freakout performance) is the musical score. Scary Movie was made at the tail end of the golden age of the slasher, and the synthesized electronic score, composed by Hank Hehmsoth (his only credited work), reflects the era. The simplistic spooky analog keyboard sounds are probably a product of the no-budget production schedule, but the eerie melodies and ominous chord beds sound like a precursor to the eighties soundtrack renaissance that horror fans are experiencing now. By being just after his time, Hehmsoth was about twenty years ahead of it.
Although it’s hard to say due to the lack of information about the movie, it appears as if Scary Movie never got an official release outside of a low-key, possibly private showing festival run. It exists on home video somewhere, though, because composer Hank Hehmsoth uploaded the full movie to YouTube, showing that he must be proud of his soundtrack work (as he should be).
Between its low budget aesthetic and the rise of a franchise that essentially stole its name (twice), it’s easy to see why Scary Movie is a lost, hidden movie. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be seen. It just means that it has to be stumbled upon for free on the internet. And we can all thank Hank Hehmsoth for preserving its legacy in that way.