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25 Years After ‘Scream’, Kevin Williamson Proves He’s Still A Razor-Sharp Chronicler Of Late Stage Adolescence With ‘Sick’

Kevin Williamson writes about teens and twentysomethings on the verge of the rest of their lives. His work is bursting with yearning, and aspiration — themes surrounding escape and learning in the hardest possible ways what you’re going to be when you grow up, and then when all your dreams have evaporated. There’s a heartbrokenness about his work, the kind that comes with losing your innocence to a world indifferent to your “specialness.” Being exceptional in a Williamson piece just means you’re a magnet for the wrong kind of attention. Nature tends towards the middle and has a way of grinding exceptional things down into ordinary things, broken things traumatized by their erosion. Aren’t we all?

Williamson’s best-known screen avatar, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), made her first appearance in Wes Craven’s breakout hit Scream (1996), the film that, by itself, resurrected the slasher in the body of a sleek, brilliant, postmodern exercise that not only commented on itself, but was a sterling example of the genre. Sidney is the focus of Scream’s violent return of a repressed, shameful past as her mother’s infidelities come home in the monastic body of a robed and masked spree killer, armed with a penetrating knife and an invasive cordless phone that becomes a harbinger for a greater collective loss of independence. By Scream 4, cellphones have erased the last illusion of freedom offered by the limitations of landlines in the first two, Kevin Williamson-scripted franchise installments. While science fiction authors predicted a technocratic surveillance state, few if any predicted we would pay for the right to carry the instrument of our imprisonment on our person at all times, broadcasting our activities and locations voluntarily, even joyfully.

The horror of Williamson’s Scream movies (he was replaced on the dreadful second sequel, Scream 3, by Ehren Kruger who makes the mistake of being unserious, and was heavily rewritten for Scream 4) is that hope withers. Time is undefeated, and the sins of the father are stains left indelible, dictating the course of a person’s life from cradle to grave. My favorite line from Kenneth Branagh’s fantastic metaphysical noir Dead Again comes from Robin Williams’ disgraced shrink: he warns about the “karmic payment plan: buy now, pay forever.” Williamson’s scripts deal with destiny using the same cause/effect model for existence. In his best film, the Wes Craven-directed Scream 2, a mordant drama professor tells Sydney that “the battle for the soul is fought in the forum of art” and equates her with Cassandra of Greek mythology: the woman who can see the future but is cursed by no one believing her before it’s too late. Sydney’s playing her in a college presentation of Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” and the fate of her character – to warn and be ignored, to be perhaps murdered eventually for her troubles, alerts Sydney to how she herself is trapped in endlessly-repeating cycles of violence. It’s how sequels work, of course, but Williamson gives her a terrible self-awareness. It’s like if the Coyote in those Roadrunner cartoons suddenly became aware that his fate was to die terribly to be reborn again; it’s like Prometheus in chains, fated to have his liver eaten by day only to have it regrow overnight. And like Prometheus, Sydney’s pain is a product of her bringing light to the world. She becomes a domestic violence helpline operator eventually, assuming the role of someone who listens to women. Scream 2 is an American masterpiece.

Photo: ©Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

Kevin Williamson’s film and television work are bound by the promise of matriculation — not literally (despite the age range of the characters he tends to write about), but figuratively through a collection of heroes who dream of something better for themselves only to be brought up short by the realities of their circumstances. He followed up Scream with I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), a tremendous and somewhat underestimated adaptation of mystery grandmaster Lois Duncan’s YA masterpiece that follows a group of four friends on the night of their high school graduation who make a terrible, murderous decision, that haunts them a year later when hero Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt) comes home from school. The stuff with the hook murderer is well-timed and brutal, but the points that really draw blood involve how Julie’s friends have each failed to launch. Her ex-boyfriend Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) has become a fisherman in his family’s business; her former best friend Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) the beauty queen has washed out in New York chasing her dream of becoming an actress and is back in their smalltown as a clerk at her family’s store; and Helen’s rich jerk of a boyfriend Barry (Ryan Phillippe) has proven to be an extraordinary disappointment as a human being. Even a secondary character like Missy Egan (Anne Heche), the sister of a murder victim, is given an unexpected amount of depth and pathos in a very short period of time. These people are trapped. Trapped by the terrible thing they’ve done on the one hand, but also by the degree to which their dreams for themselves have exceeded their grasp. It’s an existential horror film before it’s a visceral one. Watch Helen’s face when she confesses that things didn’t work out for her, and then her lonesome death on the 4th of July that rivals in its monumental sadness a similar moment from Brian DePalma’s Blow Out. It’s extraordinary.stuff, all the more so for appearing in the middle of a film dismissed as just another teen flick.

The Faculty (1998) is also much better than it should be. An alien invasion picture that is, again, about a group of high school kids forced to confront their limitations in the face of a greater metaphorical threat. Though nerdy Casey (Elijah Wood) and rebel heartthrob Zeke (Josh Hartnett) are the ostensible heroes of the piece, I’ve always been drawn to “weird” girl Stokely (Clea DuVall) bullied for being a lesbian though she’s not, and befriended by a pretty girl who turns out to be not entirely what she seems to be. Stokely is the one who figures out what needs to be done to stop the invasion, the one who is most betrayed by her need for friendship and community. She’s paralleled to a late character in Williamson’s gallery of rogues, closeted high school wrestler Bo (Milo Ventimiglia) from Cursed (2005) who spends most of the picture bullying nerd teen wolf hero Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg) before revealing that he’s gay and that his aggression has all been the product of sublimated frustration from having to pretend to be the hypermasculine patriarchal archetype of captain-of-the-wrestling-team masculinity. There’s not very much left of Williamson in Cursed, a film Harvey Weinstein single-handedly destroyed with his notorious meddling that included in this instance rewriting Williamson, not using Rick Baker and KNB’s special effects, and reshooting Wes Craven at least four separate times. But the little remains of Williamson I suspect has coalesced in the character of Bo. Both Stokely and Bo are victims of systemic abuses and hazing, and both demonstrate extraordinary courage in the defense of their friends in spite of their pain. They aren’t dreamers like Williamson’s heroes because this world isn’t for them. They fight because of how ferociously they love the families they’ve coalesced around them. When you have to make your own family, you fight harder.

Williamson’s only film as director is the curiously-edgeless Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999). Made in the immediate aftermath of the Columbine shooting at a time the United States still had the capacity to be shocked by mass school shooting, Williamson was forced to change the title from “Killing Mrs. Tingle” and to, accordingly, soften other elements of his film. Loosely inspired by another Lois Duncan novel Killing Mr. Griffin, the story of the film revolves around a trio of high school friends who kidnap a mean teacher for giving star student Leigh (Katie Holmes) a grade that will doom her hopes for school valedictorian and its attendant college financial aid. Joining her in their misguided plot is hunky Luke (Barry Watson) and aspiring starlet Jo (Marisa Coughlan). Williamson’s major themes are here (the exceptional kid looking to break free, the generational trauma and systemic prejudices threatening to hold her back) along with an unnerving performance by Helen Mirren as the evil Mrs. Tingle, but it lacks bite. Punches are obviously pulled and satire suffers when it softens into farce. Williamson’s best work is double-edged and sheathed in wax. It’s dangerous though it seems familiar, draws blood easily and hungrily, and is able to capture the moral complexity of its moment without tedious speeches and belabored exposition.

Photo: Peacock

He’s at his best in his new film Sick, currently streaming on Peacock. Directed by John Hyams who made a cult name for himself with two Universal Solider sequels (Regeneration and Day of Reckoning) that are thick with subtext about the existential questions of violence and identity, Sick takes on the polarized madness of the Covid pandemic as if it were dystopian science fiction. Williamson’s script is razor sharp, a finger held firm to the pulse of the zeitgeist. Its heroes are a pair of girls, Mirr (Bethlehem Million) and Parker (Gideon Allen) who decide to quarantine together at a remote lakehouse when, who should come calling, but death in the form of a masked killer. But everyone is masked in Sick, terrified of an invisible plague while a visible one breaks into their bubble, armed with a righteous mission related to the selfishness of a nation more interested in a haircut than the life of another. Its prologue is the film Scream 3 might have been had Williamson written it — marking text messaging as the next evolution of our dehumanization and isolation. And its “twist” manages to fully confuse our notions of responsibility, accountability, of who is good and who, indeed is evil.

Sick is the summation of Williamson’s work in a ruthlessly-efficient, timely and somehow timeless, 82 minutes. It speaks to Williamson as a voice that, by itself, refreshed a type of film that had largely run its course and descended into self-parody throughout a thriving, some would say overgrown, 1980s quickie video nasty environment. And it does so by having an extraordinary empathy and ear for young people forced to confront their mortality before they entirely accept that they could die. Williamson’s film work and his Dawson’s Creek and The Vampire Diaries during their long television runs land somewhere between Steve Earle and S.E. Hinton for me on the scale of works that document the emotional landscape of great American longing. He’s a gifted chronicler of our national adolescence and he’s still working and able to produce a piece as alive and gnarly as Sick. How lucky are we?

Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is now available.

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