Halloween Post: The Horror of Aging Tech

I enjoy watching how a series of movies that are always set in ‘current day’ handle how technology progresses between movies.  In re-watching the Bourne saga the most noticeable bit was how all the monitors in the CIA in the first two movies are giant tube monitors, and then in the third movie they suddenly change to LCD flat panels.  What I like to look for is how the tech impacts the stories and whether or not it’s done naturally or clumsily.

I was recently watching through the Scream quadrilogy and there was a moment in the first movie (1996) where a sheriff turns accusingly to one of the teenagers and says “What are you doing with a cellular telephone, son?”  The boy is immediately under suspicion of murder because he had a cell phone on his person!    Much as I remember living in a pre-cell phone world, it was interesting to see something like that being a main plot point that changed how things went and how the entire story develops.  If they shot this same movie now, that scene simply could not exist anymore.  The bizarreness of that moment really stuck out and I decided to keep an eye open through the rest of the movies to see how they adapted to modern tech.  As the movies all revolve around a killer who calls his victims ahead of time, I knew they would have to change in interesting ways to accomodate the omnipresence of cell phones over the past decade.

The lack of cell phones puts the first movie in the category of every other movie prior to the mid nineties, in that there is lots of missed communications and misunderstandings that could be solved in thirty seconds if one character could just call another one on their cell and ask them where they are.  There are only two cell phones in the entire show and both end up being part of the plot and how the police tries to track the killer.  It’s interesting to note that in order to see what calls the phone had made they have to wait for the ‘billing records’ to come back from the phone company and it takes several days.

Another odd moment, at one point the main phone line is cut in the house and so the character dials 911 through a deaf typer program on her computer and immediately gets a text response.  I’m not sure if this was actually a thing that could be done at the time.  It’s not through any kind of graphical interface, it’s just the old text on a blue background.  If anyone knows if this was a thing, let me know.

The reporter character hides a ‘hidden’ camera in the house to watch for the killer and the camera she uses is the size of a brick.  It also plays on a thirty second delay for the guy in the news van watching it, thus by the time they see the footage of the killer (30 seconds ago), he has already had a chance to get to the van.  It’s an interesting limitation that’s used to decent effect.  Watching anything on a lag makes for great suspense.

The second movie came out the following year in 1997, so it’s interesting to see how many developments have been made.  The fact that you can dial *69 to get the last number that called you or else have call display on phones is pointed out at the very start of the movie as a ‘yes these features would have been nice in the last movie and saved lots of issues’.  Although the scene with the call display makes it look like that character when out of her way to get a super fancy phone in order to have that feature, most land-line-phones shown in the movie still don’t have any kind of display on them.  Also, most land-line phones are still corded.

There is one cordless phone and it’s used as an actual point of suspense.  A character is alone in a house that she thinks the killer is also in.  She is trying to call security on the cordless phone while also trying to get out of the house.  She walks outside and the cordless phone starts to crackle and hiss, forcing her to have to go back into the house in order to get better reception.  It’s actually a quite effective moment as you realize she’s torn between getting that call and staying out of the house.  The range of most cordless landlines these days would have made this scenario improbable now.

In one scene they do an early version of what is now a movie staple, where a person is in the middle of a bright public place and is called by a killer on a cell phone, and so they try to find anyone near them talking on a phone to see if its the killer.  Compared to the last movie, this is a definite “Look everyone has cell phones now!” moment, although it is still just 1997 and so really only about four other people in the crowd have cell phones.  And except for the character in that scene, not a single other main character has one!  For all the bother the main character went through to get a fancy phone in her room with call display, she could have got a cell phone as well, but I’m guessing they were still prohibitively expensive.

There is a funny moment where the reporter’s cameraman quits and leaves her a bag of the footage he’d taken of her–which ends up being in standard VHS format!  I’m pretty sure television reports were not being filmed on standard VHS in 1997, it probably would have either been the old U-matic format or else a new DV variant.  I think this was just a plot convenience as the characters just need to get to a regular VCR to watch the footage, instead of any specialized equipment they might have needed.  The odd thing is they were in the audio-video department of a college, so the scene could have had them going into an actual studio and using professional equipment to watch it.

There is another strange computer moment in this one that sort of imitates the ‘dial 911 on your computer’ scene from the first movie–the main character is in a library at a computer looking at pre-graphical interface, and she gets an ‘instant message’ from another computer in the library even though she wasn’t ‘logged in’.  Again–was this a thing that happened?  I feel like there are lots of cases of ‘comptuers-as-magic’ in the movies that are very obvious, but I feel like both instances of the strange use of computers in these first two movies are both things that might have existed in some way, but it was at a time that I was not aware of them.  If anyone knows, leave a comment.

In the third movie it is now the year 2000 and cell phones are everywhere–there are even “cloned cell phones” that are paired up with a voice modifier that can imiatate anyone’s voice.  The voice modification device is obviously fake, but these contrivances are necessary to keep doing the phone-based suspense in a world where everyone now has caller ID and cell phones.  It is interesting to note that while cell phones are prevalent, texting is not.

In one hilarious scene, a ringing is heard and five characters all check their phones to see who’s it is–but it turns out it isn’t a phone, its the fax machine!  Just when it seemed they’d made it to the modern era.  The fax machine is actually used really well as it once again puts the characters in the position of deciding to be in the house where the killer is but where they can also get the fax, or else outside in safety outside.  I’m not sure why no one called the police on their many cell phones at this point, I think they were too panicked.   There is one case where someone is in danger and tries to call security but then they end up getting stuck in an automated voice system and the killer gets them before they can get an operator.

The fourth and last movie was released in 2011, and it’s quite obvious from the very start that this is now current day.  Everyone has cell phones and many have smartphones.  Jokes are made about how the killer should be working on Twitter instead of phones.  Apps are used to disguise voices.   Lots of things that would have happened over phone in the previous movies happen by texting.

In one scene two teens are on the phone and the one is in the room with another girl who is on another phone with someone else in a different location, and the four people are more or less having one conversation–something that seems to happen all to naturally these days.   The movie is good at not using the lame ‘oh I don’t have any cell service’ device to enhance tension (although they do make a joke about movies doing that).  And in contrast to the first movie where they had to wait days to get billing records to figure out what sort of calls had been made on the cell phone, in this one police are instantly able to figure those kinds of things out and can even track specific cell phones to GPS locations within minutes.

In a bit of a callback to the original movie, there is along sequence of the reporter character again planting hidden cameras to watch the action, although in this case there is no 30-second delay, and the cameras are slightly smaller.  Also, one character has a live-video-blogging headset that he wears all the time, which is unfortunately never really used to any great effect.  There is also a strange bit where supposedly the killers are filming the deaths in order to get internet fame, which also feels rather underused and doesn’t quite work.

So on the whole I would say what I discovered was that this series did a pretty good job in growing up alongside the technology of the day.  Instead of trying to shoe-horn plot contrivances that were tailored to a pre-cellphone world, they adapted and incorporated current tech and then created the scenarios around what we have now.  Although I also think that the pre-cell phone world was a lot more open to ‘the call is coming from inside the house’ type of suspense.  These days, you either allow people to have their cell phones, which leaves them connected to everyone, which reduces suspense and that total alone feeling, or else you have to create an elaborate device for why they don’t have their phone on them or else the phone isn’t working, and that can get clunky really quickly.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed that.  I might do another one of these with a different trilogy/quadrilogy sometime in the future.

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