Wes Craven gives the horror a shot in the arm with a self-reflexive revelation
Scream was like a breath of fresh air for the horror genre.
Thanks to the emergence of VHS as a widely accessible format, horror would experience an explosion in popularity during the 1980s, leading to an inevitable glut of sub-par productions that bled the revolution dry. Front and centre was the controversial slasher picture, an unprecedented form of cinematic cynicism that rocked a generation. Gone were the Gothic days of Dracula and Frankenstein, replaced instead by masked killers, drunken teens, and a whole host of sharp implements that lent the macabre an added sense of realism.
Critics were less than enamoured with the sleazy new wave of imitators looking to cash-in on the popularity of John Carpenter’s low-budget revelation Halloween, a movie that managed a colossal $70,000,000 cumulative worldwide gross from a pittance of approximately $300,000. So fruitful was Carpenter’s masterwork that a whole generation of filmmakers reached for the Steadicam with the hope of stumbling upon their own low-production goldmine, and there was no shortage of producers looking to tap into the home video market on the off chance of recouping a small fortune. Inevitably, this resulted in an oversaturated market, and after the noose of ‘video nasty’ censorship brought an end to the controversy creates cash mantra, the genre grew increasingly tepid, growing moribund as we entered the flaccid ’90s.
Wes Craven would prove one of the big successes of that ’80s boom period. Granted, he would be guilty of some stinkers along the way, but Fred Krueger would emerge from the eventual rot as one of the most recognisable characters in horror history, buyoed by the kind of game-changing concept that successful franchises are built upon. Krueger would become horror’s first bona fide rock star, a series of increasingly ludicrous sequels turning the fritter-faced child killer into a peewee playmate. So ruthless was the New Line marketing machine that kids could buy everything from comic books to pyjamas, each of them sporting Krueger’s less-than-wholesome image.
By that time, Craven was happy to simply reap the royalties, putting his most famous creation on the back burner as he looked to explore filmic avenues that were unrelated to horror, genre he had become hopelessly synonymous with. So bold was Krueger’s shadow that Craven struggled to shake it, a fact punctuated by his first big studio movie Deadly Friend, a serious sci-fi drama disfigured beyond all recognition after a negative test screening that demanded more horror and a mishmash of tacked-on dream sequences. Craven would make two other horror movies during the remainder of the decade, but with The Serpent and the Rainbow and Shocker failing to make any critical waves, many would write him off as a one trick pony who had exhausted his only marquee venture. No less immune to the decline of the genre, Craven and Krueger would all but vanish during the early part of the ’90s as horror’s stock plunged to an all-time low.
Wes would look to the metaphysical in an attempt to resuscitate his career, inevitably turning to his most dependable creation for inspiration. Largely out of Craven’s hands, Krueger had been transformed from one of horror’s most terrifying creations into a walking parody. If Craven’s most successful creation was to be revived something radical was required. That something came in the form of 1994‘s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Filmed two years prior to Scream, this quasi-sequel was a blueprint for its eventual successor, a flawed but ambitious effort which saw Freddy cross over into reality to stalk members of the original cast. A bleak and somewhat subdued affair, ‘New Nightmare’ was never going to win over the mainstream, but the seeds of his self-reflexive concept had been sown. All Craven needed was a fun way to make it blossom.
Randy: The police are always off track with this shit! If they’d watch Prom Night, they’d save time! There’s a formula to it. A very simple formula!
It was with this in mind that Scream came to fruition, a movie that not only appealed to a new generation of horror fans, but which delighted fans of old with its cute genre nods and acerbic sense of irony. With Scream, Craven thrust a bright and colourful microscope upon himself and the entire genre, laying waste to scholastic pretensions with a traditional stalk-and-slash that is at once educated and colourfully accessible.
The characters in Scream know they are in a horror movie, and having been exposed to so many they know what to do in order to survive — at least in theory. As the students of Woodsboro are picked off by a mysterious masked killer, a very familiar pattern emerges, and we begin to realise that what we are watching is kind of like a movie within a movie — the cinematic equivalent of wandering through a dream that you are fully conscious of but cannot awake from. The identity of the movie’s first victim, played by a returning Drew Barrymore in little more than a cameo role, is in itself a surreal occurrence, and perhaps a nod to Psycho as the movie’s biggest star is killed off before we are even underway.
There are several other movie references in that first scene alone. Barrymore is stalked by a nuisance caller beset on playing a game of ‘guess the movie’, her answers determining whether she lives or dies. Everyone from Michael Myers to Jason Voorhees gets a mention here, while Craven’s most famous creation makes a pseudo-cameo of his own, the high school’s janitor appearing to wear Krueger’s infamous striped sweater and hat. Played by none other than Craven himself, the director even goes as far as to refer to the character as Fred, and is clearly relishing in the transparencies of the concept.
There is an inevitability about the events in Scream, and our fun is derived from identifying the many ways in which we reach that juncture. As the rules are explained they very quickly become a realisation. People who drink and have sex inevitably fall victim, while the straight-edged virgin remains untouchable. There are things one should never say if they expect to survive proceedings. ‘I’ll be right back,’ is a definite no-no, while venturing to the garage for illegal libations is a surefire way to end up dead. In terms of plot, there is nothing here we haven’t seen before, but thanks to the director we are able to recall why we were sucked in in the first place. Scream is a celebration of the decade that preceded it. Nobody understood that era quite like Craven, and the legendary director orchestrates events like a kid in a candy store. Every meticulous jump scare dissects the horror rulebook as victims come and go and all of our best fears turn to reality, the director wrapping his complex meta-humour in the kind of neat little package that made the movie such an unequivocal success.
Casey: Who’s there?
Ghostface: Never say “who’s there?” Don’t you watch scary movies? It’s a death wish. You might as well come out to investigate a strange noise or something.
The movie is a funfair of self-reflexive irony which smartens its victims, only to make fools out of them all over again, an ignorance tied to a now over familiar formula. A couple of Woodsboro’s kids have seen one too many movies, and their own reality becomes irrevocably blurred. Quoting various fictional killers, they delight in the details and are determined to direct their real-life slasher to a tee, opting for a concoction of food dye and corn syrup as they try to avoid capture — the same used for pig’s blood in Brian De Palma’s Stephen King adaptation Carrie. The fear of critics was that the slasher genre would warp the minds of a generation, and some of those who feature in Scream have certainly slipped beyond the realms of reality, but you have to believe this kind of fanaticism once lived inside the movie’s director; the killers in Scream are very likely warped variations of a young Wes Craven.
Scream was yet another game-changing concept to add to Craven’s catalogue, and he makes the whole thing look so easy, and a slick screenplay by Kevin Williamson freshens the fold by recycling the commercially passe into something genuinely innovative. After more than two decades in the industry, Craven knew all the marketing moves, a fact punctuated by the iconic nature of our killer’s guise. Modelled on Edvard Munch’s expressionist masterpiece ‘The Scream’, our killer’s masks boasts a perpetual expression of soft anguish, his head cocking like a perplexed puppy as he stalks his self-assured prey.
Tatum: No, please don’t kill me, Mr. Ghostface, I wanna be in the sequel!
As proven by Jason and Michael Myers before him, the aesthetics of our killer is arguably the most vital element for making a lasting impression, particularly if you have designs on sending up not just a singular movie, but the franchise it will inevitably spawn. Ghostface is just as iconic as those other creations, but what makes him such an effective character is his unwavering adherence to the tropes we know so well, and the way in which he lovingly mocks his predecessors. In the ultimate display of irony, Craven was constructing a masterpiece from the very formula he was deriding.
Scream was a huge commercial success, the kind of once-in-a-generation movie that set tongues wagging, and the inevitable franchise was soon come to fruition. The first of those sequels still packed a lot of ammunition, particularly when deriding sequels as inferior entries that invariably up the kill count and push the boundaries beyond all comprehension, making fools out of returning cast members who really should know better than to run the gauntlet a second time.
Sadly, that level of success carries with it a heavy price, one that the audience typically has to pay for. Ironically, it was a case of history repeating itself. Just like Halloween before it, Scream revitalised the horror picture, but while copycat pictures such as I Know What You Did Last Summer adopted its superficialities, the irony was painfully absent, and by the time the decade was over we were all getting just a little tired of the same old nonsense.
And so it goes.