Wes Craven revitalises the slasher sub-genre, and it’s an absolute scream
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 days of Dracula and Frankenstein, replaced instead by masked killers, drunken teens, and a whole host of sharp implements that lent horror an added sense of realism. The fact that the sub-genre was already receiving the spoof treatment as early as 1981 should give you some idea of just how oversaturated the market had become.
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 in a manner reminiscent of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a film which laid the foundations for independent filmmakers a decade prior. 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. This resulted in a slew of cornball productions which relied on exploitation, seedy marketing and shock factor to gain relevance, and after the noose of ‘video nasty‘ censorship brought an end to the controversy creates cash mantra, the genre grew increasingly bloodless, turning moribund as we entered the mostly tepid 90s.
Wes Craven would prove one of the big successes of that 80s boom period. He would be guilty of some stinkers, as well as a few polarising oddities along the way, but Fred Krueger would emerge from the home video entrails as one of the most recognisable characters the industry has ever known, buoyed by the kind of game-changing concept that successful franchises are built on. 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.
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!
By that time, Craven was happy to simply reap the royalties, putting his most infamous creation on the back burner as he looked to explore filmic avenues that were unrelated to horror, a genre he had become hopelessly synonymous with. So oppressive was Krueger’s shadow that Craven struggled to step out of 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.
Craven would look to the metaphysical in an attempt to reinvigorate the genre, smartly turning to his most dependable character for inspiration. Largely out of Craven’s hands, Krueger had been transformed from one of horror’s most terrifying creations into a walking parody, and if his most successful creation was ever 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 commercially flawed, yet ambitious effort which saw Freddy cross over into reality to stalk members of the original cast. A clever, left-field affair at a time when audiences had grown accustomed to Krueger’s shallow, MTV formula, ‘New Nightmare’ was never going to win over the mainstream, but the seeds of Craven’s self-reflexive concept had been sown. All he needed was a fun way to make it blossom.
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.
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 delighted fans of old with its cute genre nods, acerbic wit and knowing 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. On the surface of things there is nothing new about the movie. It features a gaggle of beautiful teens, a marquee villain and a kill count to die for. It also features familiar suburban and high school settings and a sense of narrative déjà vu that slasher fans had experienced a hundred times before, but that was precisely the point.
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 unable to 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. Everything here we’ve experienced before but in a way that is not even remotely comparable.
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. I mean, how many movies give us Craven dressed as Freddy spouting off expletives to Arthur Fonzarelli from Happy Days? The fact that Henry Winkler goes against type as a buttoned-down, mild-mannered principal is the ultimate irony, and you best believe he’s going to die in the worst way imaginable.
Scream is excessively violent, an affront to the heavily neutered horror of previous years. The opening scene alone, executed with a slick and consummate zeal that shows just how masterful Craven had become by this stage in his career, features both a savage gutting and a brutal lynching, one that seems a tad excessive until you realise the kind of cinematic entity you’re dealing with. In any other movie, the image of a deathly white Barrymore hanging from a tree like a skinned animal would have left something of a bad taste in the mouth, but the movie never allows itself to become so cynical. Through sheer, childlike energy and enthusiasm for the genre, Craven instead crafts a joyful experience that leaves you grinning from ear-to-ear, which based on its violent content is a feat in itself. The movie may be savage and graphic and downright wicked, but it’s never less than zestful entertainment. The fact that we’re in on the joke from the ground floor up is so refreshing. We participate to such a degree it’s only just shy of being full-on interactive.
Tatum: No, please don’t kill me, Mr. Ghostface, I wanna be in the sequel!
There is an inevitability about the events in Scream, and our fun is derived from identifying the many ways in which we arrive at those junctures. As the rules are explained they very quickly become a realisation. People who drink and have sex inexorably fall victim, while the straight-edged virgin remains untouched. There are things one should never say if they expect to survive proceedings. ‘I’ll be right back,’ is a definite no-no, and venturing to the garage for illegal libations is a surefire way to end up dead. In terms of plot, it’s all very familiar, but thanks to Craven’s playful and assured direction and a revelatory screenplay by a young Kevin Williamson, 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 and narrative revelation expertly dissects the horror rule book as victims come and go and all of our worst fears become reality.
Though the knowledge possessed by Woodboro’s kids should make them immune to the vile extravagances of our resident killers, they’re just as prone to error as your standard stalk-and-slash victims, but for once we can forgive them. Even the most educated of our cast members, those who have no excuses, have seen one too many scary movies, their own sense of reality becoming irrevocably blurred. Quoting various fictional villains, our copycat killers delight in the details and are determined to direct their own real-life slasher right down to the finest detail, 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. It’s all very self-aware and playful, but you have to believe that 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. After more than two decades in the industry, Wes had become accustomed to all the marketing moves, a fact punctuated by the iconic nature of our killer’s guise, which is a calculated homage to those masked pursuers who went before, one that proves just as effective as a consequence. Modelled on Edvard Munch’s expressionist masterpiece ‘The Scream’, our killer’s disguise boasts a perpetual expression of anguish, the character’s head cocking like a perplexed puppy as he stalks his self-assured prey. As proven by Jason and Michael Myers before him, a killer’s look is 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 genre masterpiece from the very formula he was deriding. It was a self-fulfilling enterprise.
Scream was a huge commercial success, the kind of once-in-a-generation movie that set tongues wagging, and the obligatory franchise would soon come to fruition. The first of those sequels, Scream 2, still packs an invigorating punch, 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. Sadly, that level of success carries with it a heavy price, one that the audience typically has to pay for. Just like Halloween before it, Scream revitalised the horror picture, but while an abundance of copycat pictures 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 script.
And so it goes.