VHS Revival revisits Wes Craven’s self-reflexive masterpiece.
Scream was like a breath of fresh air for the horror genre.
Thanks in large part to the emergence of VHS as a widely accessible format, and buoyed by the low-budget success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, the genre would experience an explosion in popularity during the 1980s, one that led to the kind of oversaturation that would bleed the resurgence dry.
Wes Craven would prove to be one of the huge successes of that period. Granted, he would be guilty of some stinkers along the way, but like his predecessor Michael Myers, Fred Krueger would emerge from the eventual rot as one of the most recognisable horror characters in history, riding the wave of the kind of game-changing concept that successful franchises are built upon. A Nightmare on Elm Street would prove to be a mainstream masterstroke, a work that would announce Craven as much more than just a seedy Sean Cunningham-style clone.
For the remainder of the 1980’s, Craven struggled to live up to the kind of expectations Krueger had burdened him with, and subsequent movies were subjected to mindless interference from studio executives craving more of the same. Never was this more evident than in 1986 effort Deadly Friend, a sci-fi drama that would be disfigured beyond recognition due to senseless dream sequences and moments of unnecessary horror that turned the picture into a confused mess. No less immune to the decline of the genre than anyone else, Craven and Krueger would all but vanish during the early part of the 90s as horror’s stock plunged to an all time low.
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!
Aware of an exhausted formula, 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. Part of this was out of necessity for a flailing genre that had become decidedly old hat, while the Hollywood merchandise machine found a caricature Freddy to be infinitely more marketable, stooping as low as selling Krueger pyjamas to the children the movie’s character so cruelly stalked. If Craven’s 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 flawed yet ambitious effort which saw Freddy cross over into reality and 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 planted. All Craven needed was a fun way to make it bloom.
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 those fans of old with its genre nods and acerbic sense of irony. The antithesis of the laborious deconstructions synonymous with many modern critics, Craven thrust a bright and colourful microscope upon himself and the entire genre, laying waste to scholastic pretensions with a traditional stalk and slash which is at once educated and accessible.
Casey – Who’s there?
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. – Ghostface
The characters in Scream know they are in a horror movie, and having been exposed to so many of them they know what to do and what not to do in order to survive. As the students of Woodsboro are picked off one-by-one, a very familiar pattern emerges – perhaps a little too familiar – and we quickly begin to realise that what we are watching is kind of like a movie within a movie. The identity of the 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 or not she lives or dies. Everyone from Michael Myers to Jason Voorhees to Craven’s own Fred Krueger gets a mention here, while the latter makes a pseudo-cameo of his own, the high school’s janitor appearing to wear Freddy’s 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 knowing this. 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, whilst venturing to the garage for illegal libations is a surefire way to end up dead. In terms of plot, there is nothing here that we haven’t seen before, but through Craven we are able to recall why we were sucked in in the first place, as the movie serves to resuscitate a moribund formula.
No, please don’t kill me, Mr. Ghostface, I wanna be in the sequel! – Tatum
Scream is a project that our director clearly revels in. Every meticulous jump scare dissects the horror movie rule book as suspects come and go and all of our best fears inexorably turn to reality, and watching events unfold, you have to wonder just how much of Craven exists within the film itself. 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 down to a tee, utilising techniques such as the fake blood they use as a way to steer suspicion away from themselves, opting for an all-too-real concoction of food dye and corn syrup – the same used for pig’s blood in Carrie. You have to believe that this kind of peculiar fanaticism once lived inside the movie’s director. What we see on screen are very likely warped variations of a young Wes Craven.
So knowledgeable in regards to the movie’s source material, Craven is able to wrap his complex meta-humour in the kind of neat little package that made it such an unequivocal success. As proven by Freddy and Michael Myers before him, the iconic look of our latest killer is perhaps the most vital element in 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 memorable as any of his predecessors. What makes him such an effective character is his unwavering adherence to the tropes he so blatantly utilises. In his ultimate display of irony, Craven was constructing a masterpiece from the very formula he was deriding.
However, that level of mainstream success carries with it a heavy price, one that the audience typically has to pay for. Back in 1978 John Carpenter spawned a whole decade of sleazy Friday the 13th imitators, cynical retreads which turned the genre stale and exhausted audiences worldwide. Just like Halloween before it, Scream revitalised the horror picture, but while movies such as I Know What You Did Last Summer adopted Scream’s 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…