As I have posited many times elsewhere on this blog, the First Age of the American slasher film consisted of a period of great ubiquity and popularity, lasting barely less than ten years (from the summer of 1980 to the end of 1989), and a protracted death rattle, that stretched more or less until the release of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers in 1995, the last stab (ha ha) at giving one of the major franchises a theatrical release for many years, met with stony indifference by a fandom that had finally gotten sick of seeing the same damn teenagers getting chased in the same damn locations by the same damn psycho killers over and over again.
And yet hardly two years later, in 1997, movies about horny kids being stalked and murdered in showy, violent setpieces were unexpectedly hip again, though they've never achieved the same kind of prominence they enjoyed in the '80s. What happened in between to change things is our subject for the day: Scream, written by a savvy part-time actor named Kevin Williamson, author of an unproduced thriller screenplay titled Killing Mrs. Tingle that had given him quite a reputation in Hollywood, and directed by horror-film legend Wes Craven. It was the kind of busines-sexy pairing that made the film's executive producer Harvey Weinstein and his Miramax Films such a legendary powerhouse back in the '90s: a hot young unproven talent and a man with nothing else to prove in the genre combining their powers. Which, in Craven's case, wasn't just a matter of having made plenty of well-regarded genre films in the past (and plenty more terrible ones); Scream wasn't even the first time he'd used his talents to save the slasher genre from itself. 12 years earlier, just as the first wave of slashers were starting to dry up, he released A Nightmare on Elm Street, and inadvertently gave a new breath of life to the subgenre by inspiring a half-decade's worth of copycats. Prior 1984, virtually no slasher films involved paranormal elements; after 1984, virtually all of them did.
So, too, in 1996. Prior to Scream for good or ill, nearly every slasher movie that came out was at least nominally serious (though a handful of experiments, most notably The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives, flirted with outright comedy); post-Scream, virtually every horror movie for years, until the sudden and unwelcome rise of torture porn in the mid-'00s, mined generally the same territory that set Craven and Williamson's film so far apart from the average slasher: its winking, self-referencing and self-parodying tone, a movie about slasher movies as much as (or more than) a legitimate slasher movie. It is only in this period of the horror film's development that the notion of a character making a claim along the lines of, "that couldn't happen except in a bad horror movie" went from a cheap gag to an unavoidable generic trope.
Before digging into that hornet's nest, though, let me just run through the plot a bit, since it will matter later. The film opens with a blonde high school student, Casey (Drew Barrymore), alone in her big house on the outskirts of town, receiving an increasingly threatening series of phone calls from an unknown individual who taunts her by comparing her plight to the cheap scary movies that she knows so well. Before too long he reveals that he's outside watching her, and after just a bit more extremely mean-spirited cat-and-mouse antics, he springs on her dressed in a black robe with a white plastic mask suggesting a ghost and Edvard Munch's The Scream in equal measure, and disembowels her (he's already, at this point, killed her boyfriend; both deaths suffer mightily for the cuts Craven had to make to get the film in with an R-rating).
Elsewhere that night, we meet our actual protagonist, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), and her her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich); what matters for right now is that her dad is leaving on business, and Billy is growing ever-more impatient that they're not having sex. The next day, we meet the rest of the gang: Sidney's best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan); Tatum's boyfriend Stuart (Matthew Lillard); and Randy (Jamie Kennedy), who works at the local video store and knows everything there is to know about horror movies. It seems - by "it seems", I of course mean, "heavy-handed dialogue establishes in no uncertain terms" - that Sidney has a dark tragedy in her past; because a good Final Girl needs something dark hiding under the surface, since being terrified of a ghostface killah with a knife isn't dramatically compelling enough.
Long story short, the small town where everyone lives is gripped by fear of more teen deaths, and at the end of the day classes are indefinitely cancelled by Principal Himbry (and uncredited Henry Winkler), leading to a celebratory party where many teens will drink and watch movies and fool around, Sidney (her secret long since revealed: her mom was raped and murdered almost exactly one year ago) is hounded by a tabloid journalist Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox-Arquette, in the role that introduced her to the "Arquette" half of that hyphenate), while the standard-issue worst cop in the world bumbles around and is comickal; that would be Tatum's brother, Dewey, played by an unusually restrained David Arquette (see?). Oh, and most importantly of all, Randy(who has been noticing for all of the film's running time that it feels an awful lot like a cheap slasher film) declares The Rules governing the killing - don't have sex, don't drink, don't say "I'll be right back" - during a screening of Halloween in which a roomful of teens grow disinterested by the 17-year-old film's slow pace and lack of female nudity, and this is easily Scream's most believable, if depressing, reflection of actual human behavior.
Back in the day, Scream drew impressive hosannas from movie critics who wouldn't ordinarily give a slasher film two seconds, made Williamson a superstar screenwriter (briefly, but unfortunately long enough that he was able to perpetrate Dawson's Creek), and as I've mentioned, reinvigorated the dead teenager film more than anything had in over a decade. All of this was for the same reason: it was Smart and Hip. This wasn't just a slasher film, it was a meta-commentary, explaining the rules of the genre while also playfully indulging them; the perfect horror movie to come out the same year as Alanis Morissette's "Ironic". So you - you, the hipster, or you, the critic, either one - got to appreciate that the film was reinforcing what you already knew: man, those slasher movies are so trashy! Isn't it awesome how trashy they are? Isn't even more awesome that we, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson, know how trashy slashers are, and yet here we are making a slasher? Isn't that hilariously post-modern?
I bet you're able to figure out my answer to those rhetorical questions, but I honestly don't hate Scream nearly as much as I feel like I should. Here's the biggest problem I have with the film: any movie (and there have been many of them since 1996) that forwards the argument, "Because the filmmakers are aware of their film's badness, and since they alert the viewer to that self-awareness of that badness, it obviates said badness - OR INDEED even turns it into a strength" gets exactly zero traction with me. Self-knowing badness is in fact badness; it might actually be worse than just regular old badness because it is, in addition to everything else, smug.
At the same time, movies that are explicitly about the experience of watching themselves get a whole lot of traction with me indeed. Craven had already mined this territory masterfully with Wes Craven's New Nightmare, a mere two years earlier; and there are points where Scream's turn to self-reference is nothing shy of brilliant. I am thinking, for example, of a scene in which Randy shouts warnings to Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, unaware that he's being stalked by the murderer - in fact, he's on camera at the time, and the people watching the feed are shouting warnings at him. It's funny and suspenseful at the same time, and not the only example of the film's self-analysis working rather well, although it is the best example.
It's a very narrow line that Scream straddles, this attempt to be smart about itself being stupid, without being so stupid that it's obnoxious. It ultimately fails to keep balance, I think, because Williamson and Craven aren't necessarily aware that they're on that line, assuming perhaps that the mere fact of saying "We know how bad this is ha ha aren't we grand ironists?" really is all the more argument they need to make. Williamson, particularly - even more than its constant stream of moments in which a character says "this is the stuff that happens in a slasher movie" right before or after that exact stuff happens, Scream is full of references, explicit or implied, to other horror movies. And by "full", I mean, hardly a page of the screenplay must have been absent such a reference. I mean, just a list of all the movies I counted being referenced would take up most of the remainder of this review, and some of those movies - notably the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween franchises - get referenced a dozen or more times each.
Why is this bad? Because it's pointless. All that the references add up to is demonstrating that both the writer and the idealised viewer have seen, or heard of, a great many horror picture stretching back into the 1930s and James Whale's Frankenstein. A joke like "Wes Carpenter", or Craven cameoing as a janitor in Freddy Krueger's sweater, or tens of little things like that might prove that I am capable of decoding Williamson's mental puzzles, but they don't do anything for me, for my appreciation of the slasher genre, or for the entertainment I receive from Scream. And heaven help the poor viewer who lacks an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre.
To be perfectly honest, though, that's not my biggest problem with Scream - a real and thorny problem it is, but not the biggest. I simply don't care for its attitude. "Oh, man, slasher films are stupid" it declares, while indulging in all the stupid behavior of every slasher film of all time, chortling as it does. And sure, slasher films are stupid, but the best of them, or whatever imprecise synonym for "best" I was looking for, have a hardscrabble honesty to their cheapness and meanness and exploitative missions. In other words, I might hate Friday the 13th, and when I watch it, I do indeed think "this is completely stupid", but I kind of love with an absolute lack of irony. It's like saying that a dog that runs square into a wall is stupid - yeah, but then you have to give it a hug and ruffle its doggy ears, because its stupidness is so, well, endearing. Or you buy the Blu-Ray for a reason that still doesn't quite make sense, but you can't bring yourself to regret doing it.
Slasher films, in other words, are awful in a lot of ways, but there is one huge point in their favor: they are manifestly honest about their intentions. Scream is not honest: it is a certain thing and tries its damnedest to hide that fact under a cloud of sarcasm. The hell of it is, it's even a pretty great slasher film, at heart - after all, Craven is a pretty fine filmmaker when he wants to be, and he got a nice budget to work with - so in better circumstances, it might have been my friend. But I can't stand self-loathing, and I can't stand hipster douchebaggery, and Scream is guilty of both.
Body Count: 7, none of them terribly violent, but one of them takes about four tries, and that is pleasant and amusing.
Reviews in this series
Scream (Craven, 1996)
Scream 2 (Craven, 1997)
Scream 3 (Craven, 2000)
Scream 4 (Craven, 2011)