Monday, April 11, 2011

Scream - A Retrospective

It has long been known that teenagers are where it’s at when it comes to the horror genre. In the 1950’s it was discovered by some shifty studio executive that teenagers have money to spend and they love to spend it on being scared. So Hollywood began to churn out inexpensive B-pictures with provocative titles such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Attack of the Giant Leeches and Teenagers From Outer Space. These titles were silly, not very creative and had some really dreadful special effects but they still managed to pack the drive-in on a Saturday night.

The 1970’s saw teen horror re-popularised mostly by the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween. To this day it is one of the most successful indie films of all time and it created a sub-genre, the “stalk n’ slash” movie which of course went on to inspire thousands of imitators, none of which would ever match the terrifying heights of Halloween. Teenagers and adults alike were piling into cinemas for movies such as Friday the 13th, Prom Night and When a Stranger Calls, all similar to Halloween in their depiction of teen behaviour and the killers who track them.

The 1980s was better known for the “video nasty” phase of horror history. Not that it didn’t give us some classics but the direction of the films veered away from teenage babysitters in general during that period. The 80’s did however give us Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street which went on to become one of the most revered horror films of all time, along with it’s outrageously beloved child murderer, Freddy Kreuger.

Many would claim that Scream was the first “meta” horror and while it was certainly the film that popularised self-referential horror, lets not forget that Wes Craven made New Nightmare two years before Scream, which was a film, set in the real world in which the actress, Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street becomes haunted by Freddy Kreuger as she is on the brink of making a new Freddy movie. The self-referential nature of this film makes it one of the most historically important films of the genre but it was unfortunately overlooked, possibly presumed to be yet another stinker of a sequel. It was with Scream in 1996 that the “ironic slasher” was born.

Those who remember the release of Scream will undoubtedly remember it as something of a genre revolution. For a period, teenagers sneaked into cinemas all over the world to scream and giggle; sleepovers full of teenage girls had never been so afraid and no one answered the phone when they were in the house alone. 
For those unfamiliar with the premise, Scream tells the story of Sidney Prescott, whose mother was brutally murdered a year earlier and now a ghost-masked serial killer is tormenting her with phone calls, movie trivia and a series of bloody murders. The fictional town of Woodsboro is in a panic. Who is the masked serial killer? Can hot-shot reporter Gale Weathers solve the crime and win her Emmy with the help of the sweet but dim Deputy Dewey? The plot is as basic as they come but what sets this film apart is Scream's borderline satirical awareness of the genre allowing it to play homage to all the great slasher films of the past while bursting the door wide open for a new wave of slice n’ dice murderous mayhem in cinema.

Scream follows the same basic conventions of a slasher film but with a knowing smile. These kids are well-versed in movie terminology and the sagely nerd Randy explains the conventions of the horror genre. Rule #1: You can't have sex, since only virgins can outsmart the killer in the end; Rule #2: You can't drink or do drugs, since like rule #1, they are sins. Rule #3: Don't ever say "I'll be right back." Needless to say, Randy’s rules are fairly accurate and allow the audience a tantalising prediction of who’s going to die.

Scream stands out, not only because of its tongue-in-cheek genre-bending but also because it is damn scary! The scares come hard and fast, starting with the classic Drew Barrymore opening sequence. There is something untrustworthy about Scream’s “the rules are there are no rules” cavalier attitude towards scares that keeps the audiences feeling uncomfortable for the entire film. You think you know where the jumps are coming, but since you also know that they are playing with expectations, you can never quite trust the rules you think you know. Another unique element of Scream is the self-aware nature of these teenagers. Kevin Williamson would go on to create an entire generation of over-thinking, verbose teenagers with his TV show Dawson’s Creek and it’s clear to see his pattern emerging here. The cast and characters are equally colourful and much of Scream’s power is wielded in the energy and likeability of the young cast. Unlike the teenagers in previous horror films, these kids were not so interested in sex and drugs that they are oblivious to the fact that they are being picked off one by one. These teens are well aware of horror movie clichés. They know what is expected of them and know how to avoid being killed. As the panic spreads, they look to the movies to figure out how to survive. Also, when the films killers are finally revealed it is their disturbing relationship to the horror genre that has inspired them. But they are quick to dismiss that horror movies actually make people commit murder, they just help them come up with interesting ways to do it; “movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative”. Williamson was unafraid to create two sides to the “video nasties” argument, giving the audience something meaty to mull over after the movie ended, if they were so inclined.

Scream was a gigantic success both critically and financially and so it sparked a new wave in teen horror, many of which were pretty terrible. There were even two sequels to Scream, the first of which was a winking discussion of the rules of the sequel. It was reasonably clever but not as good as the first (but then again, isn’t that the rule about sequels?). Scream 3 however was an absolute disaster, hated by pretty much everyone and especially infuriating because its twist ending managed to ruin elements of the original film. Scream 4 is a dissection, fifteen years on, of the effect of the original film on horror films and how the genre has moved on, with particular attention paid to the Blair Witch inspired tendency of horror films to be based on supposed “found footage”. Whether or not the fourth film manages to become a worthy addition to the franchise, it gives us the perfect opportunity to reflect on the original Scream film and to appreciate it for its sense of humour, its cinematic wisdom, it’s uniquely postmodern concept (this is a concept that could only be used once, any followers were mere copycats), and it’s ability to scare the crap out of audiences all over the world, even the most seasoned horror buff!

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