Craven perfected his particular predilection with postmodern horror.
In 1996, Wes Craven was deep in deconstruction mode. He released Vampire in Brooklyn—an ambitious if scattershot mixture of comedy and horror that examines and reimagines traditional vampire lore—in 1995, and the year before that, he put himself under the microscope in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a spirited bit of self-reference that took his Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in an inventive new direction but had little in the way of true reflexivity. This (very) loose trilogy of sorts culminated in Scream, a slasher film that successfully embraces a generic spirit while also operating as an insightful and ultimately playful bit of auto-critique. The film takes the stylistic alchemy of Vampire in Brooklyn and the self-awareness of New Nightmare and creates an experience that quite nearly pushes genre technique to the realm of the sublime.
With Scream, Craven perfected his particular predilection with postmodern horror. Unlike Vampire in Brooklyn and even New Nightmare, Scream isn’t simply clever, with shrewd references to other films and nods to some sort of real-life context; it is, quite significantly, a consistently scary film, up there with the scariest Craven ever made. The famed opening sequence, in addition to being an impossibly tense and terrifying game of cat-and-mouse, is also one hell of a thesis statement, as well as something like a proof of concept. High school student Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) is home alone when she receives a curious phone call from an unknown male. Their conversation, initially innocuous and even a bit flirtatious, becomes ominous when the voice uses the topic of horror movies to mock and threaten her, creating an antagonistic air that implicates character and audience alike. Ultimately, the scene is a kind of rubric. The discussion of “the rules” of horror movies is fun and witty, but like the package of stovetop popcorn that doubles a steadily ticking clock, the mounting tension bursts wide open. Not only does Craven succeed in bridging comedy and horror, he shows us that Scream will simultaneously utilize and mock genre tropes, and do so with considerable technique.
Like the intro, the rest of the film alternates between the poles of horror and comedy, constantly pitting genre clichés against the things happening to the characters. Having already proven himself brazen enough to dispose of his “final girl” in the film’s opening moments, Craven takes aim at other scary movie tropes. He turns the heroic cop into a hapless ne’er-do-well; reveals and subsequently rescinds the identity of the killer halfway through the movie, only to eventually reveal him as not only the killer, but one of two assailants; and even has one character, film nerd Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), act as a Greek chorus. Meeks is the film’s metaphysical conscience, the one who calls direct attention to how much the scenario of a crazed serial killer hunting local high school students seems directly pulled from a slasher movie. On a sociopolitical level, this is easily ready as Craven’s way of illustrating the way the public’s perception of criminal behavior is often informed by movies, but such commentary takes a backseat to the director’s astute observations on a film style he himself helped develop.
As opposed to the maximalist exploitation of the director’s more extreme films (The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes), Scream has a more careful and exact style, although it doesn’t shy away from gory imagery. Rather, Craven’s style approaches gore in a way that redirects the impact of onscreen violence. One of the movie’s most consistent themes is media obsession among American teens, particularly American teens that came of age in the era of VHS and cable; when one character’s head is crushed by a TV, we can forgive the illogical nature of the scene as a darkly comic and sickly brilliant comment on media consumption. Remarkably, Scream features an even more absurd kill sequence: one character is crushed to death after getting caught in the doggy entrance of a garage door. Craven’s masterful framing and blocking ensures that the film is appropriately frightening, but he also underlines the inherent silliness of movie violence, and the way proficient filmmaking can make anything seem reasonable, including death by garage.
The characters at the center of Scream form an emotional core that keeps the film from slipping into total parody. In addition to being the three figures that would anchor the proceeding sequels, embattled teenager Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), local news reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and the aforementioned cop Dewey Riley (David Arquette) are the only characters in the film without air quotes around them. They’re also the only characters in the film to actively break the rules that Craven—by proxy of Randy Meeks—dutifully lays out: 1. Never have sex. 2. Never drink or do drugs. 3. Never say, “I’ll be right back.” The way the trio operates illustrates the director’s willingness to deconstruct his film from the inside. And by providing them with intriguing backstories, most notably the tragedy of Prescott’s parentage that informs the entire Scream series, he ensures that the audience empathizes with their situation, rather than simply seeing them in the same meta light as Randy Meeks and the rest of the characters.
The three subsequent Scream films go a long way in cementing the series as what critic Dana Stevens describes as Craven’s “Borges story,” but the original retains a spirit that the others fail to emulate. (This is partly due to the fact that the following films are virtually required to comment on the nature of sequels and franchises, burrowing them deeper into a rabbit hole that gets less enjoyable the further down you travel.) The film earned nearly $200 million at the box office and spawned an unlikely resurgence in teen slasher movies, including the exceedingly more literal minded I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend, proving the director’s subversive ways managed to puncture the zeitgeist. (The Ghostface costume becoming a top-selling Halloween costume for years to come helped with this, too.) Indeed, Scream stands as one of recent history’s best and most influential exercises in pop movie art. It aggressively embodies a specific set of styles and trends and satirizes them from within, yet miraculously never succumbs to its own joke.