By the time of the 90s, the decade of my birth, the slasher genre was out cold. Many would say it hasn’t really had much of a long life after 1978-1984, what with the many bloody escapades of Michael, Jason, and Freddy being sapped more and more of their inspiration and being proof that Hollywood will milk a gimmick – especially one as cheap and undemanding as the slasher flick, since it has a very simply enough structure to follow – Killer hunts teenagers until one remains and then makes pretend dead. There are slashers enough that attempt to put a twist on that formula but not enough to be considered truly fresh (OK, one movie comes to mind with having a fresh enough premise to it, but permit me to get to it later this month).
Anyway, along comes Wes Craven – one of the household names of the horror genre with his own slasher franchise under his belt – and Kevin Williamson – who is maybe the most 90s writer you can think of, just running up in Hollywood off the reputation of his screenplay Killing Mrs. Tingle (which although it was the first screenplay of his purchased wasn’t made into a movie until 1999… so keep in mind, it was the script itself causing the ruckus) and so they got together with the help of Miramax Films back in its Weinstein Regime to create a film that proclaims itself as a throwback and parody of all of the slasher films that had just stopped existing and on the power of that movie’s reception, we ended up with a sort of second-wave for slasher pictures (kind of, instead of focusing on killers, this new wave wanted a bunch of UPN and the WB stars to take charge as the leads. Which is kind of the worst idea if you’re like me and grew up during the time the WB existed.)
Like Valley Girl phrases and slap bracelets and… i dunno, those things that popped the fuck up alot… the slasher film was suddenly in again, before being out sooner than expected because it’s not a very versatile genre nor does anything really remain cool that often.
Scream kept its legacy, though. And is still remembered as one of the masterpieces of the genre. A title I’d honestly take the hugest issue with.
I was four years old when Scream came out, so needless to say I was in no interest to see it nor any awareness of its trend-setting (even though I did witness it, just never gave it much thought). I didn’t see the movie for the first time until I was in my more isolated state of high school when I binged horror movies in the middle of the night to keep me from dealing with my thoughts and one night that got to the first three films in one go (Scream 4 not having existed until 2011; There has also since been a TV series that premiered earlier this year on MTV). And of course, since I was in high school, I was cynical and had responded a little more absent-mindedly to Scream as a parody without much thought.
To recap, Sidney Prescott’s (Neve Campbell) life is reaching one year after the rape and murder of her mother, allegedly by Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber). Her sexually-frustrated boyfriend (Sidney is a virgin when we meet her) Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), best friend Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan), and HER possibly ADD- boyfriend Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) are all working to distract her from that, but in the meantime, the brutal opening scene murder of Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) and her boyfriend is roaming round the town as word of mouth and both police Deputy Dewey Tatum (David Arquette) – also Tatum’s sister, a fact that adds absolutely nothing to the movie – and reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox – and holy shit even this cast is fucking 90s – also maybe a notable thing about this film is how it led to Cox and Arquette’s marriage) are investigating further. Such a violent event leads to Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler) canceling classes for a time period and so Stu has his own little party to celebrate carnage allowing such a blessing. And more murders are certain to come, given the type of movie this is.
And so the charming simplicity of the slasher genre is stuffed the fuck with all these convolutions caused by folks behaving neither in similar enough manner to slasher characters to count as parody characterizations, nor as believable enough human beings to cause me to buy a lot of it.
Oh, I’m sorry, I tried to hold off this fact as much as I can, since I feel like I’d be lynched by horror fans to drop this bomb, but the fact is I have grown a lot more cynical towards Scream over time and have not admired it as much as parody. Because when I finally grew up to point what I do like about the film, it’s this… Craven, who is at least a competent enough craftsman that very few films by him can really be called poorly-made (the only one in mind is The Last House on the Left and come on, that was doomed from the start), made a pleasant enough slasher film on its own without any need of self-winking. It has its flaws, but it would have been good enough with the cynical nature of it. It’s serviceable maybe, rather than good.
Kevin Williamson is the motherfucker who ruins Scream for me. The whole time, the movie tries to outwardly address itself as a bad movie on purpose to the audience, but deliberately allowing yourself to go into the pitfalls of slasher storytelling just so you can laugh at yourself… it doesn’t go with me. More intelligent movies than that would actually find a sly way to comment on that and there are only a handful times in the film where it allows itself to analyze slasher cinema (usually involving Jamie Kennedy’s Randy Meeks character – whose sole existence is to be unrequitedly crushing on Sidney and to drop barrels and barrels of references that Williamson isn’t already doing by naming characters) and maybe two of those times are when it does something interesting (the famous “how to survive a horror film” moment is unnecessary to introduce, but there’s a very brief moment where Gale’s cameramen are watching Randy watching Halloween as the Ghostface Killer – voiced by Roger Jackson – crawls behind him).
Other than the frustration that comes with the intellectual take-but-no-give of pretending that classifying something as parody immediately removes a subject from criticism (and feeling uncertain that Williamson probably used this as a fail-safe), this self-satisfying approach means dismissing the movie’s true bones of being a horror film almost too eagerly and also forgets that Craven already sort of gave us a film that is meta about horror cinema – New Nightmare, the 7th film in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, nearly forgotten for reasons it doesn’t deserve and a million times more satisfying both as a surface-level story and as a discussion on horror films and it’s audience (to begin with, it doesn’t require half the fore-knowledge Scream expects you to have, just that you have seen the first film in the Nightmare series – also it’s on Netflix as of this writing, so go check it out). And also, I feel I ought to express my seething at Film4 for claiming New Nightmare failed and Scream succeeds. We gonna go to war, son.
But it’s mainly that plot developments are far from shocking nor have any semblance of sense, character relationships are absolutely dismissed (*SPOILERS* but I always was immensely peeved how not once in the whole franchise do we have any acknowledgment of grief from Dewey over his sister’s murder), chronology is jarred, and this movie tries to hide behind “but we’re making fun of how stupid” slasher films are and thinks it gets away with it. The difference is that slasher films still feel fun, they don’t try to put the joke on you. They’re movies made for the sake of making movies (ok and sometimes a quick buck, it was a gimmick for a reason). Scream thinks it is better than that and it never actually earns those stripes above its status a slasher film, just the same as the rest. Its shit doesn’t smell any sweeter.