Today, Hollywood’s horror scene lost a member of its royalty, with the passing of Wes Craven. While there is a good deal of idealistic memorialising no doubt going regarding his career – which let’s be fair, was as filled with flops as it was with shocks – I feel the need instead to leap to defense to one of his most maligned successes; Scream (1996). While Scream’s legacy was, as was the case with the bulk of Craven’s hits, hindered by a string of less effective sequels, and while it arrived on screens very much toward the end of the ‘slasher picture’ rising star, in a box-office lull where horror looked destined for the bargain-bin, to my mind its genre-savvy social commentary and cutting social critiques make it the very apex of its cinematic genome.
It may be partially because it is one of my earliest memories of horror that I look upon it so favorably to this day; it was one of the very first films that genuinely frightened me outside of The Land Before Time (1988) – hey, that sharptooth was damned scary ok – and signaled something of a right of passage for me into more adult viewing. But does it stand up to scrutiny beyond rose-tinted reminiscence? Rewatching it now, I’ll admit that, sure, it has aged – as any film based off a new generation’s cultural zeitgeist will. I’ll also admit that the method of scaring us has shifted sufficiently that, were a genre-savvy film-goer to watch it for the first time today, it probably wouldn’t move them. But here’s the thing; Scream still holds up as a horror, because horror is about more than making you jump, shriek or, in the case of Paranormal Activity Umpteen (TBA), allegedly pass out.
There is a real, timeless horror that plays in the undercurrent of Scream, and it is often overlooked in the film-school critiques of the film. Such critiques are that the film acts out “male rape fantasy”, as a form of perverse conservative punishment narrative, where promiscuous women are gutted, and virtuous virgins survive.This patriarchal commodification of women as agency-light victims is, admittedly, an accurate summation of the slasher genre as a whole – and is usually fulfilled with such a painful lack of subtlety that the bulk of the films could be renamed “Slut Shaming with Knives” – but it would be a mistake to write Scream off in this way.
Craven sets out to directly critique the flaws of a genre that he himself had built something of a career on (Nightmare on Elmstreets 1-100, for example). Initially, when we arrive in the stereotypical town of Woodsboro, it is on the eve of the anniversary of the brutal murder of our protagonist’s mother. But the town is hardly in mourning; in fact the majority of the town seem to think she was asking for it – because she had an affair. Kevin Williamson’s biting script pulls no punches in letting us know this, and echoes the very essence of the genre in dark parody. Slasher films were built on the premise that predominantly women could be judged according to their willingness to put out. If they should dare to indulge in and, God-forbid, enjoy sexual relations, then they were sinners of the highest order, to be purged as an example.
Of course, what Scream does is not to shy away from this, but to play up to it, openly, until the concept becomes utterly repulsive. This is the essence of good satire – which is central to effective horror. Taking an everyday, supposedly natural idea, and subverting it – taking it to its illogical conclusion to show people the horror within the everyday! By the end of the film, even watching it now, you will feel an unease that no amount of Blumhouse jumps can generate – because you are aware of how genuinely horrific real life is for the oppressed and the victimised.
Sidney Prescott’s (Neve Campbell) journey is emblematic of this. Amidst the slut-shaming directed at her mother, she is the only person in her immediate circle that seems to be a virgin – and the only person (spoiler) we actually see do it. As soon as this deflowering occurs, the iconic Ghost-face killer deems her fair game, and decides the time has come to stop messing about, de-mask, and reveal their diabolical plan, which (spoiler) also revolves around the fact they can’t get over how Sidney’s mother used to sleep around.
One of the other ‘motives’ the killer deems acceptable for murder is simple celebrity status. To be made the hero of their own story. This is also part of Scream’s satirical offensive – as it plays on the fetishistic tendency of the free press to immortalise the profile of an accomplished murderer. There is also a tragic irony in this; the very media Scream lambastes so effectively soon labelled a string of murders as “inspired by” the franchise – lending killers the perverse veneer of celebrity through the lens of a film aiming to lampoon it – one that perhaps would not exist were it not for the intervention of the news media in the first place, as they seemed to suggest killing could make you just like a star, in the way Craven’s film specifically set out to rubbish. There is nothing glorious or artistic about the murderers in the end – in the film they are not someone to be emulated; basement-dwelling losers who are overly obsessed with popular culture.
Coming out of this film, and looking at the American and UK media in the cold light of day; it really isn’t all that hard to see why shooting up a creche or an abortion clinic appeals to certain individuals’ egos. Partially they’ve been built up to it by the belligerent super-ego that is tabloid journalism, churning up irrational hatred towards all manner of oppressed people, women included – before being promised the enticing scent of relevance, and a platform for their apparently endangered majority.
Here we see the result of that in Scream. The inevitably white male murderer cites the encroachment of sexually empowered females on his male patriarchal birth-right as the dominant gender as reason enough to kill – and then states his desire to see his name in lights as the heroic ‘survivor’. The whole climate of the film is sickening, and lends credence to the perceived threat that the perpetrator may actually get away with it – because the whole environment that surrounds Sidney is geared towards her persecution and destruction, along with millions of other women across the country.
I wont say any more, in case this film is either your first foray into horror as one of our younger readers, or for our older audience, a cult classic that you have so far overlooked. Wes Craven’s film is smart, scary, and subversive in a way that the bulk of horror in the new millennium has sadly ceased to be. As a pertinent satire, and an opus of one of Hollywood horror’s all time greats, Scream needs to be top of your watch-list, now.