The Rules of Reviving a Genre: ‘Scream’ and Postmodern Cinema

A killer is on the loose in Wes Craven’s slasher classic ‘Scream’

“What’s your favorite scary movie?” ~ ‘Scream’

Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) is a horror film that is often celebrated for its willingness to portray characters who have seen horror films. It is credited for reviving the horror genre after a string of disappointing sequels and direct-to-video releases in the 1980s and early 1990s, which left fans and critics to believe that the once creative and lucrative genre was dead.

The $14 million film opened on 1,413 screens on December 20, 1996, making nearly $6 million in its opening weekend. As word of mouth and critical praise spread, the film wound up being the highest grossing slasher film of all time, earning over $170 million worldwide. What made Scream become such a financial and critical success, and what does its success suggest about 1990s cinema and culture?

To call Scream original is misleading. Though many admire Craven for creating a fresh genre picture, the film itself is original for owning its unoriginality. Much of the film contains intertextual references to other works of art — especially horror — and these allusions give the film a postmodern self-awareness. Like other postmodern films of the 1990s, including Pulp Fiction (1994), Austin Powers: The International Man of Mystery (1997), and The Truman Show (1998), to name a few, Scream survives on the postmodern premise that the past is a recyclable source for the artist.

One of the ways Craven and the screenwriter Kevin Williamson display the self-referential nature of their film is through the characters’ knowledge of slasher film clichés.

The plot of Scream is not unlike other slasher films: An unknown killer who goes by the name of Ghostface terrorizes the suburban town of Woodsboro, California. The difference is that the characters in Scream have seen horror films.

One of Ghostface’s trademarks before attacking a victim is to call him or her (usually her) on the telephone and engage in a conversation about popular culture. In an early scene, Ghostface calls Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), our heroine, and the conversation is as follows:

“Hello Sidney.”

“Who is this?”

“You tell me.”

“Well I have no idea.”

“Scary night isn’t it? With the murders and all, it’s like right out of a horror movie, isn’t it?” (One of the many self-aware lines of dialogue in the film.)

“Randy you gave yourself away. Are you calling from work because Tatum’s on her way over?” (Randy is one of the film’s supporting characters, who is a horror film geek.)

“Do you like scary movies Sidney?”

“I like that thing you’re doing with your voice Randy, it’s sexy.”

“What’s your favorite scary movie?”

“Oh come on, you know I don’t watch that shit.”

“Why not? Too scared?”

“No, it’s just, what’s the point. They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who’s always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting.”

It’s significant to break down this conversation in order to appreciate the postmodern elements on display. The dialogue is tongue-in-cheek. When the killer quips, “It’s like right out of a horror movie,” we cannot help but smile because we understand that it is, indeed, out of a horror movie — the one we are watching.

The dialogue also acknowledges the countless slasher films to have come before Scream. When Sidney calls attention to the slasher clichés, it might appear that Craven is mocking the genre, until Sidney is attacked by Ghostface a few moments later and she comically runs up the stairs to find safety in her bedroom.

What is especially clever about the scene is that Sidney’s efforts to be safe and avoid slasher clichés create more problems for her. Sidney locks the front door — something characters in previous slasher films would disregard — but when she quickly opens the door to survey the scene (an act of idiocy or precaution?), Ghostface finds a way into the house and attacks her from behind. She rushes for the front door again, but the lock is now jammed, and she has no choice but to run upstairs and escape Ghostface’s clutch.

This scene cleverly pays homage to slasher films and their clichés, but it also challenges condescending critiques of the cliché by showing an instance in which running up the stairs is the wise decision, as Sidney’s only other option is death.

To further demonstrate its postmodern sensibility, Scream contains allusions to other works of visual culture. For example, the white mask Ghostface wears pays homage to Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” an expressionist horror painting from 1893.

Craven’s use of Munch’s painting is an exercise in kitsch. Ghostface’s mask is an inferior copy of Munch’s brilliant, bewildering work of expressionism, and its existence as the identity of an unknown serial killer in an ironic, self-aware slasher film represents poor taste on behalf of Craven.

We find Craven breaking down the cultural divide between high and low art as he reimagines Munch’s avant-garde expressionist painting in a mainstream slasher film.

Moreover, the Ghostface mask has become a mass-produced commodity, as it is sold in toy stores all around the country and worn by children and teenagers on Halloween.

The above postmodern elements give Scream a cutting edge over other slasher films of its time, and they can explain why the film was such a hit with audiences and critics.

Craven’s depiction of fandom can explain the film’s sustained success. Make no mistake, Scream was made for horror cinephiles and is one of those self-aware postmodern films you need to “get” in order to truly appreciate, like Pulp Fiction or Austin Powers. With nods to Freddy Krueger, Tom Cruise, Halloween (1978), Hitchcock, Sharon Stone, and Munch, Scream is the kind of film that cinephiles discuss at coffee shops for hours, making lists and charts devoted to the film’s allusions, which become symbolic manifestations of their grasp on popular and visual culture.

Just as Scream is a film for cinephiles, it is also a film about cinephiles. The scene in which Randy (Jamie Kennedy) interrupts a group screening of Halloween in order to explain the “certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie” is a perfect example.

What’s memorable about this scene, in addition to its intertextuality and self-awareness, is its depiction of obsessive fandom. The scene portrays a group of teenagers who form a community based upon their mutual love of horror cinema. With popcorn in abundance and videos of their favorite horror films to choose from, this communal experience becomes an event.

The rules of horror, according to Randy, are: 1. Never have sex. 2. Never drink or do drugs. 3. Never say, “I’ll be right back,” because, as Randy puts it, “you won’t be back.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Craven ends up breaking these rules with Scream. For example, Sidney has sex toward the end of the film, but she survives each Scream installment. The second rule does not apply, as most people at the party have a beer in their hand, and not all of them are killed in the film. Finally, the third rule does not hold, as one of the characters Stu (Mathew Lillard) jokingly says, “I’ll be right back” to the group, and we find out later in the film when he returns that he is one of the killers. It’s appropriate to assume that real-life fans would obsess over the ways in which Randy alters the rules, as I have just done.

Rather than representing fandom in a favorable light, however, Craven shows how it can be taken to the extreme, and the ways an obsessive love of cinema can lead to hyper-reality.

Case in point: The murderous methods of Ghostface and how he treats actual murder (at least in the filmic world of Scream) as cinematic. In the opening scene, he asks the film’s first victim Casey (Drew Barrymore) to answer various questions about movie trivia, and her level of cinephilia determines whether or not she will die. Here is a brief transcript of the scene:

“Name the killer in Friday the 13th.”

“Jason! Jason! Jason!”

“I’m sorry. That’s the wrong answer!”

“No, it’s not. No it’s not. It was Jason.”

“Afraid not. No way.”

“Listen, it was Jason! I saw that movie 20 goddamn times.”

“Then you should know that Jason’s mother, Mrs. Voorhees, was the original killer. Jason didn’t show up until the sequel. I’m afraid that’s the wrong answer.”

The exchange between Casey and Ghostface demonstrates the dangerous implications of fandom, and the ways it can lead to the hyper-real. Ghostface clearly has an understanding of horror cinema, and he deliberately asks Casey a trick question that she must answer in order to spare her life. She gives the wrong answer, and one can imagine a true horror fan watching the scene and thinking that any self-respecting cinephile would have known that Mrs. Voorhees is the original killer in Friday the 13th. Ghostface’s interrogation separates those who are in the know from those who are not, but at what cost? Is knowledge of popular culture really a matter of life and death?

Craven and Williamson seem to address these questions with Scream, as the killers are revealed to be two teenagers obsessed with movies. Billy and Stu, we come to find, have collaborated in the murders, and they learn all of their tricks, so to speak, from horror cinema. Below is a brief excerpt from an exchange between Sidney, Stu, and Billy after their identities are revealed:

“You sick fucks. You’ve seen one too many movies.”

“Now Sid, don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!”

Billy and Stu are unable to separate the world of movies from reality, and as such, they treat actual murder as if it is a game, and they learn how to play it from the horror films they watch. It seems, then, that Craven is critical of fandom and its potential to overtake the cinephile’s consciousness to the point where film cannot be distinguished from reality.

The prominence of the media elite throughout Scream finds Craven capturing the milieu of 1990s news sensationalism after the intense coverage of the OJ Simpson trial from 1994 to 1995. The character Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox), a determined reporter willing to exploit the gruesome murders for her professional benefit, is surely made to resemble the countless media reporters who capitalized on the OJ Simpson trial. Gail’s final monologue, the last spoken lines of the film, is transcribed below.

“Okay I think it’s going to go something like this, just stay with me. Hi, this is Gail Weathers with an exclusive eyewitness account of this amazing breaking story. Several more local teens are dead, bringing to an end the harrowing mystery of the masked killings that has terrified this peaceful community like the plot of some scary movie. It all began with the scream of 911, and ended in a bloodbath that has rocked the town of Woodsboro. All played out here in this peaceful farmhouse, far from the crimes and the sirens of the larger cities that its residents have fled. Okay, let’s take it back to one. Come on, move it! This is my big shot. Let’s go.”

Gail’s monologue encapsulates everything that makes Scream a defining film of the 1990s. We see, again, Craven’s postmodern self-awareness, but we also see the darker message at the film’s core.

Perhaps Craven constantly reminds us that we are watching a movie — even though we are — because in real life, gruesome murders and horrific violence such as the ones depicted throughout the film are often treated as such. The media turns violence into a spectacle, and it becomes an event that we read about in the paper or watch on television, as evinced by Gail’s “exclusive eyewitness account” of an “amazing” series of murders.

The final joke of the film, that somewhere a group of innocent people are being brutally murdered in ways that are real and not so funny, is one that we still haven’t gotten.

The article has been modified from a previous version published in The Artifice.

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