Scream (1996, dir. Wes Craven)
Yet again another Wes Craven film in our list. And also somehow a continuation of the meta-referential aspect of horror films. However, this movie was more tongue-in-cheek and acknowledged the genre’s own tropes and rules inherent. At the time, in 1996, I was a recent high school graduate and was already jaded about horror films. To be fair, it was the 90s and I didn’t know anyone my age who was jaded about something or other.
Nonetheless, when my high school buddies and I went into the movie theater on opening night in December 1996, none of us expected to see a movie that would not only make us laugh out of nervousness and the self-awareness, but it also proposed some new scenarios for hunting and taunting a person – cell phones. Now remember, this was the mid-90s and cell phones were not quite yet in the cultural and social lexicon. Most people still relied on analog landline technology, assisted with pagers. The only real way to communicate was by paging someone and the the person receiving the page was like, “hang on, I gotta find a phone to return this page. So unless you were at home next to a handy-dandy cordless phone, that was as mobile of a phone as most people had.
With that out of the way, the beginning segment of the movie, one that quickly became its own gimmick where a person of some repute would show up and get gutted. And Drew Barrymore was the first one to be filleted on screen, her intestines still steaming as they hang from her torso and collect onto the ground. The prelude to her murder was playful at first, quickly devolving into a traditional game of Cat and Mouse where the Cat is a prick with a voice modulator and encyclopedic knowledge of slasher films. The Mouse was the popular girl who dated a football player and had the unfortunate fate of living in a relatively secluded area, with a house replete with full length windows and few places to effectively hide. Worse yet, the Cat seemed to know all of the areas that the Mouse could hide. Now the Mouse knows that they’re pretty much toast. Usually, not always, but most mainstream slasher films keep the proverbial Mouse uninformed as to the motives of Cat, only knowing that they could be just about anywhere. At this point the audience is usually second-guessing and judging the oft miscalculated moves of the Mouse, decrying every move and talking to the screen as if it will change the fate of the Mouse, “no, no, no, no…don’t go in there!”
In Scream, even though the Mouse knew exactly the intentions of the Cat, and the Cat tells the Mouse that no matter what she does, the Cat knows where she is in the house, the Mouse still makes fatal errors. Of course, the fun of the slasher convention and especially with Scream is that we can put ourselves into that situation and ask ourselves what we would do. But in reality, the situation could change radically enough for success as easily as it could fail in defeat for the Mouse. And while the Mouse is on screen taunting the Cat with sarcastic references to other slasher tropes, mere moments before witnessing her boyfriend’s intestines spill out of his stomach. The game changes and she then realizes, Uh oh, I’m now a trope and I have to die. I mean, Casey Becker probably didn’t realize that she was a character, but the audience has the realization and in effect will project that revelation onto the character onscreen. The reflexive relationship between character and viewer is not lost on the audience and they find themselves in a new type of genre convention – the self-aware victim and omniscient predator.
Unfortunately, that relationship worked near perfectly for the first film, with some cringe inducing moments of dating itself with technology and references, but taking it beyond the first movie was a Herculean task that many feel ultimately failed. The filmmakers did their best to serve up a new take on a possibly stale genre, even though the first movie reinvigorated the genre, it also created so much hubris with its self awareness that each sequel became derivative even before cameras rolled. But maybe that was the point – to parody itself in subtle doses with each movie in the series. I don’t know, that’s an idea to explore in another essay.
While Scream truly redefined the slasher, then buried it for a period of time, there is an element of fun and originality mixed with genuine scares that this movie holds for me after all these years. However, for me that is the caveat – I have to let years pass between viewings to have the full experience that mimics the first time I viewed it in December 1996. But when I do watch it again, it is a fun and favorable experience.