This one’s for the kids. And by kids, I guess I mean people my age, so, grown-ups. This one’s for grown-ups.
If you were the only suspect in a senseless blood bath, would you be standing in the horror section?
This was just it. This was what you wanted to see, sneak into, rent, own, show your friends. Scream was the movie of the late 90s. It was the movie that reaffirmed Wes Craven’s relevancy to a new generation of horror fans, and reinvented the genre as fully “self-aware.” Call it meta, call it cynical, call it kids who watch too many scary movies – this was a breaking point that colored and informed every. single. movie. made after it.
*And yes, New Nightmare fans, I am one of you, and I know it came first – but this was the biggie that everybody and their mother saw, spurring a whole new franchise.
The basic premise for those late to the party (I imagine you’re irresponsible baby boomers that didn’t screen what your children watched or millennial babies who haven’t watched a film made before 2005 – again, I know you exist and I’m going to fix you), is a slasher on the loose in a suburban town, knocking off guys and girls alike, wearing a run-of-the-mill ghost costume from the local Party City. Sydney Prescott is our supposed “final girl,” virginal and sweet as ever, never letting her boyfriend get farther than PG-13, and a little bit depressed by the rape and murder of her mother the year before. How’s this different from anything else prior? Every teenager, thanks to Kevin Williamson’s catchy, pre-Dawson’s Creek snark, knows everything about horror movies. They know about Michael, they know about Jason, Freddy, even that Texarkana “true-story,” The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Crazy kids!
Most importantly, it uses the sarcasm and know-it-all mentality to subvert the typical outcomes of slasher movies we know and love. And, though it’s a little harder to find it scary now, this was one of the first horror films I can remember seeing that was both seriously scary and seriously funny. But in today’s post-post-modern horror world, how are we to look at something like Scream anymore?
Consent. Oh, man, it’s like a bad word lately. It can easily shut down a conversation, and probably a bad date (as it should). If you think Scream is no longer relevant (I mean, there’s a television show on MTV, so…), immediately focus your attentions on the absurdly cruel and telling things that the male student body has to say.
The point of this film was always to inflate those motifs of the genre that simply won’t go away: the evils of teenage sex, drinking, using drugs, and general misbehavior, because punishment is delivered by Slashers for all those adolescents who would dare to deviate from traditional morality. In attempts to get Sydney, virgin, to do this, her boyfriend Billy (played by the super brooding, super pushy Skeet Ulrich) delivers so many flagrant passive-aggressive threats that I just can’t help but think “Campus Police! This dude needs a sexual assault course, QUICK!” Let’s take a look, shall we?
Things Billy Says in Act I:
- I was home watching television and The Exorcist was on. It got me thinking of you… It was edited for TV, all the good stuff was cut out. And it got me thinking of us. How two years ago we started off hot and heavy. Nice solid R rating on our way to an NC-17. And now, things have changed and, lately, we’re just sort of edited for television.
- It occurred to me that I had never snuck through your bedroom window.
- I wouldn’t dream of breaking your underwear rule.
- See what you do to me?
The last one’s definitely my favorite. Not just because it’s such an EYE ROLL, but because it illustrates a truth. We have a real problem defining “consent” in this country at the moment (I think we always have) and as comical as this line should be, it’s not one I haven’t heard before outside of a movie. And the labelling of women as sluts, teases, prudes, and whores isn’t just a horror movie gag. It’s a real life thing. Of course, Sydney interprets the whole scene as “a romantic gesture,” and that’s clearly a bit of an EYE ROLL for Billy – he wants sex. And he would like it now, please.
If previous slashers punished teenagers for having sex, and the virgin was preserved for her resistance of temptation, then Ghostface thinks that’s got to change.
To be a tramp is still inexcusable (like Sydney’s mother – whom she is terrified of “becoming”), but to withhold, to tease, to refuse sex to those you owe it to, is even worse.
But Syd, she’s no dummy. She catches on. And although she’ll be chastised for it shortly after, her ultimate epiphany comes only after sex. Where in Halloween or Friday the 13th, having sex would have made her an immediate victim, in Scream, having consensual sex grants the kind of knowledge that only such a close, emotional encounter can. Sex can help you know a person. Their good and bad parts.
For all its one-liners and stabby blood shed, I might have just made this into a pretty heavy film. Apologies. But, you know, not really. #sorrynotsorry
But what about Wes? Kevin Williamson gets a lot of credit for the success of this film; no doubt, the fast-talking banter and cynicism of its teenagers are the crux of the film’s concept. The cynicism (despite Freddy Krueger’s penchant for dirty jokes, BITCH!), is decidedly un-Wes to me. However, I don’t believe Scream would have worked without Craven.
A script this loaded with language and action requires an accomplished director. Watch these actors run seamlessly from room to room – that action is felt, and it’s what allows a funny script to also read as really scary. The kills are absolutely a Craven signature – the fights are bloody, disgusting, and downright crude (so much stabbing!). His composition is as poignant as always, pulling off a weird canted angle here, getting Ghostface’s reflection across Drew Barrymore’s face just right in the glass door, there. Can you make a satirical film about the genre with just anybody behind the camera? Sure. Can you subvert it and actually change its entire perspective? Not without one of its own making it happen. Having the Nightmare on Elm Street creator helm this redux is what makes it legendary.
The end fight is brutal and hilarious and fantastic. But that opener – Drew Barrymore making jiffy pop, getting ready to watch a video, flirting on the phone? The new standard. Not to mention, watching her parents walk in the door right as she’s being dragged away and hung up to dry. Now that’s a solid scene.
Other Things to Notice:
This is a really early role for Liev Schrieber – he plays the accused Cotton Weary, and you can see his handsome face being escorted from courtroom to cop car.
Why doesn’t Matthew Lillard get more work? I love him.
*Scream is currently streaming on Netflix, but only until Oct. 31st!
If You Like It, Watch:
Friday the 13th (2009): I think you should watch this remake because a) it is pretty darn good and b) it’s a product of this self-aware, metahorror that Wes and Williamson created. Enjoy.
Cabin in the Woods: The most meta it’s ever gotten. Not my favorite (honestly, even I’m surprised), but it’s very good and lovers of the genre will be tickled pink by its all-knowing-ness. You’ll want to be up on your horror tropes before watching for peak enjoyment.
Cursed: Craven and Williamson worked together again in 2005 on this underrated werewolf movie. It’s fun, and has a very young Jesse Eisenberg. Also, Christina Ricci and Dawson’s Creek alum Joshua Jackson. *Streaming on Amazon Prime
I haven’t gotten a chance, and now seems like as good a time as any – let’s watch a SEQUEL!
*click for the trailer*