The extremely high placement of Drew Godard’s The Cabin in the Woods (number 11) and Wes Craven’s Scream on your favourite horror movies list is a testament to the endemic repercussions of postmodern irony and self-reflexivity. When I first watched Scream as a young teenager, I thought its incessantly self-referential set-pieces were a little cheesy, a little clumsy and a little on-the-nose. In other words, I wasn’t sure what the grand purpose of its self-reflexivity was, other than to strain and feign cleverness. While I still think there are a handful of self-referential moments in Scream that are reasonably clunky, I have become more aware of its broader place in debates about media culture as the years have gone by.
I have become conciliated to Scream’s examination of the wider impact of the media on human behaviour and psychology. More particularly, I am now comfortable with its use of easy and straightforward postmodern tropes as a vehicle through which this idea can be explored. Scream doesn’t exactly aim to evoke Jean Baudrillard or Marshall McLuhan or even Michael Haneke, but instead didactically tries to invoke a simple message about media consumption. This message is encapsulated in the film’s most iconic line: “movies don’t create psychos; movies make psychos more creative”.
It is a message that is even more potent now than it was in 1996. Since 1996, we have seen myriad perpetrators of horrifying massacres and shootings claim to be influenced by movies and video games – from 1999’s Columbine Massacre to 2012’s Aurora shooting during a cinema screening of The Dark Knight Rises. I’ve never been a ‘gamer’ myself, but I do watch a shit-load of movies, many of them violent. However, I will never ever feel the inclination to hurt or maim or kill another human being. Scream reminds us that fictive art should not be censored because mass-media does not cause the inbuilt psychopathic tendencies of mass-murders, even if some terrible acts of violence can be linked to certain media texts.
Scream is the story of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), a high-school student who becomes embroiled in the killings of her fellow townspeople by Ghostface – either the world’s biggest horror movie fan or the world’s least figurative Wu-Tang Clan fan. Despite the efforts of Deputy Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette) and reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), who sounds more like a weathergirl than a journalist, Ghostface continues to decimate the town of Woodsboro in gorily inventive ways. Ghostface is an avid horror move watcher, and the only way to survive is to abide by the ‘horror movie rules’. We also know that Ghostface is one of the townspeople – but which one? Consequently, Scream is a postmodern pastiche of whodunit and horror movie models, with plenty of comedy thrown in for good measure.
Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, now my second favourite film of all time, has a clearer, more coherent and yet more complex argument about the impact of violence in the media than Scream. To over-simplify it, Haneke posits that violence should only be used in cinema to comment on the pernicious impact of violence in the media, or to underscore the inherently violent nature of human interaction. Wes Craven provides a different, albeit less interesting, argument. He does not come down as harshly on cinematic violence as Haneke, or other films about media culture like Videodrome or Man Bites Dog (a film even funnier than Scream).
Craven instead fulfils the inherent ‘entertainment value’ of violence as a horror movie staple, while also insinuating that this sort of thing can have negative impacts. You could easily argue that Craven is trying to have his cake and eat it too (an idiom that while I completely understand, I hate because of its logical redundancy to a chubby person like me). However, this works for me, because often the violence in Scream starts off as entertaining and gradually becomes uncomfortably and disturbingly gory. Just take the film’s terrifying opening sequence, where a distraught Drew Barrymore is taunted and cross-examined by Ghostface. Initially, her torture is scary and fun to watch, but when we eventually see her mangled corpse hanging from a tree, it is gut-wrenchingly disturbing.
Even though Scream merges three genres, it is incredibly effective as a comedy, as a mystery and as horror movie without compromising on elements of each genre. The film is genuinely funny, with much of the humour coming from the film’s self-reflexivity. Much mirth is provided from Sidney’s film-geek friend Randy (Jamie Kennedy) reciting the ways to survive horror movies – do not drink, take drugs, have sex, etc. – and from Sidney and her friends debating the conservative gender politics of classic horror movies. Could Ghostface be a woman? Of course it could (if you ignore the voice), even though there was no Michelle Myers, Frederica Kruger or Jacy Voorhees.
Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson do not come down unequivocally against violent horror movies because they were inspired by so many of them – not inspired to kill, but inspired to make horror movies themselves. Scream is littered with numerous blink-and-you’ll-miss-them homages to influential horror classics. Linda Blair, who played Reagan in The Exorcist, has a brief cameo as a journalist. Sidney’s boyfriend is called Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), Loomis being the surname of Samuel Loomis from Halloween, which in turn is the name of Marian Crane’s lover in Psycho. Craven himself adds a number of self-aggrandising nods to his A Nightmare on Elm Street – the least of which is his own cameo as a character named ‘Freddy’. Yet Scream does not become bogged down by its shrewd self-reflexivity. It is genuinely mysterious – the revelation of the killer’s identity is a devilishly clever surprise – and pretty damn frightening as well.
I still have a few problems with Scream. Craven and Williamson seem to abandon the idea that Ghostface is a horror buff. Early in the film, Ghostface quizzes his victims on horror movie trivia to decide whether they will survive, which is a unique and clever move on the part of the filmmakers. Unfortunately, Ghostface gradually becomes nothing more than a cardboard cut-out masked killer who will kill anything and everything without reason. The whodunit element of Scream exists to satirise the stale horror movie code that killers have a clear identity and easily identifiable motives – a trope that came about particularly in the sequels to Halloween and Friday the 13th – but the filmmakers slowly strip Ghostface of his enigmatic presence until the end of the film. I still find some of the self-reflexive touches to be quite clumsy as well. To give just one example, I really hate the moment when “the killer comes back for one last scare”.
Yet despite this, Scream remains one of the most enjoyable, scary and original horror films of the 90s.