The Omniscience of the Scream Franchise
You can very easily sum up recent generations and decades by what was going on in their horror films. Horror has always been at its most effective (and arguably most popular) when tapping into the existential fears of the climate at the time. Promiscuity in teenagers and the rise of STIs/drug abuse lead to the serial killer/slasher craze of the late 70s/80s; this unstoppable force came bombarding towards us with no way of stopping it. The first horror movies stole primal fears of witchcraft and ghosts from gothic literature and translated them to the screen, whilst the pagan/satanic boom of the 1960s represented America (and the world’s) loss of identity as a Christian state.
It's not just changes in opinion and lifestyle that sway these decisions either. As filmmaking developed and technology advanced, subgenres like the found-footage film were ushered into life in order to capitalise on the mass of information at our fingertips. Anyone could now theoretically make a movie, so who’s to say whether what you’re watching is real or not? Wes Craven, as one of the titans of terror, helped to usher in multiple phases within the genre. Whether it was the exploitation of The Last House on the Left or the slasher genre rejuvenation that was A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes’ films had an air of excitement to them that signified you could potentially be witnessing the start of where horror was heading over the next ten years.
After a series of disappointing box-office returns thanks to the influx of dreary sequels to old franchises, horror was coming to a standstill in the first half of the 90s. A generation had now grown up on horror and become numb to its clichés and tropes. A new screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, takes this idea and runs with it in a screenplay entitled ‘Scary Movie’. It’s a post-modern, quip-fuelled and dialogue-heavy slasher that rejuvenates the genre by becoming self-aware (but not the annoying kind of self-aware). The story of a bunch of teenagers being hunted down by a masked serial killer is nothing new, but the presentation and wit behind it is. The kids in question are all well-versed in the goings on of Freddy/Jason/Michael Myers – just like the audience, and it creates this interesting dynamic where the window for the audience is once again back at the victim stage. This recreates the dichotomy that horror thrives off of. Ghostface as a killer becomes scary again because he can one-up us, and Scream almost single-handedly resurrects the horror (and slasher) genre throughout the holiday season in 1996.
“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie.”
*From this point on there are major spoilers for all Scream films. You’ve been warned*
Now, there’s been hundreds of breakdowns of the film and why it works but what’s interesting to me upon a recent re-watch is just how much the quadrilogy manages to predict modern discourse with accuracy, sometimes years ahead of its time. Scream’s success lead to every slasher taking on a post-modern vibe for a few years. Halloween: H20 and Williamson’s own I Know What You Did Last Summer are examples of this. But instead of focusing on the industry fallout, let’s take a look at specific character traits. Scream took the ‘nerd’ archetype and weaponised them with Randy (Jamie Kennedy) and his knowledge of pop culture. In the rise of the internet, film databases and information was now available to all, and thus nearly every group of friends began to feature a Randy. Not only that, but the reveal of Stu (Matthew Lillard) and Billy (Skeet Ulrich) as the simultaneous dark side of this trait, simultaneously asked and answered the whole ‘is violence damaging to our youth?’ question with a resounding ‘pfft…dunno. Maybe a bit but probably not.’
“Now Sid, don’t you blame the movies! Movies don’t create psychos! Movies make psychos more creative!”
Scream’s mass appeal came from the allusion that it was doing something completely different, when in actuality it still adhered to all the clichés it mocked. And as the first horror film to do so, it has complete bragging rights over every other film that still tries to get away with it only to hear groans from the audience. But after such a huge hit, how would the series prevent itself from becoming its own punching bag within its sequels? Well…it’s a long story…
Scream 2 was released less than a year after the original. And that’s insane because it’s actually still very good. Whilst writing the original script, Williamson drafted two five-page treatments for sequels of which the first was greenlit after successful test screenings of Scream. It seemed like a no-brainer too. Taking the penchant for horror movies and translating that to horror sequels was easy, especially considering Randy’s character managed to make it through the first film. That being said, Craven and Williamson weren’t content with just rehashing the same stuff, as Scream 2 features the start of a concurrent plot that satirises the Hollywood pipeline. After Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) publishes her book based off the events of the first film, the rights are hastily bought and adapted for screen as the fictional movie ‘Stab’ within the Scream universe.
Whereas Scream takes an idea Alfred Hitchcock utilised and killed off its biggest star (Drew Barrymore) in the opening, Scream 2 has the balls to remake its own opening and have fictional characters watch in a crowded theatre whilst characters are being murdered. Alongside the enlarged presence of cell phones and a wider scope, it offered up pensive queries on what the zeitgeist would do with these new archetypes that the original film has created. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) had graduated to ‘final girl’ status and was thus a target in the eyes of the media (the college theatre department) as well as a potential end goal for copycats, meanwhile the reveal of Mickey Altieri (Timothy Olyphant) as one of the killers represents the growing argument of violence in the media having a deeper psychological impact on the youth. It uses the example of Stu from the first film to justify its own arguments, ones that would then go on to be had on news stations across the world until the end of time, and would sadly be rejuvenated thanks to atrocious acts of violence two years later after such incidents as the Columbine shooting. For a film with such a troubled and rushed production, to get this much mileage out of a horror sequel is rare.
Despite stumbling a little thanks to Williamson’s busy schedule having him replaced with Ehren Kruger (though still based on his five-page treatment), Scream 3 is still a hell of a lot of fun, particularly in its second half. At this point the metafictional ‘Stab’ franchise is also on its third and final instalment in the trilogy, and the film takes a rather blanketed look at the underbelly of Hollywood with seedy suggestive comments and some obvious and, strangely jarring, tonal shifts (Jay and Silent Bob show up at one point). Sure it has some fun with the concept and a couple of scenes brilliantly utilise the ‘fake set’ setting, but a surprising amount of time is given to Sidney’s memory of her mother Maureen (Lynn McRee) in horror’s fairly-traditional way of handling PTSD – ghostly visions/dream sequences.
“Here’s the critical thing. If you find yourself dealing with an unexpected backstory, and a preponderance of exposition, then the sequel rules do not apply. Because you are not dealing with a sequel. You are dealing with the concluding chapter of a trilogy.”
It’s only when Lance Henriksen’s studio head John Milton is fleetingly introduced where pieces start to be put together. A lot has been said and written about Scream 3 in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement and the fallout of Harvey Weinstein’s disgusting acts. The fact that his name is plastered all over the credits across the trilogy is a sour reminder. But the film seems to have something to say about the sexual misconduct that’s commonplace in Hollywood. The ‘Stab’ actors all across the film repeatedly reference the deeds they’ve partaken in in order to get their roles. Hell, Carrie Fisher appears as a Carrie Fisher lookalike and makes a joke that she lost out on the role of Princess Leia because she wasn’t the one to sleep with George Lucas. The killer reveal of Sidney’s half-brother/’Stab 3’ director Roman Bridger (Scott Foley) works at painting a pawn as the primary bad guy, even when someone like Henriksen’s Milton (or in the real world, Weinstein) is the one pulling all the strings. The trilogy ends by bringing Maureen’s character back as a ploy to take a shot at the sleaze-infested hierarchy, much like the one that’s been a part of the films from the very beginning.
“True trilogies are all about going back to the beginning and discovering something that wasn’t true from the get-go.”
Even Emily Mortimer’s Angelina Tyler is initially revealed to have won her role in a competition, only to give up the charade and admit she slept with Milton at one of his ‘meet and greet’ parties. It’s a twist in the series that has aged like a fine wine, especially now that its true intention has come into light. Maureen was a scorned actor, like so many that came forward, only her story was tied into a slasher trilogy in the year 2000 instead of a biopic. John Milton kickstarted the events that would haunt Sidney Prescott for decades, even to this day…
After a lengthy hiatus, Scream 4 was released with the same duo of Craven and Williamson in 2011. As with many horrors in the social media age, it embraced the presence of social media and the concept of ‘internet fame’ within its narrative, with the killers filming their escapades in order to release them online as a snuff film/evidence. There are neat little touches that create a three-dimensional transition of course. Voice-changing apps now allow every teenager in Woodsboro High to mimic the voice of the killer at will and Robbie Mercer (Erik Knudsen) livestreams his school experience to the masses. At the end of the day though, it’s not insufferable and has aged surprisingly well due to the fact it still dwindles down to the basics of ‘phone call + creepy voice = stabby time’.
The fourth instalment shares many similarities with the series’ first sequel. A heavy meta opening (first we watch ‘Stab 6’’s opening, then ‘Stab 7’’s, which involves Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin watching ‘Stab 6’’s opening) followed by a skewering series of references to the current state of horror (in this case, remakes and ludicrous sequels). The main trio of Sidney, Gale and Dewey (David Arquette) are given younger counterparts to elude to their past too. Rory Culkin’s Charlie Walker and Robbie Mercer are the new film-obsessed Stu and Billie/Randy, though they wear their passion on their sleeve. Emma Roberts’ Jill Roberts, Sidney’s cousin and her best friend Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) echo the same dynamic as Sidney and Tatum (Rose McGowan) did in the original.
However, I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’ve grown up with these movies or not that makes me think Scream 4 manages to (narrowly) avoid the pitfall of depicting the next generation as know-it-all and careless. Yes having a ‘Stab’ movie festival in the middle of an actual killing spree is stupid but if this whole pandemic situation has taught us anything, it’s that we need to believe characters in real life are just as dumb as the ones in our horror movies. To generalise a little, there’s a tendency for middle-aged writers (at the time) to sum up millennial discourse with our dependence on technology; to judge us for being fickle. Jill Roberts’ character is the epitome of this idea. When it’s revealed her and Charlie have been behind the murders just to achieve internet fame and ‘fans’ we tended to groan at the time over their behaviour (not to mention Roberts lays it on a bit thick).
“What am I supposed to do? Go to college? Grad school? Work? Look around. We all live in public now; we’re all on the internet. How do you think people get famous anymore? You don’t have to achieve anything! You just got to have fucked up shit happen to you…”
Yet, in the almost-decade since the fourth film we’ve witnessed this exact ideology with the inception of Youtube celebrity and Twitch streamers. We have idiots who vlog dead bodies and are punished for a month before resuming their millionaire wealth, those who flaunt their extravagant lifestyle for views or fake mental illnesses for attention. To stand out in the crowd is now even more difficult because of the worldwide access to the internet and honestly? Staging a killing spree isn’t far out of the realm of believability. In fact, we’ve had our fair share of Youtube killers who seek ‘retribution’ this past decade. The difference? Jill’s only goal in Scream 4 is fame. The very fame her own cousin achieved after the events of the first film. She wants to be a movie star, just like the ones all her friends constantly quote and live off of, because that is what’s important.
When it was released Scream 4 received mixed reviews, with many debating on whether or not Jill’s attention-seeking deemed her a worthy killer. But what may have seemed slightly shallow at the time has actually prophesised the way many see the world. In 1996 Scream defined post-modern horror, and since then it’s only continued to be a skewed mirror to our world, framing our changed relationships within the context of a slasher picture. Mileage may vary of course, but it’s nice that this frame of mind Wes Craven started back in 1994 with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare has become a synonymous time capsule and consistently entertaining thrill ride.
But what about the future? Scream 5 is in production right now, with the original cast back but with new writers and directors (Ready or Not’s Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett) ready for scheduled release on January 14th 2022. Aside from the usual killing-spree, it’ll be interesting to see how the film reflects the current climate when previous entries in the franchise have already dealt with subjects like fame-hungry teenagers and sexual misconduct in the film industry. Now that we’re currently living in a world where horror cinema is thriving, maybe Ghostface will tackle the now-scorned and old-fashioned antics of the slasher genre in the wake of *vomits* ‘elevated horror’? Only time will tell. One thing’s for sure though, I’ll be first in line to find out and I can’t wait to go back to Woodsboro…
But hey guys, we never actually saw Kirby die so if you could maybe bring Hayden Panettiere back that’d be great.
RIP Wes Craven. One of the best to ever do it.
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Hey everyone, me again. Reminding you like I do at the end of every post to take just 10 minutes out of your day to educate/arm yourself on what's going on in the world.
I know it's easy to fall into the routine of scrolling through Facebook/Twitter etc. for a few seconds and to take whatever headline you see as truth. It's especially persuasive when such news articles include massive idiots contracting a disease they've been vocal about not believing in in the past...but I digress.
Much of it is still the same, but think about it as the issue still remaining rather than 'there's no different news today'. When you see the phrase #BlackLivesMatter think about the hundreds/thousands of innocent lives taken by the hands that are supposed to be protecting them. Names like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor who, among countless others, prove the truth of inherent racism that's being proven with new stories every single day. Stories of an indigenous woman named Joyce Echaquan being called derogatory names ON HER DEATHBED. Moments that are only captured because she managed to livestream the abuse mere hours before she passed away. Nobody should be treated like that. Mass media attention won't change things. So you have to.
There are glimmers of hope, of course. Some entertaining and informative texts out there to help inform the masses and try to do good. Two such examples came over the past week from Netflix of all places in the form of two documentaries. The Social Dilemma tackles the mental damaging and society-controlling power that social media has over us which, if left unchecked or free from rule, could present a massive downfall.
The other comes from everyone's favourite grandad David Attenborough, who has released his 'witness statement' and call to arms in the form of preventing climate disaster and in fact, reversing it within David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet. Both are highly powerful and well-made, thought-provoking (and actionable releases) that help spread important and positive information. Something that's sorely lacking these days.
So whether it's those quick 10 minutes whilst you're on the loo or some documentary entertainment, it doesn't have to be a long time, just enough to arm yourself in conversation with. Help create the change in perspective you want to see in people.
Aside from Googling things, here's a carrd that's updated regularly. On it are hundreds of resources to charities and pieces of information on a whole load of news stories currently going on in the world. Spend 10 minutes. It's just 10 minutes.
I am aware that some of the links on this card are beginning to become outdated too, so if anyone out there can help direct me to another up-to-date carrd I'd be more than grateful.
On top of that here is a link that allows you to help and donate to various causes (you can choose) by just watching adverts. So disable that AdBlocker and put your time to good use.
Thank you for reading, everyone.
Stay safe everyone.
See you next week.