People are strange and there’s no accounting for taste – great opening line to an article, isn’t it? But it’s true. What you love, I may hate. What you hate, I may love; I mean I even have a bit of a liking for Highlander II: The Quickening (I have no defence). Ask yourself this question – what would your favourite film franchise/franchises be? If you love Star Trek, Star Wars and Indiana Jones then you’re probably a child of the 70s and 80s, if you said X-Men (or any comic book franchise) then you’re probably a child of the noughties. If you said Halloween, Friday 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street then you are a horror film devotee. It’s here that I revert to the opening line, people are strange and there is no accounting for taste and that is never better exemplified by a discussion on film – you can like/love/adore whatever film you want to, for whatever reason you want to. I am willing to risk further ridicule (Highlander II, can’t come back from that) and say that the franchise particularly close to my heart is… Scream.
Okay, lets get this straight from the start; I’m not a total slasher film geek but I do have a serious soft spot for one of the most loved and, conversely, most maligned horror sub-genres. By the time I was old enough to get into horror films Jason Takes Manhattan (Part VIII) was hitting our video shop shelves, as was Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers. Both of these, I hope you will agree, are terrible films, tired and worn out instalments in franchises that were rapidly becoming ridiculous and lazy. As I grew older I became more familiar with the originals of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, the Michael and Jason films, Child’s Play, Texas Chainsaw Massacre etc. and found that I loved them (I was a strange child). But there was one problem, none of these iconic horror films belonged to my generation. By the mid 1990s the slasher genre was a joke, at 75 years of age Donald Pleasance was still making Halloween films for god sake. It was a dead genre until Kevin Williamson, a film student at the time, decided to write a little film he called Scary Movie. Of course, this was not the Scary Movie that we all know and loathe (okay, maybe it’s just me that loathes it); it soon garnered another name – Scream.
I was fourteen years old when Scream was released and at this stage every penny I had was spent on film magazines and adding to my growing VHS collection (yes, you read that correctly – VHS collection.) Of course I didn’t get to see it on the big screen, being just a little bit too young at the time so, for me, Scream was the one that got away. By the age of fourteen I had cut through most of the Halloween and Friday the 13th back catalogue as well as the Nightmare on Elm Street series and countless others, I was no horror novice let me tell you yet Scream, a modestly budgeted slasher flick was the one that captured my imagination. Why? I dunno. Why do people like certain colours or days of the week? We just do. Anyway, one Saturday afternoon an uncle of mine who happened to live next door asked me if I would return a film he had rented the night before. As fate would have it, the film he had rented was Scream. Containing my excitement was difficult – I hoped the smoking trail or the Graham-shaped hole in his door didn’t give me away. Fear not, Scream did get returned to the video store, but via a detour through my own VCR machine. I was rapt from start to finish – I had just found a horror franchise that was mine.
Mine? How could a film be mine, it certainly didn’t belong to me, I didn’t make it nor was I responsible for it. By mine I mean that Scream came along at the exact right time for me. Every generation has a film series that defines them. Scream was that series for me, a horror film about horror films that used horror films as reference points. It was clever, using pop culture with a sly little nod and a wink to the past greats of the slasher genre. I had studied long and hard, served my time and watched a lot of crap to get to this point. This was my time and I revelled in it. You see, I really was/am a film geek, I’m the Randy of my group of friends. I got all the little references throughout Scream. I knew the janitor in the hallway was not only dressed like Freddy Krueger but was also played by Wes Craven. I laughed my ass off at the Wes Carpenter comment and I loved the fact that someone had finally put down the rules of how to survive a horror film, rules that we knew but didn’t really know. I loved the dialogue and the character names and the attitudes and the jokes. For me, Scream was virtually perfect.
So far I have just been reminiscing, remembering a film that captured my imagination a long time ago. You know the way memories never really stay the same, time has a habit of embellishing them and making the good times better or alternatively, making the bad times totally crap. I love catching something on television that I remember hating on first viewing and finding myself entertained by it second time around. It also works the other way, watching a film that I recall loving and then finding myself quite disappointed. Yes, it’s often better to leave the past where it belongs, especially if you haven’t paid it a visit in a very long time. It was easily ten years since I had seen Scream last so when I saw advertised a retrospective on one of the cable channels of the first three Scream films, I took the opportunity to step back into the past (cue the dun dun duuuuunnnnn sound effects).
I have fallen in love all over again. By saying that I am not trying to argue that Scream 1, 2, & 3 are the greatest films ever made because they are not, not by a long shot, but by god did they take me back. Parts 1 & 2 functioned like a time machine; I could recall nearly everything about watching them the first time around, where I was, whom I was with and how I felt. When I saw Scream for the first time, slasher films were not cool, they were a genre that no one wanted to see or make. Scream changed all that, paving the way for I Know What You Did Last Summer and its sequel, The Faculty, Skulls, Urban Legend, Teaching Mrs. Tingle and Final Destination. These films all followed after Scream, and thankfully Scream 2 arrived just before the market reached saturation point and the teen slasher was once more the pariah of the horror genre. Within three years the Scream series had gone from representing the new wave of horror cinema to being the very embodiment of everything that was wrong with horror cinema. Where the first two films were fun, the second sequel was just funny, as Scream 3 gave us precious few surprises. But then again, how could it have had, Scream 3 found itself trapped in a world that its own horror rules and conventions had created. If Friday the 13th presented the inspiration for the killer in Scream 2 it was quite logical that Scream 3’s killer should be a direct reference to the Halloween series – part II in particular (I’m not going to spoil it for anybody who hasn’t seen it). I remember, before the film even started, guessing the killers connection to Sidney and within a few minutes guessing the killer’s identity. I know I wasn’t alone in those realisations (Agatha Christie I am not) so, in removing surprise for any educated horror film fan, the filmmakers tried to fill that vacuum with overtly comic moments, a tactic that failed miserably.
The joy of both Scream and Scream 2 was that these films gave you surprises – dual killers, the Billy Loomis/Mrs. Loomis connection across both films and the fact that Scream 2 wasn’t just a slasher film, it was a great whoddunnit as well. Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven messed with the genre, revising an old formula with more than a little tongue-in-cheek humour and a few surprises. Drew Barrymore, one of the stars of Scream, adorned every poster for the film and featured prominently in the theatrical trailer yet her character was killed off within the first ten minutes. Drew Barrymore was also the biggest star attached to the film, yet she had the least amount of screen time. Here Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson pulled a stunt that had really only been done successfully once before, in the very first slasher film – Psycho (1960). So, while very little in Scream was original, it was re-imagined in such a way that made it fresh. Barrymore, when asked about taking such a small role for an actress whose career was on an upward curve, said “…I loved that it actually got tongue and cheeky but it was still scary and it was this great game that sort of described genres and revived them at the same time and redefined them all in one script. I went bananas.”
The real beauty of watching a horror film is the anticipation of the expected – you know that someone is going to get killed, you practically know how it’s going to happen but you don’t know when. What I loved about Scream was that it played with those very rules of the genre, providing not only the viewer but also the characters with tips on how to survive the film. In Halloween and Friday the 13th the characters knew nothing, they ran around like headless chickens trying to evade a monster, an almost supernatural being. They were purely victims, or ‘final girls’ as they were known. And there was never a concrete, conclusive ending. In both the Halloween and Friday the 13th films the same killer kept coming back, regardless of whether he was shot, stabbed, burned or drowned in the previous instalment. Scream presented the same villain in each film, just played by different characters and this instantly grounded the series in a solid reality, as opposed to some place where supernatural beings or monsters exist.
Scream also gave us characters with a lot more brains and a bit more balls. While there was still plenty of running and screaming to be had in Scream, there was also ample fighting and characters that knew how to handle themselves and how to play the game. Indeed, Sidney Prescott, the series heroine says this of scary movies, “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.” Setting up a slasher film with that little salvo means that you have something to show an audience that they have never seen before. Scream did just that and while it certainly wasn’t a brand new product, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson gave the audience credit for knowing what’s coming and then subverting that expectation; victims who were not content to just be victims. In fact, Scream took the central focus away from the antagonist and gave it back to the protagonist; it turned the victim into the hero.
Turning victims into heroes? Yes indeed, Scream was about the central characters fighting their attacker. In Halloween, Laurie Strode doesn’t kill Michael; she just spends the whole film running away from him. In Scream, Sidney kills Ghostface. In Scream 2, Sidney kills Ghostface and, can you see a pattern emerging here, in Scream 3 Sidney kills Ghostface (well, Dewey pulls the trigger but Sidney gets in the final blow). No one ever seems able to kill Jason in Friday the 13th (any of them). In essence this makes the Scream series more about the survivors, which is a good thing as Ghostface does not carry the same weight as Michael or Jason or Freddy – none of the Scream films are actually about the character of Ghostface. Ghostface is purely a secondary character, a device to convey the thrills and spills. What sets Ghostface apart is that, unlike Jason, Freddy or Michael, Ghostface is human and a cold-blooded killer, a sociopath. The former characters were supernatural/unnatural beings and as such they really didn’t need a motivation, they just wanted to kill and be malevolent. Of course each of them had their motivations at the start of their respective film series’ but with the amount of sequels that each series produced, by the end the killers were not targeting their original “final girl” anymore. Scream does not fall into that category, each of the four Scream films detail Ghostface vs. Sidney Prescott and each of the Ghostface incarnations have a distinct reason for targeting Sidney, a direct connection (talk about bad luck, a decent 7-a-side team of people that want to bump you off).
Yet, as I said previously, the wheels did eventually come off this franchise. Scream 3 decided to go in a different direction and placed more emphasis on comedy than horror. To be fair to Scream 3, if you were to look at the film independently then it does stand up but it doesn’t work as a Scream film. In further defence of Scream 3, the film was put into production just after the Columbine High School massacre and Wes Craven admitted that they were put under enormous pressure from the production company and the industry as a whole to tone down the blood-letting and the violence. The Scream films were lumped in as those that critics and social commentators blamed for inspiring the Columbine shootings and unfortunately Scream 3 fell foul. If you take a line from the original Scream, as uttered by Billy Loomis, “Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!” Some would argue that Scream did exactly that. By the time Scream 3 came around some of the deaths had gone from being quite clever to just plain ludicrous (yet none as strange/stupid as being bludgeoned to death with an electric guitar as one character was in Friday the 13th Part VIII). Scream 3’s failure effectively closed the door on the series and unfortunately it went out with a whimper and not a bang yet, as every single horror franchise is testament to. Horror franchises never end when they should and rarely, if ever, go out on a high (has any horror franchise? – answers on a postcard).
Scream nowadays is probably laughable. Scream 4 (I’m fairly sure I was the only one in the country that enjoyed it) got the worst reviews and box office of the series. Like the Halloweens of the late 1980’s, the Scream series seemed to be practicing that perverse alchemy of turning gold into lead, becoming a parody of what had once made it great. I believe that Scream 4 wasn’t a bad film; it was just made for the wrong generation. You see, the current bunch of cinema loving teenagers have become numbed by the torture porn of the Saw, Hostel, Wrong Turn and Cabin Fever etc. franchises. A guy in a yawning white mask with an 8-inch hunting knife just isn’t going to cut it anymore and Scream 4 was not the breath of fresh air that the franchise and genre needed. Unfortunately Scream 4’s lack of success definitively proved one thing, Scream’s time had come and gone. Hard though this may be to say, in my opinion the demise of the film series is a good thing. Leave Scream where it is, leave it for my generation, for the memories, for the clever film-centric dialogue and pop culture references. Yet, in the words of Randy from Scream 2, “never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead.”
On the big screen, the Friday the 13th franchise had a run of nearly 30 years, Halloween the same. Scream had just 15 years. As Tyrell says in Blade Runner, “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long – and you have burned so very, very brightly.” But Scream is not done yet; it is being re-imaged as a television series with the producers promising to make it darker and more organic (what?). They are remaking it for this generation, where TV is king and horror (The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Carnivale, Sleepy Hollow, Grimm, The Vampire Diaries etc) takes pride of place. My Scream may be dead but I am excited for the future; the TV series will never, in my opinion, match the magic of those first two films but they certainly will try re-creating that magic for a new generation, a new taste. And so the world keeps going around. As long as someone asks the question, “what’s your favourite scary movie?” I’ll be a happy camper.