DOM CREED celebrates the meta-horror movie that redefined the slasher genre.
When people think of iconic horror movies, and their respective villains, there are few people that won’t see Ghostface’s white mask, with the eerie black holes for eyes and the elongated jaw gaping wide. It can’t be just me that flinched at the sight of the mask floating down the street at Halloween. Not just when I was younger, I'm talking about last year, people! Trick or treaters in my hometown really chose trauma for me and the other kids. I remember seeing the DVD to rent from the local newsagents, being transfixed by the cover; I was terrified, but naturally, I couldn’t look away.
The horror genre has experienced a lot of rebirths over the years, constantly being redefined and explored in new, and sometimes old, ways. If it ain’t broke… Think of the classic slashers of the late 70s and early 80s: John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978); Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980); and Wes Craven’s own A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). All of these movies managed to spark a rebirth of slashers after a period of supernatural horror movies saturated the movie market in the 1970s. However, with a new horror craze comes a new formula that, inevitably, will be followed in order to reproduce the same success time and again.
This cycle in horror means that every decade we either crave a new direction or a return to an old classic for nostalgia purposes. The most evident example of this can be seen in the re-emergence of supernatural horror in the 2010s following the boom of found-footage horror in the late 2000s. In following this cyclical formula, certain genres struggle to redefine themselves - over-saturation certainly spelled an omen (see what I did there) for the slasher genre.
Made better with meta
However, here to defy expectation was Wes Craven’s Scream (1996). It simultaneously soaked up what made the genre so successful, while also redefining the slasher genre in its meta-approach to storytelling. Scream acted as the defibrillator of horror-slasher cinema, bursting onto screens with a cast of characters all fully aware that they were experiencing the events of a classic horror movie. For instance, in one scene towards the end of the feature, Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) is passionately declaring to a room of his drunk peers that there are basic rules to surviving a horror movie. It is in this way that Scream manages to infuse a comedic element, and consequently, sets itself apart from its predecessors.
The marketing for Scream centred on a young Drew Barrymore as the protagonist, Casey Becker. She did the press tour, countless interviews, main features in the trailers, she even appears most prominently on the original movie poster. She was the big name to pull in an audience during opening weekend…
Imagine the audience’s surprise then when she was brutally murdered in the first fifteen minutes, after a chilling opening scene that infused sheer terror with something as benign as answering basic horror quiz questions. The killer is a horror fan and he makes it known. Craven was bold enough to do what Alfred Hitchcock had done thirty years before when placing Janet Leigh in the knife wielding path of Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). This cemented Scream as a film willing to take big risks, and the payoff has stood the test of time.
Another element of the movie that really sets it apart is the killer not being an ominous, silent presence lingering in the background, or in people's dreams in Elm Street’s case. Ghostface has a motive unbeknownst to the characters or audience until the epic final act. But in his killing spree he is very vocal, utilising the phone to partake in chilling back and forth conversations with instantly iconic final girl, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). He has a voice, assured and cocky… and modulated to replicate that of a gravely-grandpa who smokes thirty a day. The killer's identity being speculated about throughout the film creates an aura of paranoia and misdirection as you try to point fingers. It is very apparent that whoever it is, they are not experienced in the slightest.
Messing with your head……
Their actions don’t reflect the quiet, menacing precision of Michael Myers stabbing someone through the throat. Instead, Ghostface acts with a violent, messiness. The duality of the opening scene where Casey is brutally murdered and hung from a tree with her own insides, contrasted with a later scene, where Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan) tries to flee Ghostface out of a garage door cat flap, and has her head crushed when the garage door is raised, truly reflects Scream’s ability to do something shocking, but also its ability to lean into dark comedy. As you can imagine, 1990’s horror prosthetics, while incredibly camp and charming, don’t quite create the sense of horror that the same image may create nowadays. There’s something wildly unsettling about a head being crushed, but it’s impossible not to see the humour in it when the head seems to crease like a coke can. Paper-mache is horror's best friend!
Okay I’m about to discuss the reveal of the killer, so SPOILER ALERT!
The final act of Scream sees Sidney finally agree to have sex with her boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) after he returns from prison… (she earlier accused him of being the killer). But how could Billy be the killer when Sidney was attacked while he was locked up? Sidney is also breaking Randy’s number one rule to surviving a horror movie - Don’t Have Sex! Sidney is a rule breaker, we have to stan! This further sets Scream apart from slashers that came before, by subverting all the stereotypes of the formula created in the 80s. Sidney can lose her virginity and still outsmart the killer one more time!
When the killer is finally revealed, Scream takes it one step further. Let me set the scene…
Billy is attacked by Ghostface, and we presume, is dead, but he stumbles down stairs, back into Sidney’s arms, covered in blood. They're going to escape with Randy, who has managed to survive the night… Plot Twist! Billy shoots Randy, he IS the killer. The blood you ask? Corn Syrup! Sidney flees into Stu Macher’s (Matthew Lillard) arms who appears from the kitchen. PLOT TWIST! He is ALSO the killer! Two Ghostface’s! Now, I really didn’t see this coming…..
But it’s so perfectly crafted, why would you even consider there to be two killers? This is, again, another example of Scream being self-aware. The formula of traditional slashers is being turned on its head - the pattern is being disrupted. Wes Craven is consolidating this film as a true rule breaker and trend setter. This is taken one step further AGAIN, as by the end of the movie, both Stu and Billy are dead. There’s no Jason leaping out of a lake and dragging the final girl below its murky depths with him. The film has a final girl who defied the rules of horror, and Stu and Billy aren’t coming back to seek revenge in the sequel. Although they do have family I suppose…
Carry on Screaming
The true beauty of Scream is that by having the killers be everyday characters established within the film, the potential for sequels explodes wide open. Anybody can put on a black cloak and the Ghostface mask and take up the mantle. In fact, this is exactly the case; the film was so popular that it is still an ongoing slasher franchise. The latest instalment, simply titled Scream (2022), saw returning characters from the original film face off against Ghostface once again.
Wes Craven helped create the formula for slasher-horror in 1984 with A Nightmare on Elm Street, and twelve years later he defied his own formula, paving the way for a new form of slasher horror. The true measure of Scream’s greatness is its ability to still feel fresh and continue to take big risks despite spanning 26 years. The reviews are consistently positive, the films have grown a massive cult following, and with a sixth entry in the franchise being released next year, the risk of redefining the formula truly paid off.
Written by Dom Creed