Imagine, for a moment, that you are a producer of horror movies in the mid 1990s. You decide to take an evening off and catch the latest from one of your chief competitors, Wes Craven. It’s a funny, tongue-in-cheek horror comedy with a fresh cast, a terrific opening scene, and a handful of satisfyingly gruesome kills. About halfway through, the protagonists are gathered at a party, watching John Carpenter’s classic Halloween on VHS– cute, but no different from the back-and-forth jabs horror directors have been making since Arsenic and Old Lace. Suddenly, Jamie Kennedy’s film-geek audience surrogate gets up, pauses the tape, and addresses his friends: “There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie!” He then outlines these rules, one by one: no premarital sex, no drugs or alcohol, and absolutely no casually leaving a room by saying “I’ll be right back.” These are the tropes and formulas you’ve built your career on, and Craven, like one of those masked tattletale magicians on TV, has pulled back the curtain, explaining to your audience exactly how these things work.
You promptly shit your pants.
Few horror films have had as seismic an impact on the genre as Scream— Dracula, Halloween, and I Was a Teenage Werewolf (the moment at which producers realized they could market horror to teenagers) are the only ones that immediately come to mind. Even Psycho spent over a decade classified as a “thriller” before its shockwaves were fully felt, where the Scream effect was more or less instantaneous. What’s fascinating to me about Scream’s influence is that it not only extended to the films that followed, but also those that came before it. Just as Nirvana’s Nevermind did to hair metal, Scream made it instantly unfashionable to make or watch an unironic ‘80s-style slasher film. The owners of legacy characters realized they needed to adapt or perish; some managed to fare reasonably well (Bride of Chucky fully embraced the black comedy potential of its goofy premise) while others, like the Friday the 13th franchise, floundered (Craven had quietly removed his own horse from the race two years earlier with New Nightmare, in which Freddy Krueger was reimagined as a metatextual boogeyman). Ghostface may have done a job on Drew Barrymore, but he straight up murdered Jason Voorhees.
But how does Scream hold up as a film? Surprisingly well, actually. As overexposed as much of the young cast would become, all are endearingly energetic here (particularly weirdo ‘90s it-dudes Skeet Ulrich and Matthew Lillard, both of whom staged improbable TV comebacks this year in Riverdale and Twin Peaks: The Return, respectively). The script, by future teen-soap showrunner Kevin Williamson, is legitimately funny and clever, and the climax– which plays out concurrently to Halloween’s, still unspooling in the VCR– is remarkably deft. That actually brings up one of the film’s central ironies: for years, Scream has been dismissed by genre purists, despite the fact that it is literally for and about them. The references scattered throughout are on-point and thoughtfully deployed (no one casually drops a Town that Dreaded Sundown reference unless they know what they’re talking about), and Williamson displays a firm knowledge of and affection for horror history. Whatever; it’s the snobs’ loss.
Still, it’s easy to see how Scream’s shadow wore out its welcome: for nearly a decade afterward, seemingly every major horror release was a slick Hollywood affair, staffed with beautiful young people and dripping with condescending dime-store self-awareness. By my reckoning, the Scream era continued until 2003, with the much-belated release of Freddy vs. Jason (which I honestly love the hell out of, and which you can catch this Friday at the Video Underground in JP), at which point it lost favor to torture porn, J-horror remakes, and reboot after reboot after reboot. The final word in Screamism may be 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods, which takes Scream’s self-referential humor and pushes it to surreal, almost cubist extremes (Cabin, incidentally, is screening next Friday at the Somerville, complete with thematically appropriate burlesque– god, I love October). But despite the long shadow cast by its revolutionary brand of irony, Scream remains as refreshing as always– an undeniable milestone, and a reasonable candidate for the title of “Favorite Scary Movie.”
dir. Wes Craven
Screens Wednesday, 10/11, 8:00pm @ Somerville Theatre