Why are sex and horror so interlinked? Could it be that horror creators have accepted their fate as the black sheep of the movie family, so much so that they feel compelled to use these repetitive and a little distasteful film techniques? Sadly, horror films are often regarded as cheap entertainment that frequently use sex and gore to make up for their flaccid storylines.
But the need for a quick thrill shouldn’t be overlooked when critiquing a horror. After watching a horror flick, the first question to ask yourself is whether you enjoyed it, then you can go on to ask yourself all the other pretentious ones like whether the acting was good or if you learned anything. If the answer to your first question is yes, then I think it’s safe to say that you did not just waste that 2-for-1 Meerkat Movies voucher.
One of my most memorable cinema experiences was watching the low-rated Facebook based horror, Unfriended, and all because it was so terrible that it was funny, and the scares – although unsubtle – were undeniably there. I don’t know about you, but seeing a guy get his hand mushed by a liquidiser is my kind of fun.
Over the past few years, there’s been a horror resurgence that’s marked the end of the bad scary-flick epidemic taking over commercial cinema. Big production companies are now seeing big money in good scripts, and consequently, film snobs are now seeing popular horror in a whole new light. But the writer of 1996’s Scream, Kevin Williamson, was well aware of horror’s weaknesses and strengths, and these are played against each other throughout the film.
Williamson, being a huge fan of 70s and 80s horror, pays homage to these movies in many scenes while also mocking their overdone action sequences and plot holes in a way that reveres rather than condemns. At first, Scream seems like your typical teen-slasher movie. Even the character set-up is based on the six archetypes placed in almost all teen-horrors: the virgin, the party girl, the hot boyfriend, the asshole, and the geek (the virgin’s secret admirer). The story also sticks with that basic plot of ‘anonymous murderer in a small town’, so Scream initially appears to lack any originality.
Randy (the self-professed film geek and the virgin’s number one fan) frequently compares the horrific goings on in their hometown to his favourite horror movies. While briefly discussing the recent murder of Casey Becker in the video shop, he notices Sidney’s boyfriend Billy standing amongst the horror shelves, to which he remarks, “If you were the only suspect in a senseless bloodbath, would you be standing in the horror section?”
Despite being involved in the plot, Randy is strangely disparate from his friends. It’s as though he knows he’s in a movie and that he and his pals are mere puppets inside a twisted game of fate. He’s cynical when others display unease, knowledgeable when others show indifference, and oddly calm during terrifying situations. Randy’s slight disconnection, along with his ongoing commentary, reaffirms his role of observer – he is a reflection of us, the audience, and like the audience, he can’t control what happens, he can only guess. But rather than subdue the tension, his observations make us question what’s about to take place even more – would a movie really have a character make accurate premonitions of upcoming events?
So, when the film does give into Randy’s prognoses, the audience is then out-smarted by the film’s sheer audacity in laying out some of its biggest twists in advance.
Even Sidney forecasts her own actions during a phone conversation with the killer about female horror protagonists (thinking it’s Randy playing a prank): “They’re all the same, some big breasted girl who can’t act who’s always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting.” Ten minutes later, she does just this while running for her life from Ghostface.
Contrastingly, there are just as many occasions in which the film goes against the status quo and totally distorts the clichés it’s based around, most notably when it kills off its star actress (Drew Barrymore) fifteen minutes into the movie, has the seemingly sweet Sidney take on the role of Ghostface to taunt the two killers (not one killer as is commonplace), and lets Randy survive the bloodshed – as we all know, ‘the geek’ is usually one of the first to get sliced and diced but Randy makes it all the way to the credit roll which is near revolutionary.
What’s more, Williamson’s technique, along with director Wes Craven’s overall vision, allows for humour in-between (and sometimes even during) the carnage. There’s an upbeatness to Scream that was later mimicked by other horror writers wanting to engage an audience through comedy as well as scares.
Scream’s tongue-in-cheek humour is self-deprecating and perfectly timed: a hidden camera records Ghostface behind an oblivious Randy watching Halloween and yelling “Jamie, look behind you!” to an oblivious Jamie Lee Curtis. This gave way to a new, more impactful, style of meta-horror, a subgenre that points out – or in this case, pokes fun at – horror’s conventions. In Scream, Randy’s “delusions” of being in a horror film means he does most of the meta-ing, but other characters are also prone to likening their reality to movies, especially Ghostface whose favourite phone debate concerns the best Freddy Krueger movie.
Whether intentionally or not, Williamson’s script avoids negative reviews by having his characters do the critics’ job. This, in turn, allows his film to be predictable at times and still get away with it. Happy Death Day and Cabin in the Woods (the ultimate horror within a horror) are just two films of many that partake in their own dissection, the former being a critique on the genre’s repetitiveness. Even the most recent Halloween dabbles in meta-horror when it copies scenes from the original to toy with fans’ nostalgia-based assumptions.
Despite the jokes, Scream’s ability to instill dread isn’t sacrificed in the slightest. The scary moments move with breath-taking precision for which the comical lines offer some well-needed relief. The humour does not mute the horror but has more of a perpendicular effect in that it comes in horizontal waves but goes away when the time is right.
It’s perhaps a tad surprising that Williamson later wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer, which is as cliché a teen-horror as you can get, but without the quality surprises or self-mocking satire displayed in his Scream scripts. It’s also nowhere near as scary. But it’s ignorant to think that Scream, as we know it, could have been written by someone who didn’t have a knack for applying bog standard teen-horror elements. There is talent in creating something that follows customary Hollywood norms, even if it’s not always seen as a praiseworthy skill. Ironically, it’s this talent that made Scream so unique.
Scream has one of the most disturbing intros in horror movie history, from the first look of terror on Barrymore’s face when she realizes the caller is watching her, to the moment her parents find her hanging from a tree with her insides outside.
Everything about her reeks of girl next door. She represents the “all-American” teenager on a quiet night in. The phone rings for a third time. Casey picks up the cable-less phone, not yet scared enough to hang up and call the police. Why would she be? She lives in a safe suburban town where neighbours greet each other every morning. But the audience knows it’s bad because we know how these things go. We’ve seen other horror movies. And so, the caller asks, “What’s your favourite scary movie?”.
It’s a strange question to have at the beginning of a horror, but Scream doesn’t play by anyone’s rules, and that’s why it remains my favourite scary movie to date.