Meta – (of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.
A couple weeks ago, horror legend Wes Craven passed away from brain cancer at the age of 76. This news came as a shock to most people (myself included) who were not even aware of his illness. I’ve spent the last week watching every single Wes Craven film I could get my hands on thinking about the filmmaker and his lasting legacy.
My entry into the slasher genre was a late one. Being born in 1985 meant I was too young (or too not alive) for the late 70s and 80s boom in the genre brought about by films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. It really wasn’t until 1996 and Scream that I truly fell in love with the genre. I appreciate the irony in this: Scream is a film which meticulously examines, contextualizes, and in many cases pokes fun at the tropes of a genre I had yet to really even experience. But that’s the brilliance of Craven. I didn’t even fully appreciate what the film was doing, and still loved it.
Since then, I’ve corrected my error and seen these earlier slasher films, including Craven’s entire library many times over. While it’s certainly true that Wes has made better films than Scream (A Nightmare On Elm Street will always be my personal favorite followed closely by The People Under The Stairs), the film will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s no surprise therefore that upon hearing of the filmmaker’s death, Scream was the first film I reached for.
I’m happy to say that like most of Wes Craven’s films, Scream is a movie that still holds up really well almost 20 years later. It’s a movie that both explores and makes fun of an entire genre as well as the people that love it and it’s a damn good slasher film at the same time. But to fully understand its significance requires a quick understanding of the slasher genre at the time.
The “golden age” of slasher films, at least per Wikipedia, is said to take place between 1978 and 1984, beginning with the genre defining Halloween and ending with Craven’s brilliant Nightmare on Elm Street. After that, fatigue set in as studios began to pump more and more sequels out every year. Ticket sales went down and it seemed like America was done with the slasher genre. There were still a lot of good movies released during this time, but none of them had the countrywide cultural pull that the early films managed to accomplish.
I suspect this drove Wes Craven, one of the pioneers of the entire genre, to ponder what it was about these movies that people liked so much. It was in this meta examination that Craven released New Nightmare (1994), a criminally underrated follow up to A Nightmare on Elm Street which postulates what would happen if Freddy came into the real world and started killing the cast and crew of his own films. Starring the original lead of Elm Street, Heather Langenkamp, as herself, New Nightmare is another film I didn’t see until much later. Upon watching it, the eventual release of Scream makes sense. What Craven was interested in at the time was the inner workings of his own genre, and their effects on the population at large. With New Nightmare, he was tackling his own filmography. Two years later it would be the entire genre.
The opening scene of Scream might be one of the best movie openings ever, perfectly setting the stakes for the rest of the movie to come. We establish the meta examination of the film as the killer and Drew Barrymore’s character discuss their favorite scary movies and eventually compete in a life or death game of slasher movie knowledge, which Drew unfortunately fails. Craven even gets a dig in against New Line Cinema who pushed out a bunch of subpar Freddy sequels after the original A Nightmare on Elm Street (“The first one was [good], but the rest sucked”). But we also firmly establish that while this will be a movie examining horror films and their effects on the real world, it will also still be a classic slasher, proving so by unceremoniously killing off Drew Barrymore 5 minutes in. For those that don’t remember, in 1996 Drew was a big star and her name on something carried weight. Just look at this poster:
She’s in the very front, taking up most of the real estate. Killing off the perceived main character is a classic move straight out of Hitchcock’s Psycho. The message is clear: this will be a movie that talks about slashers, while still being one.
The rest of Scream, the horror film plays out exactly like any horror fan would expect. The damaged girl with a troubled past, Sidney (Neve Campbell) is mercilessly stalked by a killer in a strange mask. The killer ends up having a close personal connection with her. Her boyfriend, who also killed her mom a year ago is angry at her for withholding sex (and also maybe just a little crazy). Neve is able to defeat the killer(s) with the assistance of her friends and survives the ordeal. Standard stuff.
It’s in the meta commentary that Scream becomes something more. The film expertly jumps between horror and comedy. Scream isn’t really that scary, but it manages to deal with these shifts in tone expertly. The killers are horror obsessed nutjobs, endlessly quoting and referencing some of the very films that Craven created. One of our characters goes through the standard rules of these types of films, even as everyone breaks them. Because Craven is commenting on the very genre he helped pioneer, there is built in authenticity to it all. 2012’s A Cabin In The Woods (also a great film) did much the same thing, commenting on the tropes of the horror movie genre, but this was by Joss Whedon and his brother, two people from the outside looking in. In Scream, Craven is showing that he has a complete mastery and understanding of his own craft.
But the film also shows that the director ponders the effects of his movies on the culture. Late in the movie Sidney tells both the two killers that they’ve “watched way too many scary movies.” The reply she gets is “Scary movies don’t create psychopaths, they just give psychopaths new ideas.” It’s hard to watch this scene and not think about the director behind it. What did Wes think about these movies and how the audience perceived them? The hyper violence, the gruesome kills? What did Craven think of the public’s love of this? Scream, to me, is a window into his thoughts.
Regardless of what Wes Craven thought about the genre he lived in, the film’s effect cannot be understated. Scream became the first slasher film that broke 100 million dollars and brought the genre back into the mainstream, resulting in a bunch of copycat films (I Know What You Did Last Summer) as well as the train of reboots of older series that still haunt us today. Scream also spawned three more sequels. None as great as the original, they’re at least worth viewing as they humorously comment on the tropes of a horror sequel (and eventual trilogy). Scream 4 would be fated to be the last film that Craven would direct, showing that the filmmaker couldn’t stay away from this series for too long.
I will miss Wes Craven. I like to think he had a couple more great movies left in him that we will never get to see. But I will always enjoy his contribution to a genre that I now love and the thousands of future filmmakers who will be inspired by his work. Rest In Peace, Wes. And thanks for all the screams.