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‘Scream’ Retrospective

Aired on October 23, 2016 (Episode #617)

Sounds of Cinema took a look at the movie Scream on the occasion of the film’s twentieth anniversary with a series of commentaries about the film, its influences, and its legacy.


I. The Scream Generation

II. How Scream Changed Horror

III. The Scream Sequels

IV. Scream’s Connections: References to Other Movies

V. Scream’s Connections: Horror Comedies

VI. Scream’s Connections: Meta-Horror

I. The Scream Generation

There are a handful of movies that define each decade. In the 1990s, titles like Clerks, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Fargo, and Boyz n the Hood shaped or captured the cinematic and cultural landscape of that time. Scream ought to be placed in that company as it was one of the defining cinematic moments of the 90s. But as a horror film, Scream was uniquely able to address the darker side of the decade.

As of late there has been a nostalgia for the 1990s. The most popular films of that decade have received sequels like Dumb and Dumber To and Jurassic World and fans have been treated to supplementary seasons of favorite 90s television shows like The X-Files and Full House. But looking past lighthearted fads like boy bands and Beanie Babies, the media and culture of the 1990s was characterized by anxiety.

The major artistic works of the 1990s reflect this. Music albums like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Nirvana’s Nevermind, and Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral provided a soundtrack for a generation that had lost the optimism of the 1980s. Books like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild didn’t inspire hope for the future. Scream was of a piece with these other works. It reflected and reinforced the nervous worry that something within American culture was rotten.

After the conclusion of the Cold War, America turned inward in search of a new adversary. The decade was bookended by the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. AIDS was rampant and gun homicides reached an all-time peak in 1993. Local television news alternated between stories of drug use and violent crime while daytime talk shows offered up a parade of pregnant teens, victim narratives, and fist fights. And throughout the decade a series of lurid tabloid dramas held the nation’s attention, most notably the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and the murder trial of O.J. Simpson whose acquittal shook the public’s faith in the justice system.

Scream was the sinister offspring of this environment. It funneled the anxieties that were floating in the zeitgeist into a murder mystery that dramatized them as a horror show. Here was a story in which a killer embodied one of the key parental fears of the 1990s—that violent media would turn children into murderous psychopaths. But the killer wasn’t the only predator. As a secondary antagonist, Scream featured an unscrupulous tabloid journalist who exploits the carnage for ratings and book sales. After one female student is murdered and another is attacked, their classmates respond by parading through the high school hallway dressed in the Ghostface costume. When disciplining those students, the principal tells the teenagers that their entire generation is disgusting and threatens to kill them. And when that principal is found dead, the teenagers rush to see the body before the authorities have a chance to remove it. This was a distillation of what was preoccupying the culture at that time and it was presented in a way that was recognizable to the 1990s audience.

That recognition was probably a key reason for Scream’s phenomenal success. It was the right movie at the right time. But equally important was Scream’s vicious sense of humor. The jokes of Scream were funny but they were also cruel. The film mocked the anxieties of the characters and of the culture. But as cynical as Scream could get, it was never so jaded that it lost touch with the horror. The film has a strange push and pull between the bloody violence and the ironic humor.

That combination of violence and sardonic wit made Scream a cathartic experience. This is exactly what audiences want from a horror film—to face the fears of the real world from the safety of the theater seat. What separates Scream from so many of its imitators was how well it visualized the anxieties of the time. Scream did this more effectively than perhaps any other title of the 1990s and that makes it one of the defining movies of that decade.

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II. How Scream Changed Horror

Scream repurposed the tropes of the horror genre that had been prevalent throughout the 1980s and 90s. But the filmmakers didn’t just work with established cinematic and storytelling conventions. They also changed the genre itself by altering long held clichés and introducing new concepts that would quickly become the standard in horror films.

The most obvious way in which Scream changed the genre and moviemaking in general was in its self-awareness. After this film, the characters of horror pictures constantly made reference to the way their situation reflected genre conventions as seen in Urban Legend, Halloween: Resurrection, and Shaun of the Dead. Beyond horror, a lot of movies in other genres got self-referential and intertextual as evidenced by such a wide variety of films as Shrek, Galaxy Quest, Adaptation, and 22 Jump Street. It is too much to give Scream sole credit for this trend but it got there first and Scream was the most successful example both financially and artistically.

Scream also subverted the supposed link between sex and death. A frequent criticism of the slasher genre was that it relied on scenarios in which characters—and particularly women—who had sex would be killed whereas chaste characters survived and defeated the villain. Scream itself vocalized this idea in the famous “rules” sequence. Research by academics has actually questioned this assumption; when the most popular slasher films were subjected to quantitative research, the link between sexuality and death was found to be much lower than critics and media watchdogs had claimed. But Scream subverted the common assumption and effectively removed it from the slasher movie palette.

The villain of Scream was also innovative. Most of the villains of the films that inspired Scream were mute, stupid, and slow moving. By contrast, the villains of the Scream movies were witty, smart, and light on their feet. But perhaps more importantly, the killers of the Scream films were the peers of the victims. Many of the classic slashers included a generational conflict. The teens of those movies were usually stalked by an older male who was a member of the elder generation, represented the sins of the parents, or was an authority figure gone bad. In the Scream films the villain was usually another young person. That reflected the more cynical edge of 1990s horror cinema and the fear of adolescence in 90s culture.

In a related development, Scream shifted the focus from the killer to the victims. Pre-Scream slasher films usually killed off virtually their entire cast and there was little story continuity between installments. As a result, a lot of slasher series got into a rut of introducing a new set of victims each time. This placed the villain at the center of the action and the stories were written to showcase figures such as Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger while the victims were regarded as little more than cattle to be slaughtered. Scream and its sequels were primarily the story of Sidney Prescott and her friends. Each movie was about Sidney facing a new challenge and overcoming the trauma of her past.

Since the Scream movies did not have a recurring villain, it allowed them to break from another convention: the open ending. Starting with the release of Carrie in 1976, the horror film had eschewed closed conclusions. There was at least a final stinger or, as in the original Halloween, an implication that the horror would continue well after the events of the film. Scream ended decisively, as did its sequels, and as a result it affirms the triumph of its heroine.

The immediate impact of Scream largely came to an end in the mid-2000s when Saw and Hostel announced a new direction for the genre. But the film remains important and influential as seen in the films The Final Girls, The Cabin in the Woods, and Zombieland as well as television shows like Pretty Little Liars and Scream Queens.

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III. The Scream Sequels

After Scream became a hit in 1996, sequels and imitators quickly followed. Scream 2 was rushed into production and was in theaters less than a year after the release of the original film. Despite the accelerated schedule, Scream 2 was an impressive follow up. The characters of Scream 2 discussed the new string of murders in terms of a sequel and the film played on Hollywood serialization. Several years passed before the release of Scream 3 in 2000. Wes Craven returned to direct but the movie was written by Ehren Krueger, who has since become known for writing Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. All franchises, if they go on long enough, eventually become self-parody and the filmmakers embraced their fate by making Scream 3 somewhat of a spoof.

An interesting theme that develops over the course of the first three Scream movies is the relationship between cinema and life and the way violence erupts between them. It is important to note that in the 1990s there was a simmering moral panic about the violence of movies and other forms of entertainment. This debate came to a head following the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. In the aftermath, rock music, video games, and movies were blamed for the massacre. The original Scream foreshadowed the post-Columbine outrage and the film does suggest that the killer’s notion of reality has been warped by cinematic representations of violence. However, a close reading of Scream’s finale reveals that blaming media is a distraction from more fundamental neurosis that are rooted in parent-child relationships.

In Scream 2 this theme gets more pronounced. What was implicit in the climax of Scream was carried to a loony extreme in the confessional sequence of the first sequel. As the killer lays out the master plan, Scream 2 made it explicit that the failures of parents were really to blame for the antisocial behavior of their children and that blaming media was a calculated excuse by perpetrators of violence to evade their own culpability.

Scream 3 took these ideas in a different direction. This movie explored the background of Sidney’s mother, revealing that long before becoming a parent she was an aspiring starlet who had been victimized by Hollywood misogyny. The Hollywood-based trauma experienced by the mother set in motion the chain of events that precipitated the violence of the three movies. In that respect, Scream 3 reframes the issue and restores the ambiguity of the original film in which cinema plays some role in warping the values of its audience.

Following Scream 3, the series was dormant for over a decade until 2011’s Scream 4. Between the third and fourth installments, Hollywood remade virtually every major horror title of the 1970s and 80s and Scream 4 played on the reboot craze. However, Scream 4 dovetails the reboot ideas into an exploration of how meta today’s media has become and into a critique of victim culture. Having less to do with the slasher films of the 1980s and more to do with Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the vision of the culture provided in Scream 4 was as cynical as its predecessors but it suggested that reality television was the real horror show and that narcissism was at the root of violence.

Starting in 2015, MTV turned Scream into a successful television show. The program established its own story continuity and followed a group of high school teenagers who are drawn into a murder plot. Picking up where the themes of Scream 4 left off, the television show continued to drift from the cinematic focus of the original motion picture and toward social media. Like the original Scream, the television program picks up on the vernacular and anxieties of youth culture and the story incorporates contemporary issues like online bullying.  What is consistent across the Scream franchise is the sense that media and human vices feed off of each other. As one character says in the original picture, “Movies don’t make psychos. Movies make psychos more creative.” The series isn’t so naïve as to suggest that otherwise normal people are turned into murderers by watching a scary movie. But what it does suggest is that media shapes our reality and is therefore potentially dangerous. In the end it’s a human being who will come after us with a ghost mask and a knife and they will do so because of their greed or hate or unresolved feelings about their mothers. But the Scream films do at least tacitly acknowledge that the media environment we live in can shape and distort our sense of reality.

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IV. Scream’s Movie Connections: References to Other Movies

Scream consists of numerous references to other motion pictures and movie stars and especially those in the horror genre. Many of these are simply name drops. The title appears derived from 1970’s Scream and Scream Again and the song that plays over the end credits plays on the title of 1987’s From a Whisper to a Scream. The dialogue of Scream makes passing reference to quite a few movies including Friday the 13th, The Bad Seed, and The Town that Dreaded Sundown, and the film includes a cameo by Exorcist star Linda Blair. Up next I’ll take a look at some of the films that Scream relied upon most heavily.

Among the biggest influences on Scream was 1960’s Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock’s film begins by establishing itself as the story of a woman on the run who is played by recognizable movie star Janet Leigh. The character is murdered about a third of the way through Psycho, which was a shock to audiences of 1960. Having killed off the most recognizable actor in the movie, everyone else’s fate is put into question. A similar technique is used in the opening of Scream in which the character played by Drew Barrymore—the actor with the highest profile—is murdered in the first ten minutes. 

Also influential upon the opening sequence of Scream was 1979’s When a Stranger Calls. Based on an urban legend, this film focuses on a babysitter who receives a series of harassing phone calls that threaten the children in her charge.

Scream also pays homage to Halloween. John Carpenter’s 1978 movie was not the first slasher movie but it was the most influential and it established the template that would be followed for decades to come. In fact, it’s Halloween that plays on television in the background of Scream during the climactic party scene and it offers the characters a chance to talk about the formula of the slasher genre.

Not referenced overtly but more than likely influential on Scream was the 1988’s Heathers. This film was a black comedy about teenagers plotting to kill their fellow students. Heathers’ sensibility is quite similar to that of Scream, especially its gallows humor.

Two of the best in-jokes of Scream reference A Nightmare on Elm Street. In the opening scene Drew Barrymore’s character praises the original Nightmare, which was the creation of Scream-director Wes Craven, but she dismisses the sequels. At another point a high school janitor, who is played by Craven, appears dressed as Freddy Krueger.

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V. Scream’s Movie Connections: Horror Comedies

Scream tends to be spoken about as an aberration and a radical break from the rest of the horror genre. While the movie did do some innovative things, Scream did not form in a vacuum. In fact, there were quite a few movies that led up to it and Scream was the culmination of over a decade of other attempts to subvert the horror genre. Up next I’ll consider some of the films that laid the groundwork for Scream.

The quality most associated with Scream was its self-awareness and humor. The movie wasn’t quite a satire but it did function in a similar way. Some movies had already attempted to do this with the slasher genre. As far back as 1981, the movies Saturday the 14th and Student Bodies sent up the clichés of the genre but with mixed results.

In the mid-1980s the horror genre as a whole got very silly. The shock of bloody violence that was so effective in Maniac and The Prowler had faded and so the filmmakers utilized gore for comic effect. Titles like Return of the Living Dead, Re-Animator, and Evil Dead II clobbered the audience with gory effects but these filmmakers were as informed by the Three Stooges as they were by Dawn of the Dead.

The slasher film of the late 1980s got especially goofy. After the nastiness of the original Sleepaway Camp, the sequels took the franchise in a campy direction that made reference to the other horror franchises popular at that time. Tobe Hooper returned to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise but the sequel he created was an absurd exercise in Grand Guignol theatrics. Among the most creative experiments with the slasher genre was 1986’s April Fool’s Day. The joke of the film is in the very title as it played on the slasher formula, manipulated the audience’s expectations, and delivered an M. Night Shyamalan-style twist ending.

The best of these humorously self-aware horror films was Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. This late entry in the slasher series included visual in-jokes and references to slasher movie clichés but incorporated them in a way that didn’t cheapen the movie. It’s also the best made of the Friday films and the most fun. In the documentary Crystal Lake Memories, writer-director Tom McLoughlin claims that screenwriter Kevin Williamson told him that Jason Lives was a direct influence on Scream.

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VI. Scream’s Movie Connection: Meta Horror

In the years leading up to Scream there were plenty of horror comedies that played upon the formula of the slasher film. But there was also another category of horror pictures that were self-referential but less comical. These were meta-horror films.

The term “meta” gets used a lot these days, usually for the purpose of describing any piece of media that is self-aware. But that’s an overbroad use of the term. Meta-fiction describes stories that draw attention to the mechanics of the narrative for the purpose of examining how the story works and what stories mean for the audience and the creator.

In the years preceding the release of Scream there were several important meta-horror films. Among the first of these was Lucio Fulci’s A Cat in the Brain. Made near the end of Fulci’s career, the legendary horror director plays himself as a filmmaker driven to madness by the process of making scary movies.

Based on a short story by Clive Barker, 1992’s Candyman tells the story of a sociologist who investigates the urban myth of a hook-handed specter who appears whenever his name is recited five times into a mirror. The picture explored the social function of urban myths but it also commented upon the legacy of racism. It is revealed that the Candyman was a victim of racial violence and the movie intelligently played out the way the legacy of racism manifests itself in contemporary society. 

John Carpenter’s 1994 picture In the Mouth of Madness was a fun mystery about a Stephen King-like writer whose books cause his readers to go insane. When the writer goes missing, a private detective is enlisted to find him and during his investigation the fictional world and the real world bleed into one another. In the Mouth of Madness riffed on ideas about the plasticity of reality and the obsessiveness of fan culture but it also gave a ribbing to the corporate culture of the entertainment industry.

Preceding his work on Scream, Wes Craven made a foray into meta-horror with 1994’s New Nightmare. This was the seventh installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series and it represented the high point of the sequels. The film takes place in the “real world” where the cast and crew of a new Nightmare on Elm Street film are haunted by an evil spirit that resembles Freddy Krueger. The movie found an intelligent way of examining what icons of evil mean for the culture and, according to Wes Craven, New Nightmare was a warning to would-be censors that stopping horror stories would just push violence off the screen and into real life.

Scream it wasn’t necessarily influenced directly by these films (excerpt perhaps New Nightmare) but it does exist in continuity with them. Unlike A Cat in the Brain and New Nightmare, which focused on filmmakers, Scream was much more about the experience of the audience. It was a more populist and commercial film but it drew upon many of the same ideas.

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