in ,

It’s Time to Admit Some Hard Truths About the Original Scream

By the time the mid-’90s rolled around, the slasher genre had all but faded into memory. It’s tough to imagine in the age of streaming, but many movies that people considered classics like Halloween or Friday the 13th weren’t as widespread as they are now. When a movie came out, you had to see it in theaters or wait for it to hit VHS, which was still a relatively new technology. The point being, though, the slasher genre was considered a relic, with box office returns indicating people just didn’t go to see them like they did in the ’80s. Sure, there were a few slashers that did okay, but on the whole, the genre needed the swift kick in the pants that 1996’s Scream gave it. It popularized the idea of a meta slasher that explains genre tropes while simultaneously embracing them. It was a huge hit, spawning three eventual sequels and a TV show, but I would like to put forth an idea that may or may not be controversial: Scream works far better as a whodunit slasher mystery than it does a meta slasher, and it had an overall negative impact on the horror sub-genre.

Drew Barrymore's character screams into a telephone in fear
I can hear all the Scream fans getting ready to burn me at the stake for my heresy…

Before anyone brings out the torches, let me get this on the record: I quite enjoy Scream. It’s a slick, well-produced, efficient entertainment machine, with good performances, a nice mystery, and some pretty cool kills. It’s a fun movie even if it does kind of overstay its welcome (both the first entry and almost every sequel are nearly two hours long for some reason), and deserves to be remembered as a solid entry in the slasher sub-genre. But having just given it a rewatch yesterday, I noticed quite a few things. One is that Skeet Ulrich’s hair is an atrocity that never should have seen the light of day. Another is that it’s very much a capsule of the ’90s attitude era, with ridiculously clashing outfits, comically outdated technology, and a soundtrack that screams grunge louder than a bright red flannel with jeans that are five sizes too big for the person wearing it. It’s all quaint and kind of adorable, and despite those outdated elements the story has aged rather well. Sydney’s struggle of dealing with her mother’s death while also figuring out who is trying to kill her is classic murder mystery stuff. All of the necessary components are there for a nice whodunit.

And on the whole, it delivers. Sure, the mystery isn’t anything mind-blowing, but it’s a fun ride that’s extremely watchable thanks to Craven’s classic direction. The movie’s biggest selling point, its meta elements, annoyed me every single time they reared their ugly head, though. Or rather, the really, really bad meta elements did. It’s no secret that the movie is designed as a love letter to slashers and horror in general, with too many references to classic movies to count. Sydney’s boyfriend is named Billy Loomis, a clear nod to Sam Loomis from Halloween. Wes Craven shows up as a janitor in a mysteriously familiar red and green sweater who just so happens to be named Fred. One of the best Easter eggs I didn’t catch the first time around was Linda Blair as a random member of the paparazzi. She just shows up for about ten seconds. That stuff I can kind of gel with even though I don’t think it’s necessary.

But the stuff that really got to me was the very pointed and direct references to genre tropes. Sure, in 1996 the idea of the virginal final girl may not have been as deep in the zeitgeist as it is now, but Scream doesn’t try to hide the fact that it’s talking directly to the audience. Jamie Kennedy’s character Randy, a movie buff and lover of horror, exists solely to point out the fact that the film is mimicking slasher tropes but tries to get away with it by pointing it out. It’s far, far less clever than it thinks it is. Just because a movie is pointing out how ridiculous a trope it’s embracing is, doesn’t mean it’s not using an old trope. It ultimately made me wonder what the point of it was in hindsight.

It almost seems like an element that was added in to try and disguise how old school the storyline is. Like the meta elements are meant to distract from the fact that it is using all of the old tropes the genre is known for and isn’t confident enough in itself to let the movie stand on its central mystery. All of the little moments where Randy points out exactly what’s happening took me out of the movie on this rewatch, with perhaps the worst example coming during the climax where Randy is watching Halloween and is drunkenly telling Laurie Strode to look out behind her. He keeps saying, “Look behind you Jamie, look behind you,” while Ghostface looms over him behind the couch. The fact that Randy’s actor’s name is Jamie is somewhat clever, but the movie then proceeds to straight-up rip off the soundtrack of Halloween, using its tense piano as a way to set the mood for Ghostface attacking Randy and Sydney.

Randy and friends watch Halloween on a TV
Randy is a far less clever character than the movie thinks.

Again, what exactly is the movie trying to accomplish by pointing out the fact that characters never look behind them when the killer is standing right there? And what good does it do the movie to use the soundtrack of another slasher many consider to be the best of the genre? All these things do is bring attention to Scream’s ultimate lack of originality. And not only that, but this opened the doorway for a whole slew of movies that took a similar approach of pointing out how ridiculous the tropes of their given genre are while simultaneously relying on them to tell their story.

Some of these movies are at least watchable, like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, which is a mockumentary/found footage movie about a wannabe new slasher villain. Much like Scream, the movie’s core story is far more interesting than its meta elements. Seeing Leslie bond with the movie’s final girl Taylor Gentry, played by Angela Goethals, and struggle with his affection for her and his desire to be a legendary killer makes for a unique, interesting watch, but again, the meta elements just get in the way. The movie directly references the likes of Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees but doesn’t use the legacy of slasher villains to make any kind of grand point. In fact, you could argue that the movie falls flat on its face, ultimately, if its intent was to give rise to a brand new horror icon. After all, Leslie Vernon has only had one movie so far, although fans are clamoring for a sequel.

Other movies of this ilk are just flat out bad, like the 2009 direct to DVD release The Hills Run Red. It at least has an interesting premise, with the eponymous cult classic movie being an urban legend. It’s supposedly the most gruesome movie ever made, and the protagonists set out to try and find where it was shot so they can create their own horror movie. Of course, the movie *gasp* turns out to be real, and the woods where it was shot is haunted by a crazed killer with a baby doll for a face! And his dad, played by a scenery-chewing William Sadler, wants to create even more messed up art using the killer and his own daughter! Once again, the movie draws attention to its own weaknesses by comparing itself to everything that’s come before, and in this case, its weaknesses are far too many to count. Outside of some okay gore, the movie’s pacing is all wrong (within the first ten minutes the protagonist, who is supposed to be kind of likable, straps a topless stripper to a bed to force her to detox), the camera work is frenetic, and the story is far less clever than it thinks it is. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth, and like Leslie Vernon, it felt awfully presumptuous in its confidence that it has an iconic new killer in the form of Babyface.

Babyface from the Hills Run Red
In case you can’t tell, no, I don’t recommend The Hills Run Red despite the killer’s okay design.

These are just two examples of the many, many movies that ripped off the worst parts of Scream. Even if they weren’t being entirely meta, there were plenty of movies that didn’t take themselves too seriously to a fault. It’s why movies like You’re Next and 2019’s Haunt felt like such nice breaths of fresh air to me. In the case of the former, the movie expertly flips slasher tropes on their head but does so in a way that serves the story. Its final girl Erin is a survivalist badass, and more than capable of fighting back against the movie’s masked assailants. The scene that best explains how it subverts genre tropes without being obnoxious comes about two thirds in. One of the killers comes through the window and attacks Erin, but she gets the upper hand and hits him in the head with a meat tenderizer. Instead of hitting him once or twice and leaving room for him to come back for a gotcha scare, Erin instead bashes his brains in, hitting him over and over again until he’s very clearly, definitely dead. It’s a way for director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barret to wink at the audience without blatantly saying “Hey, you know how slasher movie villains always come back after being hit once or twice? Well, Erin knows that and she won’t let that happen.” It’s a clever nod to tropes without ever breaking the movie’s verisimilitude.

In the case of the latter, Shudder’s Haunt simply operates as a lean, mean, well-oiled thrill ride machine. It doesn’t subvert any genre tropes, aside from gratuitous movie. There’s a Brainiac character, a jock, the final girl with a dark past, the wise-cracking friend, and yes, plenty of masked killers. It doesn’t seek to reinvent these tropes, though, and instead embraces them and executes them in a more grounded, believable way. The movie isn’t revolutionary or even particularly original, but the way it delivers its gruesome thrills is refreshing and respects its audience. It instead serves as a nice reminder for why people fell in love with the slasher genre in the first place by delivering a straightforward, unpretentious, unapologetically bloody thrill ride. No pointed commentary or attempts to acknowledge the fact that it’s all been done before. Just bloody, spooky fun that delivers the goods.

A ghostly figure from the movie Haunt stands in blue light
2019’s Haunt is the exact opposite of a meta slasher, fully embracing tropes and executing them in a hugely entertaining way.

Scream wasn’t even the first slasher to wink to its audience, or even the first Wes Craven horror movie to go full meta. Friday the 13th Part VI is the most overtly comical of all the entries, with lots of nods to the series’s own tropes (the funniest to me is during a sex scene where the woman is fully clothed and the guy lifts his shirt up, exposing his nipples). Meanwhile, Wes Craven explored very similar territory two years before Scream with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. That movie is literally about the cast of the original Nightmare on Elm Street trying to both come up with a new idea for a modern entry and trying to escape the original’s legacy, which even in 1994 was considered legendary. It uses its meta elements in its favor, telling a unique story from Heather Langenkamp’s point of view of how she struggles to escape the shadow of one of her earliest successes. It was a huge breath of fresh air for the franchise (or so I’m told, at least—I’ve only seen the original and New Nightmare) that, unlike Scream, used its meta-ness to enhance the unique story being told.

None of this, of course, is to say Scream is a bad movie, or that its overall negative impact on the horror genre is its fault. As I said earlier, it operates as a well-oiled thrill ride that just so happens to have some obnoxious meta-commentary on the very tropes it embraces. But the core story of Sydney Prescott dealing with the same killer that claimed her mother is strong, and the whodunit aspects are genuinely well-executed. It’s all helped by the performances, with Neve Campbell being a genuinely great final girl, and with Matthew Lillard being a scenery-chewing joy to watch, especially near the end. It may have seemed clever at first release, but these days the meta elements do little to strengthen the movie, and in fact, actively harm it during the more intense scenes. All they do is point out its own lack of originality. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but hopefully, the genre can get away from this kind of approach to slashers in the coming decade.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Written by Collin Henderson

Collin has loved all things horror since he was a wee lad, as long as it's not filled with jump scares. He holds up It Follows as the greatest horror film ever made, and would love to hear your thoughts on why he's wrong about that. He's written a couple of books called Lemon Sting and Silence Under Screams, and lives in Massachusetts.

A man with other peoples flesh sewn onto his face.

Living a Nightmare: The Strange and Frightening True Story of Ed Gein

Jill screaming at clinic door

If It’s Halloween, It Must Be Saw IV