Back in 1996, a franchise was born. But it was more than just a franchise, it was a legacy, a reinvention of a genre and cinematic phantasmagoria.
Scream, directed by Wes Craven from a spec script by then-broke writer Kevin Williamson, ignited and shot new life like a blood-soaked IV into horror films. Without getting too high falutin about it, the film (and to some extent its sequels) defined a generation (this blogger’s generation), and took to new heights audience expectations and demands. The appalling rip-offs (Saw 10 must surely be in the works) missed the point and sorely lacked the wit and sardonic tone.
My experience watching Scream in the theater marks the one time in my life where I spent a sleepless night after watching a film. Every movement and noise outside my window had me lunging up and flipping on the porch light, half expecting to glimpse Ghostface slipping through my woods, gleaming knife in hand. And the sick part? There was surely a part of me, deep down inside, that kind of wanted it to happen. We go to movies like these to safely experience our primal fears, urges, and darkest yearnings. While we no longer live with a constant threat of pursuit and danger like our caveman ancestors, we know the predator can still be out there, and a modicum of our innate self-worth relies on knowing whether or not we could outlive the danger.
What made Scream so terrifying was that it contained not superhuman beings, or aliens, or ghosts. It contained psychotic teenagers with access to weapons, free time, boredom, and motivation. It was on the cusp of the reality TV era, where the ante must keep being upped, the shocks increased, the body count higher, the blood flowing thicker, and the allure pumped to a level of excitement that is almost sexual. By 1996, “The Real World” had already been on for some time, but it may be a grey area as to which influenced which. Is Scream the chicken, or the egg? Or is it simply that from the beginning, audiences approach horror films with an insatiable need for not only violence, but a visceral release that feeds off itself, and must expand and fatten until, like an uroboros, it eats itself into oblivion?
The Scream franchise is known as much for its self-referential awareness and parody as for its violence. Each film progressively perpetuated the stereotypes and even relished them, relied on them for a great portion of their content and reason for existing. The audience became complicit, laughing along with the characters, sharing in the joke. But just as the joke begins to ease the watchers into security, the knife strikes and, all joking aside, horror happens.
And any honest Scream-goer has to admit that, at the end of the night, they’re paying to see some bodies go down, jump through some chase scenes, and experience some catharsis. Along with that eek-eek-eek soundtrack to punctuate it.
In Scream 4, Sidney is back, after having written a book that illustrates her coming to terms with her traumatic past. She joins up with the old gang, including Dewey, who has now graduated to town sheriff, and Gale Weathers, former big-time journalist who has shed her career to be wife to the sheriff, but seems none too satisfied. Pretty soon murders begin to happen, and it seems Ghostface is back for another round.
True to its uroboros nature of art imitating life imitating art, it seems that Neve Campbell, like her character, cannot get away from the Woodsboro killings. Fifteen years later, she is back in the shoes of Sidney, and back to racing out the bedroom window onto the roof, facing down the killer who by this point has become a mythical dragon, an archetypal demon of the self, staring Sidney (and Neve) in the face…or rather, in the mask. The question is, can she finally ever slay it?
If Nancy Meyers, director of Something’s Gotta Give and The Holiday, ever made horror films, hers would aesthetically match the Scream films; while all the horror and violence takes place, it is happening in gleaming kitchens, with coffee mugs and percolators, curtains from Crate & Barrell, and shiny wood floors. Everyone being hunted by Ghostface is rich or has rich parents. But that’s part of the experience we’ve been promised. Sure, people are gruesomely meeting their maker, but they’re doing so in pretty surroundings. It’s all part of the high, the catharsis that involves all the senses, including the tastes.
I have to say, of all four films, the reveal of the killers is most convincing in the first film and this fourth one. As much as I enjoyed the second and third installments, I couldn’t quite swallow the identity of the killers and the reasons for it. They both seemed contrived, but didn’t ruin the entirety of the films they were a part of.
With Scream 4, the explanation is fitting with the characters, the setting, and the timetable. I didn’t feel cheated or insulted, and it all has a sort of unity. The pacing of this newest film is fluid and frantic, with the body count ten times higher than the original or the second. I can’t quite remember the body count in the third. In this one, the killer – or killers – has an ax to grind, and needs to grind it hard, fast, and bloody. As in keeping with the rules of another sequel, the stakes are raised higher than they’ve ever been.
There is something to the bogeyman myth, the need in many of us to experience being chased down a dark hallway by the monster cloaked in darkness, who promises to drag us back to the deep oblivion of our psyches. Ghostface is us, and we are Ghostface. It’s all deeply Freudian. But it’s also deeply entertaining and good for some laughs with friends on a Friday night. In fact, most viewers won’t bother being conscious of the intellectual reasons for what draws them to a fourth go, but they will nonetheless fulfill it by their attendance. It’s been that way since the original Scream, and it continues to be that way with Scream 4. Who knows, maybe it will be so with Scream 5.
I know I’ll be in line for another go with Sidney.