Photo by Vivien Killilea
Artillery Row

The rise of meta-horror

In 2022, a new Scream film must face down more than monsters

Twenty-five years ago, the film Scream was released in Britain. It brought something entirely new and unexpected to the tired conventions of the teen slasher film, and therefore established itself as the most successful horror picture of its kind since Wes Craven’s Nightmare On Elm Street. It was not for nothing that Craven himself had directed Scream with suitable vigour and wit, aided by Kevin Williamson’s magnificently accomplished and clever screenplay. It was hugely profitable, and has led to four sequels, the latest of which — entitled, once again, Scream — is released this weekend.

The central premise of the franchise is deceptively simple. A serial killer is on the loose, nicknamed “Ghostface” thanks to the Munch-inspired mask that he (or she) wears, and preying on young and photogenic men and women. These would-be victims are entirely cognisant of the cliches of the horror film genre — having sex leads to murder, disappearing into basements or outside a house leads to murder, saying “I’ll be back” leads to murder. In fact, the viewer is led to believe, most things in these situations lead to murder, apart from being the last woman (or man) standing, for the various baroque complexities of the plot, usually familial in nature, to be explained in a final grandstanding scene that will usually involve at least one supposedly dead character returning from the dead for a final scare.

The characters have all seen far too many scary movies not to know what is going on

Over the past quarter of a century, various things have changed within the Scream universe. Smartphones have replaced the cordless home phone, and the internet is now no longer a novelty but an everyday part of everyone’s lives. Offscreen, the disgrace and downfall of Harvey Weinstein, who was initially involved within the series as an executive producer, has undeniably cast a pall over the films. It does not take a vast leap of the imagination to note the similarities between one predatory figure with a penchant for attacking young women and another, regrettably real life opportunist running rampant, until both are brought to suitably punitive justice.

But some things remain constant. The central trio of Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette have all managed to survive the dozens of murders that have defined the series (although Arquette, as fan favourite Dewey, had close shaves in both the first and second films). The killer continues to take delight in taunting his victims before he murders them, and, of course, the characters have all seen far too many scary movies not to know what is going on.

In the first film, it seemed both remarkably fresh and amusingly self-aware that the characters should constantly be poking fun at the genre by noting its demands and clichés. In her introductory scene, Campbell’s Sidney Prescott, asked about her opinions on horror films, says, “They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door.” She concludes that “it’s insulting”.

Yet it also raised the bar when it came to the film’s own aims. After all, the target audience for the Scream films has not traditionally been the sort of chin-stroking cineastes who might like nothing better than a Jean-Luc Godard season at the Barbican, and who are delighted to discuss ideas of “deconstructionism” and “meta-theatricality” until they are blue in the face. It is, to put it bluntly, those who want to watch a stupid killer stalking a big-breasted girl who can’t act running up the stairs. If the killer is not stupid, and the girl can act, and there is a legitimate plot reason for her to run up the stairs, then it creates an appealing and more dynamic film for audiences to enjoy. And if it comes coated with an extra topping of self-awareness, then it creates the basis on which a multi-million-dollar franchise can be created.

Women-in-peril sell tickets; young men-in-peril simply don’t

Releasing a Scream film in 2022 is still redolent with issues that will need to be addressed, and by all accounts have been, whether it’s the contemporary obsession with cancel culture, the absurd way in which fans of a particular series or genre will defend their heroes until they start defying logic, or, on a broader level, the question of how entertaining we continue to find the depiction of graphic violence — usually directed against young women — on screen.

In the wake of the Sarah Everard killing, and the outrage and disgust that it produced, it is harder for many to watch scenes of stalking and murder that are labelled simply as entertainment, no matter how clever-clever their context is. This has been a continual problem for makers of films as disparate as Halloween, Silence of the Lambs and even The Shining. Women-in-peril sell tickets, in a way that young men-in-peril simply don’t. And this is unlikely ever to change, alas.

Regardless of how the film fares at the box office, the legacy of the Scream series — now without Craven or Williamson — can be seen in what contemporary horror cinema has become. Thanks to such figures as Jordan Peele and Blumhouse founder Jason Blum, there has been a move away from the gaudy violence of the 80s and 90s towards more psychologically rigorous pictures such as Get Out and the recent Candyman remake, which are aimed at discerning adult audiences, rather than simply the Saturday night crowd who seek bloody sensation at all costs. These are films that know that their viewers are au fait with the requirements of the genre, and which find new, often racially or socially charged spins on storylines that have become increasingly hoary and well-worn.

It is easy to say that the depressing and horrific aspects of contemporary life far outstrip any bogeyman that filmmakers can put on screen, but this is untrue. There is something cathartic about an audience uniting to watch a film that should, as at least the first two Scream pictures did, both horrify and amuse in equal measure. Let us hope that the new one serves up its edge-of-seat thrills with a sly enough helping of intellectual nourishment to mean that, even if these are essentially disposable popcorn pictures, they remain the very finest gourmet popcorn, and don’t make you feel a sense of self-loathing afterwards for having greedily digested them.

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