Scream ★★★★½

Still a banger after all these years. The first ten minutes are straight up lightening in a bottle — an iconic, brutally cold open that offers up one of the most defining moments in genre history, even rivaling Hitchcock for its unexpected twist concerning a major star. 

All bets are off after that opening scene because all bets have traditionally relied upon rules and clichés about who lives and who dies in this genre. No one is safe and everyone is a suspect in SCREAM, and that might be due to the fact that the film has this funny habit of sniffing its own ass and poking fun at its own logic that you’re never quite sure how it’s all going to disembowel, even when it’s hilariously reinforcing so many of the genre’s rules and clichés. It’s like these characters have lived with horror and slasher films their entire lives, they’re so adept at knowing what to do and what not to do in a horror movie, and yet they’re also completely unaware of the horror movie tropes they’re living and dying through. They’re smart enough to know the rules but not smart enough to actually follow them. They know a lot about movies but don’t recognize they’re actually in one. 

It’s a brilliant conceit because it allows you to both a). experience the horror onscreen as a horror film, and b). step back, as the characters do, to examine the very architecture in which Woodsboro is confined. Craven and Williamson do an excellent job of cutting it two ways: in one breath, the film is so knowledgeable about the genre it’s critiquing yet rarely follows its own advice, while in another breath, it’s constantly finding new ways to misdirect fright-fan expectations by slicing and dicing its own distinctive kinks on the horror playbook itself. It’s metafiction only because it’s talking about itself and skewering its own thesis, but it’s straightforward fiction because it’s still trapped in its own forms and techniques, obeying what horror fans ultimately want: blood, guts, brains, and knives, and yes, dumb characters who fall prey to their own dumb choices. Sid tells us it’s insulting when hot girls flee for their lives in these kinds of movies by running up the stairs when they should be running out the door, only in the very next moment to show her doing this exact same dumb thing. Randy screams at the TV, “Look behind you!” but is oblivious to the ghostface killer behind him, both because the genre requires it and the film simply has a good, satirical sense of humor about itself. 

One might even say these characters are stranded between the dream-logic of Elm Street in which everything takes place in a fictional, teen-slasher genre world, and the meta-reality of its makers who’ve given these characters the self-awareness to lampoon the very world they’re trapped in. This is another variation of NEW NIGHTMARE where the lines between fiction and reality are not only blurred, but where the characters interact with the laws that make up a horror film because they’re trying to escape from the tale in which they’ve been imprisoned. Freddy eventually transcends the Elm Street dream-prison by entering the “real” world of his creators where he can go on living and killing, but while the Woodsboro gang never reaches that same level of meta-transcendence, the villains do use the genre’s rules to claim their victims and thereby reinforce the tropes, while the heroes use the genre’s rules to simply escape their demise. If you’re smart in a horror movie, you can survive it. If you’re not, you’re gutted. 

Comically, many of SCREAM’s characters do not survive the film’s genre logic, but for the ones that do, it makes you wonder if they would’ve ever made it out unscathed had they not watched horror movies in the first place. Is Craven suggesting that a knowledge of horror movies can save us in real life? Do horror films help us survive, or at least cathartically purge? Isn’t this the reason why horror films are an essential art form, because they immortalize our fears and give us tools for examining the everyday demons we fight in the real world? The film isn’t banking on mere knowledge of the genre to save us, only how we use that knowledge to navigate the dangerous real-life systems we actually find ourselves in. SCREAM endures not only because it’s a wickedly entertaining thrill ride, but also because it possesses intellectual contours sharp enough to slice itself open and talk about its innards. Craven reawakens new life in the genre by reassessing what horror movies can be and, to some extent, what they’ve become. They can be an art AND a business deal that satisfies audience needs…both at the same time! And for that, SCREAM will always be both a love letter to genre filmmaking and a mockery of its crasser principles.

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