​celebrating 20 years of 'scream': the slasher film to end all slasher films

'Scream’s' self-referential turn truly made it the most iconic horror film of the 90s, and maybe the genre’s last great. As Halloween draws close and it celebrates its 20th year, we look back at its legacy.

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Oct 28 2016, 2:00pm

Back in 2012, a review of The Hunger Games on New York Magazine's Vulture site explained that the movies were "F*cked Up" because they showed "kids slaughtering kids, over and over, in graphic and disturbing ways." Being from the late 80s, I can't say I personally quite understood the hysteria: having grown up in a golden age for movies where underage victims were sliced, filleted, strung up and — worst of all — forced to date old-style blonde lunkheads like Ryan Philippe, teen death seems to me like a Hollywood industry. It's a taboo like all porn that pretends it stars teenagers — meaning just barely and, arguably, popular for it. The frisson is real, but the action is fake, so it skirts illegality.

In the 90s and the early 00s, Urban Legend, I Know What You Did Last Summer (which, in the interests of full transparency, I initially typed as "What You Did Last Dumber" without having meant to), Halloween: H20, and Final Destination all successfully made the killing of kids seem a zeitgeist. Slasher films are rarely about being smart, and most often about being brazenly stupid: I Know What You Did Last Summer revolves around the fact that group of attractive teens once killed a fisherman; while the one-off Cherry Falls has the perfect exploitation plot of "virginity leads to murder." Mostly, they concern themselves with cataloguing the dull predictability of human chaos: this moron's torso is going back home in two body-bags; this person's eyes will burst out like the pus from a teenager's zit, and that girl winds up dead in the pool like a pool-toy, deflated, and so on. Death and violence are so de rigeur that they almost seem cozy. 

As in the aforementioned genre of pornography, most of the jocks do their last scene still wearing their varsity jackets, and most of the babes are in pink string bikinis, or fuzzy, short sweaters and kilts, or their cheerleader uniforms — what Keanu Reeves calls with emphasis, in the recent teen-girl horror, The Neon Demon, "real Lolita shit." If they survive, most slasher kids are also guaranteed the rank indignity of a sequel or seven: in Final Destination 3, a girl with the equally porno name of Julie James is burned alive in a tanning bed. Even God can't slow the determined hands of the devil, and horror films are typically Godless, anyway. Even the ones with exorcisms in them are devoid of miracles. 

All of which is a lead-up to say that, at the age of 28 and as a lover of horror films, I had somehow managed — up until about a week ago — to have never seen Scream. I get that this was ill-judged of me; it turns 20 this year, which means that I'm not only too late, but also more than two-thirds as late as I'm old. All I have to say in my defense is that I have never much liked Drew Barrymore's acting: had I known that she died in the opening scene, it's possible that I might have come around to this sooner. A slasher film that knows that slasher films are, nominally, stupid, Scream at first impressed with its self-awareness, and at second impressed with its ticket sales. I can't bear the word "franchise" in film talk, if only because it reminds me of hot-dogs or fries, but what else to call it? It has three bad sequels, as well as a low-rent TV series starring no one you've heard of, and screening nowhere that you'd see it except on T.V. at the gym. Scream III apparently has a "film within a film" conceit, like a gory teen Hamlet. When Wes Craven died last year, his Forbes obituary called the original Scream his "last great horror film."

"It's the seamless meshing of styles — the playful feel-goodery with the biting, visceral violence," the writer explains, "that made the experience so damn satisfying for both the average Joe filmgoer and the more grizzled and experienced horror vet." Grizzled as I am, I knew I'd be remiss to miss it forever. Scream, existing as it does within a universe in which kids watch slasher films, gives its victims the same broad understanding as their audience. In turn, it allows them to entertain the possibility they're being watched (and aren't all hot adolescents, anyway?) The film, Rogert Ebert explains, "is not about the plot. It is about itself. In other words, it is about characters who *know* they are in a plot. These characters read Fangoria magazine." As far as whether you, the audience, will buy into the deception, Ebert asks: "when I mentioned Fangoria, did you know what I was talking about?"

It would be a waste of pixels for me to explain the plot. Suffice to say: a killer calls up teens and asks them what their favorite scary movie is, and then they are killed. You know this, I'm certain, as you were wise enough to see it back when you were 14. In 2016, there are differences. Now, when a man harasses a woman with endless questions and threatens gutting her like a fish when she shuts him down, one can't help but think of a standardized Twitter troll (what kind of man, to paraphrase Hillary Clinton, stays up all night to terrorize a woman with movie trivia? The answer to both this and Hillary's question, per everyone: this is the internet, dude). Likewise, a debate about whether a woman is strong enough to really do the job of a man — in this case gutting a teenager, rather than putting out fires or fighting in wars — feels familiar. "It takes a man to do something like that!" one jock says, proudly, and I thought of another Presidential candidate

This dopey display of male pride was the first time I actually laughed — the second being the killer describing the phone call gimmick by saying: "that's the original part." It's a soft satire, but sometimes it still lands. A conversation between two teens about whether their sex-lives would merit R, PG-13, or NC17 rating makes you wonder the same of your own, and feels, if not smart, then sly; a scene where the cops point out that the killer's costume is awful, cheap merchandise bluntly foreshadows the next two decades in Halloween costuming. "If they make a movie, you thought who'll play you?" David Arquette's cop asks Neve Campbell. "I was thinkin' a young Meg Ryan." If only Campbell's career had panned out this well. Self-referential is relative once your high school principal has played Barry Zuckercorn.

"We've had a run on mass murder tapes!" the clerk in the video rental place says, delightedly (and it's always delightful for us, the viewer, spotting a relic almost as old as murder — people actually renting VHS tapes!). Moments later, he says: "There's always some little reason to murder your girlfriend. That's the beauty of it: it's implicit," and I thought about that Presidential candidate again, if only because it seemed like something he'd tweet at around four or five am. 20 years, I guess, isn't so long a time — long enough for the VHS to vanish, but otherwise not long enough for that much to change in the way things are in general. Another tape-shop witticism: "it's the millennium — motives are easy now." 

Having been spared Drew Barrymore, I was thrown from the Jiffy Pop pan and into the fire with an hour and a half's exposure to Matthew Lillard; but then into each life — assuming you were born any time between 1985 and 1995 — a little Lillard must fall. The scene where he's unmasked as one of the killers deserves its own RiffTrax for the way that he wolfs down, without even chewing, the scenery: ISSSAFUHRNGAYUM, SIDNEY — IF WE ASSYOUQURSTIONAN 'N' YOU GUURRRTWRONG, BOOGAH! YEWWDAAA! He mimes "vagina" with his hands while slurring the phrase "Sharon Stone." He drools uncontrollably. It turns out that the two high school boys killed Sidney's mother together partly because they believe she's a "slutbag," which is the part of the thing where it starts to feel too realistic for humor.

There's a school of thought that says that Scream is a feminist masterpiece. I'm not sure that I buy it any more than I'd buy a two-decade-old VHS of Scream, but there are moments in which it appears to be gesturing at something — pro-woman? Not anti-woman, at least? Tatum's fake, hard nipples are "satire," but they're also a set of fake, hard nipples. This film has its cake and it swallows, too, or so goes the locker-room gossip. Sidney is at least able to fuck someone for the first time, and still live, despite breaking "the rules" which mean that "sex equals death" — those rules being true for horror films, but also being true for certain women in real life. Motives really aren't needed as much post-millennium, when a refusal to hand out your number while wearing a short skirt's enough.

20 years after the fact, Scream — like anything else that was part of a zeitgeist — looks rickety. It saddled us with the Scary Movie series. It gave us, briefly, Skeet Ulrich who looks here like the cut-price Crybaby. In the wake of The Cabin In The Woods, self-referential horror-comedy feels "done," yes; but then didn't it also post-Evil Dead? But it's fun, when all's said and done, the way that those in Scream goof off before they're bumped off. Strange to come to a pop-culture milestone not knowing its ending, but I'd found myself actually hoping the killer was female: specifically, that it was blonde, bullish, fake-nippled Tatum, played by Rose McGowan, right until the moment she's felled by that garage door (for — what else? — having big breasts. She gets to smash her killer's dick with a bottle first). Boyish names like Tatum, or Sidney, are supposed to mean survival in the genre. Ebert isn't kidding about that Fangoria fandom. A subscription comes in useful — Scream is screwing, it's safe to assume, with those nerds who're familiar with the minutae of tropes. 

It's Tatum who, in that earlier scene, is embroiled in the argument about the fact that a woman might turn out to be the real psychopath. I only wish she had. Three years later, Jawbreaker would prove that Rose McGowan could kill and satirize and raise a laugh at the same time as looking immaculate; for now, a couple of hyped-up boys were the ones responsible for killing, in the form of highly attractive teens, the American dream. As is so often the case, I can't help thinking of a text by Jenny Holzer: "By your response to danger, it is easy to tell how you have lived and what has been done to you. You show whether you want to stay alive, whether you think you deserve to and whether you believe it's any good to act." Sometimes, the only proper reaction to danger is laughter. You can, medically-speaking, laugh yourself to death. Maybe in another 20 years, I'll get around to watching The Hunger Games. 

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Text Philippa Snow