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Scream and Scream Again: The Postmodern Musings of "Scream"

The newest entry in the self-aware horror franchise turns even deeper inward with a requel—a reboot-sequel—obsessed with its origins.
Greg Cwik
"And so art is everywhere, since artifice is at the very heart of reality. And so art is dead, not only because its critical transcendence is gone, but because reality itself, entirely impregnated by an aesthetic which is inseparable from its own structure, has been confused with its own image. Reality no longer has the time to take on the appearance of reality. It no longer even surpasses fiction: it captures every dream even before it takes on the appearance of a dream."
—Jean Baudrillard
Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), which came out well after the slasher film had gone out of style, introduced horror fans to a college student's idea of postmodernism. That isn't a knock, by the way: some of what you learn in college is very useful, and oh how good it can feel to name-drop something you've just discovered in the classroom. This is what Scream does. The sardonic meta-musings of attractive teens with Blockbuster memberships all but officially ended the slasher genre as it existed and, in its place, inspired a new style of teen-oriented horror. The homogeneity of masked maniacs lumbering after hot young people unversed in common sense was replaced with ironic maniacs stalking hot young people who speak in pop-culture references. As Montaigne said, "The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself."
Those pop-culture references helped make Scream its own pop-culture phenomenon, and established previously-unknown writer Kevin Williamson, who wrote the script, originally titled Scary Movie, on spec, as a major new horror name and revitalized Craven's career. The film cost $15 million to make, and made $173 million at the box office. Wes Craven's previous four films— Shocker, The People Under the Stairs, New Nightmare and Vampire in Brooklyn—didn't make that much all together. The appeal of Scream is its mix of humor and horror, neither of which supersedes or overwhelms the other; it manages to find that very difficult kind of cleverness that doesn't come off as pretentious or, worse, precious, and it still delivers the gory goods. Everyone wins. Like Halloween, the masked murderer's costume in Scream is, in its simplicity, indelible. It's an easy mask to recognize, to replicate, common enough to buy from a local store. In fact, we see many people wearing or playing with the Ghostface mask in the films—dickish high schoolers prance through the halls garbed as Ghostface in the first film; raucous moviegoers don them at a film premiere at the beginning of Scream 2; they hang, decorative portents from a sick sense of humor, from the lamp posts in the town's square. Ghostface is such a simple yet memorable image, and he could be anybody. Unlike Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, the mascots for the three most profitable horror franchises of the '80s, Ghostface is in disguise, their identity a mystery, and the person(s) behind the mask changes every film, which makes the Scream series unique among major horror dynasties. It's a classic whodunit mystery, a modern Mario Bava with a plastic mask in place of the black leather gloves.
Whereas Craven's other immortal creation, Freddy Krueger, devolved into slapstick silliness and ever-increasing camp after Craven's departure—Craven wrote and directed the first and wrote the third and didn't have anything more to do with the series until New Nightmare in 1994— Scream's violence isn't fun. You don't sit around waiting for the next murder, the way you do a common slasher (though fans of the film-within-a-film from Scream 2, called Stab,do just that). The iconic opening scene of the series establishes the rules of this world, which, in its self-awareness, sort of resembles our own. It's an unlucky 13 minutes long. Drew Barrymore is getting ready to watch a scary movie. She makes popcorn, and the phone rings. It's an olive-oil voiced stranger, who makes idle chit-chat with her, asking her if she likes scary movies, all innocent until it's not, and the stranger begins to bark out threats and trivia questions with equal menace. Barrymore's boyfriend gets gutted, and she runs through the house, hunted by a man in a ghoulish black shroud with a hunting knife in his hand. Eventually he gets her, stabs her, and hangs her eviscerated corpse from a tree to be discovered by her parents.
The early demise of Barrymore, despite the fact that it is her face festooning the poster, harks to Hitchcock, of course: upends when we think we know about the movie. Anyone can die. It's brutal, and scary, but what makes this scene so good is how its self-awareness isn't just cute. It imbues a real heavy sense of dread as Barrymore tries to answer the killer's questions about Friday the 13th. Trivia is a fun hobby of no real great importance, the amusement of a playful aside here or a name-drop there, but some of us pride ourselves on knowing everything about everything. Some of us need to be the know-it-all. Here, with Barrymore sobbing into the phone, trivia possesses a sudden urgency, a sense of life-and-death importance. Knowing that Jason's mother is the killer in the original Friday the 13th matters now.
We're still seeing the residual effects of Scream, the lingering air of self-awareness suffusing the current genre films and shows that populate FX (American Horror Story) and Netflix (Fear Street). But the thing that makes Scream unique, as much as its many progeny have tried to reproduce it, is its commitment to its own philosophy, which has, for five films now, been a smart student's idea of postmodernism, a kind of riff on John Barth, the progenitor of American meta-fiction. In the Sot-Weed Factor, Barth writes:
The reader! You, dogged, uninsultable, print-oriented bastard, it's you I'm addressing, who else, from inside this monstrous fiction. You've read me this far, then? Even this far? For what discreditable motive? How is it you don't go to a movie, watch TV, stare at a wall, play tennis with a friend, make amorous advances to the person who comes to your mind when I speak of amorous advances? Can nothing surfeit, saturate you, turn you off? Where's your shame?
If you substitute the references to a reader for references to a moviegoer, made "print-oriented bastard" into "screen-oriented bastard," it would still make sense. The Scream movies are a long monstrous fiction that address the watcher and call attention to their own artifice (e.g. when Jamie Kennedy's movie geek Randy is watching Carpenter's Halloween on the TV and the killer skulks behind him while he keeps saying to the screen, "Jamie, turn around!"). The theme changes from film to film, ever in-flux yet adhering to self-imposed rules (again like Barth). Each entry in the series plays with the expectation of whichever kind of film it is, continuing with. Scream 2 being concerned with sequels, their nature and their tropes, with movie geek and first-film survivor Randy laying out the rules like unrolling a blueprint. It begins at a screening of Stab, which is based (with chilling accuracy) on the previous film. The blurring of reality and fiction seemingly seeped into the real world. There was a problem with Scream 2's scripts getting leaked during production, so they had several versions of the screenplay going around, with different endings. This means that the reveal at the end wasn't inevitable, as it was with the first film. In Scream, Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu (Matthew Lillard) had to be the killers. Billy was pissed at Sidney's mom for breaking up his parents' marriage; Stu, played with dude-bro bravado by Lillard, blames, simply, "peer-pressure." Scream 2 also features two killers: another film geek (Timothy Olphant), who plans on blaming the movies for his psychotic behavior, which makes him the opposite of Billy, who says at the end of Scream: "Don't blame it on the movies, Sid! Movies don't make killers, they make killers more creative!" The other killer is Billy Loomis's mother, out to get revenge on Sidney (Neve Campbell) for killing her boy. Who knows what other options Williamson considered. These two are the killers because the original script leaked. The fans seeking out script leaks online altered the end of the film whose script they read, thereby altering the script simply by reading it—the whole ordeal makes me think of Orson Welles's gloriously chicanerous F for Fake, its mingling of fact and fiction and what it would have to say about such a fiasco.
Now, we have the new Scream, released eleven years after the last one. 2022’s Scream was written by James Vanderbilt (who wrote David Fincher's Zodiac, followed by a whole bunch of junk like The Amazing Spider-Man, Independence Day: Resurgence, Murder Mystery, and White House Down) and Guy Busick, and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who directed Ready or Not, written by Vanderbilt and Busick. The new creative team sought to honor Craven's films, thoroughly, obsessively. Williamson, who wrote the first, second, and fourth films, is an executive producer. This new film is concerned with "requel" culture, i.e. those movies that seek to simultaneously reboot the series with fresh faces while bringing in old friends to satiate fans. As the film tries to convey, it is a crazy, fan-driven culture—the vitriol with which fans they spew their ire about the slightest alterations to a beloved franchises (e.g., Ghostbusters), the sense of entitlement, and the snide way with which they view anyone who doesn't also love what they love or how they love it. David Gordon Green's singularly bad Halloween films are good examples of films that try to exist on their own while remaining beholden to their predecessors.
The requel exists to placate the initiated while appealing to a wider audience. Appropriately, 2022’s Scream is a requel that also mocks requels. Series fixtures Deputy Dewey (David Arquette, giving perhaps his best performance), and the cut-throat news-hound Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) return alongside Campbell's stalwart survivor, Sidney. But the film primarily features Jenna Ortega as Tara, a would-be Ghostface victim, Melissa Barrera as her older sister Sam, Jack Quaid as Sam's boyfriend, and Mikey Madison as Tara's protective—sometimes creepily so—friend, Amber. None of these newcomers has much of the appeal of their 1996 counterparts (though Skeet Ulrich does appear as an apparition via de-aging technology and he looks as slimy, with those long '90s tendrils of hair framing his face, as ever, like a combination of old and young Johnny Depp). Fans, of course, want the familiar characters, and, while Sidney's involvement is pretty minimal for the first two-thirds of the film, it's Arquette as Dewey who really impresses. Dewey was always well-meaning and sometimes doofy, but, as Gale points out, he has never been a coward. Bedraggled, with gray-mottled scruff and a sense of malaise, he doesn't resemble the dork we all remember. The fact that he's been stabbed so many times (I think he says it's nine) is referenced, but, while people in my theater chortled, pleased with the call-back, I found the scene moving, with a real air of sorrow about Arquette.
Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillet's camera loves faces, especially Arquette's, and violent scenes have a visceral severity: gnarly gore, so much blood. Each stab feels awful, especially when it's people we're invested in. The second film implicated viewers in cheering on the demise of teenagers, with the rowdy crowd at the premiere of Stab, all wearing Ghostface masks, cheering as a woman is actually stabbed to death in front of them. 2022’s Scream similarly brings attention to the grotesque and captivating nature of watching violence in our entertainment. Characters chastise each other for watching Stab while there's really someone running around as Ghostface killing their friends. They recite the rules of surviving a horror film to each other. They ascertain which character they would be, and posit different ways they could kill each other.
The film the new Scream most resembles, though, is Lana Wachowski's The Matrix Resurrections, a work whose entire existence is rooted inextricably in fans' memories of the original. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is a video game designer who created a trilogy of acclaimed games called The Matrix, the way the characters in Scream created a film-within-a-film series based on previous Screams. The roles of the films' previous characters and actors (Laurence Fishburne, Huge Weaving) are replaced by new, younger faces (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jonathan Groff). Ditto Scream giving us a new survivor, new teens filling in roles created 25 years ago. Both films replicate and upend images, words, moments from their predecessor, knowing that they have emotional resonance for everyone who's seen the original, and both films meditate (in their own way) on the nature of aging, how some things change and some stay the same. They both ponder what defines us as people/characters. Neo is and always will be the One, Sidney is always the indomitable survivor, et cetera. No matter how much time passes, they remain true to who they are (and, in the cases of Reeves and Campbell, they're aging freakishly well too). This is also what makes Dewey/Arquette so compelling. We've watched this guy, this doofus, display the most incredible kind of courage, seen how he protects Sidney and everyone else who needs help and how many times he's been stabbed, and then we watch him here, woebegone, living in a slovenly trailer, and our heart breaks. But when it's time to face Ghostface again, he does so with bravery, with mettle.
What's particularly strange about the new Scream is, compared to the unimpeachable influence of the first film, which has pervaded culture so thoroughly, this feels for the most part utterly inconsequential, if never unamusing. Its concept of postmodernism is sophomoric, yet that almost feels appropriate for the genre it’s mocking, given the films that preceded it. Scream engendered the trope of self-aware horror, and it now peddles in the tropes created by its predecessor. Sometimes it works, even if it appeals to a very broad audience: my favorite bit was the term "elevated horror" being mentioned, with Tara fervidly professing her preference of The Babadook to typical teen horror films like Stab/Scream, a bit that got a room full of chuckles from grown men at my 11:55 am screening of the film. But other than a few scenes (particularly Dewey's), it all feels constructed rather than inspired. The cleverness is only clever; that sense of Wow just isn't there. It's a mechanical reproduction. What 2022’s Scream accomplishes, perhaps appropriately, is giving us a reminder of why the original felt so fresh, and proved to be so influential: because it was the original and all attempts to replicate it will almost certainly feel inferior. Not that there are no good remakes—Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the best horror films of the '70s, as Cronenberg's The Fly is with the '80s—but with something like Scream, re-doing it doesn't work, which is also the case with Carpenter's Halloween (and which is why the third film, the standalone oddity Season of the Witch, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, remains the only good sequel. In fact, the next film in the Halloween series after Witch was itself a requel of sorts.) The series has proven that simply updating the references and use of cell phones doesn't suffice. The new Scream brings to mind Gus Van Sant's nearly-shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho, which also gets a shout-out (as it does at the end of the original Scream). The reason that this film manages to be any fun is because what it's referencing, what it's replicating was and is so good.
The idea of a work of art existing as a replication brings to mind, of course, Walter Benjamin, who wrote: "Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original." One reads this and thinks of Scream, how it's a relic from the '90s and a work that uniquely defined an era. How it determined the course of horror films and how analysis, maybe not of the chemical variety but analysis nonetheless, is a big part of Scream's self-reflexivity, as it vivisects itself endlessly. The films have changed depending on who had ownership, meaning the crew that made them (i.e. the writers, Kevin Williamson giving way to James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, and Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillet taking over for the late Craven as directors), and yet they remain the same, essentially; they have an established style of banter and butchery. They trace what preceded them. 2022’s Scream questions its own existence, why it exists at all and if it has a real purpose. It's almost sentient. It's based off of pre-existing intellectual property, and this series is keenly aware of its own diminishing returns. It knows that it inherently cannot match the success of the first film, and that's honorable. At a time when Hollywood is churning out franchise sequels and requels and revamping all their old properties, and moviegoers are gobbling it up, it's nice to see a film—yes, a requel—that knows trying to replicate the wow of the original is a futile endeavor. The freshness of the original was that it so knowingly alludes to comments on the genre in which it exists, and the secret for the semi-success (and subsequent brand) of the franchise was referencing itself; this navel-gazing premise by its nature grows exhausting, turns increasingly inward, spiraling. As David Foster Wallace wrote, "If Realism called it like it saw it, Metafiction simply called it as it saw itself seeing itself see it." The film's criticism isn't concerned with the changing world beyond the screen, but the constricting world it has created for itself. Scream 2022 isn't worried about TikTok or Twitter. Ghostface doesn't Zoom while gutting people. The film is concerned with the Scream of 1996, with those characters and their motivations and their actions. It analyzes its own artifice as a re-do of an already existing entity. Yes, the references are updated and the theme of requels is topical, but the film is really about the mechanics of a 25-year-old film, which was immensely popular and influential. In bringing an artifact from 1996 into 2022, it shows us, in some ways, how things about culture have changed—one thinks of the use of iPhones in the new film and recalls that phones have always played an integral part of Scream's stratagem—and how it's stayed the same. It's an ouroboros, always eating its own tail, always chasing ghosts.

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Wes CravenKevin WilliamsonJames VanderbiltMatt Bettinelli-OlpinTyler Gillett
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