A striking blond college student sprawls nude across a dormitory bed, a white silk sheet barely covering her body. From the shadows emerges her paramour, who reaches out to caress the woman’s shoulder — when she suddenly realizes that it isn’t her paramour at all. The man wrings her tender neck. She screams. He raises a huge, gleaming knife and plunges it into her flesh three, four, five times, as great gouts of cherry-red blood splatter the wall.
This is a scene from “Final Exam,” a minor, low-budget slasher flick from 1981. But it could almost be from any one of hundreds of similar movies from that era. By the time “Final Exam” was released — just three years after “Halloween” and less than a year after “Friday the 13th” — the typical formula for slasher butchery had already come to seem unwaveringly standardized. The shrieking damsel, the masked killer leaping out of the darkness, the flash of the glittering phallic blade: These things were shocking circa “Psycho,” but once the slasher became a genre, the tropes almost instantly became clichés.
When “Scream” appeared in 1996, the popular horror movie was in a state of decline. A wave of largely careless, cash-grab sequels, like“Ghoulies IV” and “Silent Night, Deadly Night 5,” had destroyed the genre’s already tenuous repute and much of its mainstream appeal. The prevailing attitude about horror at the time was perhaps best articulated by the heroine of “Scream,” Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), when a mysterious caller asks if she has a favorite scary movie: “They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who’s always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. They’re ridiculous.” In the very next scene, when the caller lunges out of a closet and attacks her, Sidney runs up the stairs.
“Scream,” which has a new sequel out Jan. 14, delights in this sort of playful, postmodern meta-commentary. The teenage characters frequently discuss, and criticize, the kinds of slasher movies “Scream” resembles, outlining their “rules” and ridiculing their conventions, often moments before being killed in the manner mentioned. When Sidney’s friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) is cornered by the masked murderer at a party, she assumes it’s a prank and gamely plays along: “Oh, you wanna play psycho killer? Can I be the helpless victim?” The killer nods, then proceeds to slaughter her. Slyly, “Scream” invokes and ironizes clichés, then indulges in them anyway.
“Scream” was written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven, who made “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), an early slasher classic in the “Halloween” mold. Craven seemed to resent the legions of imitations and sequels “Elm Street” spawned, and in 1994 rebuffed them with “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” a horror satire in which Freddy Krueger appears in the real world and begins to terrorize the cast and crew of the original “Nightmare on Elm Street,” including its star, Heather Langenkamp, and Craven himself. Although not entirely effective, “New Nightmare” makes plain Craven’s dissatisfaction with the homogeneity of contemporary horror and clearly anticipates the full-scale genre deconstruction he would try two years later with “Scream.”
Sardonic self-awareness made “Scream” fresh and novel. That sensibility was ideally suited to the savvy, postmodernist ’90s, and the attendant air of vague sophistication no doubt contributed to its warm reception and enormous commercial success. The impact registered immediately. A sequel, “Scream 2,” which was rushed into production and released less than a year later, (inevitably) deconstructed the conventions of horror movie sequels. Besides several sequels, though, the original movie also swiftly triggered an influx of copycat slashers. “Scream” single-handedly reinvigorated a genre that had been languishing for years.
The post-“Scream” slashers bore a strong resemblance. They typically featured the stars of popular teen dramas; masked, blade-wielding baddies; and, most important, that winking, self-referential attitude that told you the movie was in on its own joke.
“Urban Legend,” from 1998, is about a serial killer modeling his murders on urban legends, and includes many cringe-worthy meta-references, for instance when the “Dawson’s Creek” star Joshua Jackson switches on a radio to hear Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait,” that show’s theme song. “I Know What You Did Last Summer” (1997), also written by Williamson, is basically “Scream” with a hook in place of a knife and Jennifer Love Hewitt in place of Neve Campbell. Robert Rodriguez’s “The Faculty,” from 1998, a hip, comic-horror riff on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” played with the conventions of science fiction. Note: Scream Movie
The real legacy of “Scream” is the sense of obligation among filmmakers, not only within the world of horror, to let you know that they know you’re hip to the game — the familiar modes, the narrative beats, and the conventions of the genre that a lifetime of watching movies has trained audiences to expect. You see this in the way modern movie characters frequently discuss other movies, aware of the rules and traditions that govern similar stories and happy to expound upon them. And you see it in the winking, jocular attitude of most modern superhero movies, whose irreverent humor is intended to undercut any possible impression of earnestness and reassure the viewer that the people responsible for these generic entertainments don’t take them too seriously. It’s insurance against the risk of criticism: This may be cliché, but we know it’s cliché.
But the reason “Scream” endures — and the reason people still watch it — is not its humor or its self-awareness. “Scream” is certainly meta, but it’s also played straight: It’s about horror movies, but crucially, it’s an actual horror movie. Far from undercutting the genre and simply satirizing conventions, it exemplifies the genre and employs those conventions widely and masterfully, reminding the audience that even if you know the rules of a teenage slasher flick, a well-made teenage slasher flick still has the capacity to scare the pants off you. If “Scream” were just a lark, a feature-length riff on horror tropes, it would be as tiresome and predictable as the movies it’s satirizing. But Craven well understood that beyond all the winking, “Scream” still had to be scary. Note: G Storm Movie
“Scream 4” (2011), Craven’s last film, is about a killer trying to “remake” the original “Scream” murders, and is itself a deconstruction of the conventions of horror remakes. Conceptually, it feels like it’s trying a little too hard to be clever. Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), unraveling the plot, remarks, “How meta can you get?” Well, too meta, as it turns out. Although there have been more films made in the meta-horror “Scream” tradition, including “Cabin in the Woods” (2011) and “One Cut of the Dead” (2017), there was also what felt like a backlash to the style’s runaway success.
Many of the horror trends that thrived in the aftermath of “Scream” — like found footage (“[REC],” “Paranormal Activity”), J-horror (“The Ring,” “The Grudge”) and so-called “torture porn” (“Saw,” “Hostel”) — veered sharply away from humor, irony and any sense of self-awareness, leaning instead toward stark violence, graphic imagery and intense dread. It was almost as if, by commenting on its own style and conventions, “Scream” both created a new kind of horror movie and immediately reached its logical conclusion. How do you do “Scream” after “Scream”? You can’t. “Scream” was sui generis. Accept no imitations. Note: Cloak Lip-Syncs For The Camera