“Now Sid, don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!”
Meta horror seems to get more acclaim than any pure scary movie these days, and I think a lot of critics might see Scream or Cabin in the Woods as the only way to intelligently make a horror movie: by toying with genre tropes. But what these movies get right about meta horror, and something that Scary Movie gets wrong, is a love of horror. Wes Craven couldn’t have made such a special movie as this one without an unrelenting love of horror, and it comes through in every second of this brilliant movie.
Scream tells of a town in paranoia as a masked killer, Ghostface, starts killing off teenagers. Our heroine is Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), a smart high school student who has become the latest target of Ghostface nearing the one-year anniversary of her mother’s unsolved murder. Throughout the story, we receive countless parallels to the typical horror movie formula, with a number of characters seemingly motivated by their belief that life is just like a horror movie.
Scream was not only a brilliant concept in 1996, but it was spearheaded by Wes Craven, one of the biggest names in horror’s history. (One joke in the movie even references Craven in a self-deprecating way.) What astonishes me every time I watch this movie is how straight they play it. Scream isn’t just meta for the sake of being familiar and making us think about genre tropes, but like Cabin in the Woods, it stands alone as a masterfully directed story. It’s goal isn’t just terror, but it’s still terrifying at times while also drawing its hilarity from the fact that it never shows all its cards. It keeps you guessing how “meta” or how straight-laced the movie is going to be from scene to scene.
Lots of the humor comes at face value. Stu, Randy, and Billy provide direct commentary about the “horror formula” laying out now-classic ideas about the virgin final girl, the trope of purity as a means to survival, and a run-down of familiar horror plot structure. There are also the sight gags. Ghostface himself is a fun mockery of villains like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, but again, he is played straight enough to still work as a villain. Scream is one of the funniest horror movies ever written, but it refuses to let itself slip as a comedy, existing in a strange but wildly effective middle ground of bone dry meta humor.
I also appreciate that Scream doesn’t always cast a wide net. It slips in horror details for the biggest genre fans in the audience, with the opening phone call to Drew Barrymore’s character being a great example. Not just the trivia about horror movies, but I love when Ghostface asks whether he’s at the front door or at the patio door, really grilling the audience on their knowledge of typical scene construction in home invasion horror. But even if you don’t care about any of those things, it works as a thrilling story and the genre tropes are played so that you can find the humor even if you aren’t a big horror fan. (The obsession with Jamie Lynn Curtis as the Scream Queen comes to mind.)
I’m infatuated with Scream. It’s an idea that could have been butchered, and has been butchered over the past couple decades, but Wes Craven set the bar for this kind of movie incredibly high. Every second is brilliantly planned out, and it’s an obvious labor of love. It’s horror making fun of horror while also adoring horror, which is really where the magic lies with this movie. It’s never once condescending, only relishing in deep admiration of the horror classics of old, so it’s the kind of scary where you can only help but smile.
Films Left to Watch: 854