Light spoilers for Scream ahead.
In the newest Scream, the fifth installment of the horror film franchise created by Wes Craven, the killers confess to having found one another on Reddit forums, once erroneously thought of as relatively harmless spaces on the internet for lovers of culture. The confession goes a step further in this film directed by Ready or Not’s Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and written by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick. One killer claims, in a desperate apology, that they were “radicalized” and “the movies made [them] do it.” It’s a reference to a reference, this Russian nesting doll-like reflexivity now commonplace for self-aware scary movies, not least of all the Scream franchise. But at the core of that in-joke are questions that have been nagging the series, and its creator, for decades: does violence in movies (especially the scary ones) have a negative impact on audiences? Do filmmakers have an ethical responsibility? What could possibly be fueling this violent world if not the culture that dramatizes it, perpetuates its narratives?
Given that every killer in the Scream franchise is motivated by either authorship or media attention (yes, even in nü-Scream), perhaps it’s the technologies of storytelling and documentation that are the ultimate weapon. Cameras and screens are Scream’s broken funhouse mirrors. The moralistic axes on which slashers and tabloid news teeter are not so different from one another, positioned rather as refractions, jagged and splintered through the technologies through which they are uttered. Craven and writer Kevin Williamson’s genius is in catching a gaze of hunger in his films that betrays his audience’s voraciousness, while also implicating himself.
Craven, the man who helped bring Freddy Krueger and Ghostface to life, was, if anything, hyperconscious about the paradox of violence on screen, even a little afraid of it. Speaking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air about his film The Last House on the Left in 1980, he articulated both an aversion to watching such gruesome images himself and an awareness that we, as a culture, had already been inundated by such effigies of suffering which were arguably birthed by the Vietnam War. Such inundation is natural, or to borrow a popular colloquialism from the internet, normalized, frequently resulting in an endless back and forth between representations of violence and discourses about violence and its representation. The Last House begins with newsreel footage, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare features various characters grilling Heather Langenkamp about how inappropriate scary movies are for children, and the original Scream creates an ecosystem of the nightly news spectacle. If horror movies functioned for Craven as a perfectly useful easel on which he could reflect America’s id back at itself, there seemed to be, nonetheless, anxiety about complicity in some of his work. In the original Scream, while smeared with a blood-soaked smirk, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) hisses at final girl Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), “Movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative.” Even though, in a favorite culture war argument, that could absolve horror movies to a degree, is Billy’s claim that they “make psychos more creative” the director’s nervous concession?
This jittery guilt can be felt throughout Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which laid the groundwork for Scream’s self-reflexive framework. As the cast of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street gets dragged into filming a reboot (or, as the new Scream would call it, a “requel,” a portmanteau of “reboot” and “sequel”), bodies start piling up on set, and the scars of Reagan-era angst about the influence culture has on “the children” start to open up and bleed again. Moreover, Langenkamp, who starred as Nancy in the original, finds herself caught between not only the agitation of returning to the role that made her famous (or rather, should have), but negotiating the trauma of being Nancy and its possible hereditary implications. Her son is sleepwalking, she’s having night terrors in which Freddy (Robert Englund) has come to claim her son, and the dream world which Wes exorcized from his subconscious is invading the “real world.”
Coursing through New Nightmare’s veins is the fear of losing control of one’s image, and that the horror director-as-author is responsible for that image running amok. As Craven, playing himself, tries to sway Langenkamp into taking on the role and, thus, defeating evil for good, he invokes the power Nancy had in the original film. Langenkamp protests, exclaiming, “But that was Nancy!” It’s an effort to delineate between the performed and the authentic, the real and the imagined. Craven counters, “But it was you who gave Nancy her strength.” Here, there is no difference between character and actor in film, as it is impossible to separate the two. That makes the strains of ambivalence in the film stronger: a storyteller feels guilty that he’s unleashed evil and the only way to contain it is to represent it again, even at the risk of sending his star through Hell once more. In New Nightmare, just as Langenkamp and Nancy merge into one, so does her function as both an individual and as a component of a broader culture, one that has convinced itself that it must continually re-experience and re-narrativize cultural trauma in order to affirm and process its existence.
Though Craven exists as his own character in the film, it’s difficult to not see some of the reticence we experience through Langenkamp’s eyes as being in Craven’s DNA as well. On the talk show in which she is interrogated about the effects of violent scary movies and children, Englund as Freddy, hijacks the interview and stands upon the stage, shot from behind, the camera catching the striking and hypnotic silhouette of Freddy extending his arms and seducing the audience with the incantation of, “You are all my children!” She looks on disturbed. Then again, that’s what the fans crave. Bob Shay, then the head of New Line Cinema, appears as himself in a scene where he pitches this diegetic reboot, saying, “The fans, god bless ‘em, they’re clamoring for more. I guess evil never dies, right?”
Gene Siskel accused New Nightmare of being the same old “bloodletting,” but that film hovers around the world of Hollywood, both distant from and too enmeshed within a world that created a culture of violent images. We can think of Scream’s Woodsboro, then, as a Suburban Anytown, USA, where local news can, if salacious enough, become national entertainment. The combined murders of Sidney Prescott’s mother and the high school bloodbath that follows situates Scream’s characters in a dialectic between horror as exploitation and nightly news media as exploitation, and the degree to which one influences the other. When Scream begins, Sidney is already under intense scrutiny, and as parasitic Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) follows the “story” that keeps Sidney caged with each subsequent film (though she’s a main player in all the films, calling her Sidney’s friend has always felt kind of dubious to me), her trauma becomes a feedback loop that’s bought, repackaged, sold, and franchised.
Real-world terror as it slithers between fiction and sensationalized “fact” hardens into a kind of primary language for the franchise’s characters. Horror movies and their tropes, and news media and its cliches are the lenses through which they understand their lives, be it the doom-ridden connotations of uttering “be right back” or the easy careerism of writing a book about a local tragedy and making a name off of it.
This quasi-self-indictment and examination of the complicity of culture’s manufacturers is most explicitly outlined in Scream 3, which brings the gang to Hollywood. While a new Stab movie (the horror franchise based on Sidney Prescott’s life and the Woodsboro murders that is introduced in Scream 2) lands in the purgatory of a halted production due to another killing spree, the fake Prescott house is revealed to be built upon cursed land. The Roger Corman-esque producer of the Stab movies, John Milton (Lance Henriksen) is revealed to be a rapist of the Harvey Weinstein mold (who produced the first four installments of the Scream franchise). It’s not the first or best film to betray the glistening image the dream factory has made for itself, but it is fairly unique in its assertion that a torturous phantasmagoric landscape is happy to create fictions in its own image for profit.
If the newest Scream fails, it is in its smugness and the incorrect assumption that cleverness can absolve an inability to elaborate upon the existing thematic and conceptual underpinnings in a deeper way. A reference to a reference or some tail-fed snake is not enough to distract from an inherent queasiness about how the film had to come from somewhere, and not even just in the context of sequels, reboots, or “requels.” There is minor mock handwringing about the Hollywood machine’s lack of originality and entitled fandoms, but the fifth Scream doesn’t understand, or care enough to be truly afraid of the culture in which it exists. It’s not scared of the world or of the technologies that created it in the first place.
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