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It’s a Scream, Baby

April 21, 2011

I’m on a bit of a horror movie kick at the moment, and no horror binge is quite complete without the Scream movies. In this case, they were what kicked off the whole thing. After all, Scream 4 is opening today, and despite my usual reservations about any sequel after a third movie, I find myself being quite hopeful for Scream 4. So a rewatch of the trilogy was in order.

And I’ve been left with one thing rattling around in my head – what is Scream 4 going to be about?

Spoilers (for Scream 1 – 3.) below. You’ve been warned. But you’ve watched them already, right? Also, I haven’t seen Scream 4 yet, so no spoilers for that in the comments please…  

Any good horror movie is about more than just jumps, gore, and making the audience squirm. A good horror movie needs to do that too – and some are so good at it you forgive their lack of any real depth. But the vast majority of horror movies that are merely that aren’t actually all that good at it – and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. For a horror movie to really be able to scare the audience, it has to tap into something bigger than visual nasties. It needs to have a subtext that touches on something we fear, as individuals or a society.

Scream, as a series, was about making a lot of that implicit meaning explicit. It’s most famous for making “The Rules” explicit, and moving them into the mainstream pop culture sphere. But there was a little more to them than that.

There are a number of themes that run through all three Scream films. One of the main ones is about violence in the media, and how that has effected “the young people.” On one hand, the movies seem to be warning about a wave of desensitization (Quoth the Fonz “You desensitized little shits!”) The kids in Scream organize a party to celebrate days off they got because two of their classmates died. They drive off to celebrate the murder of their principal. In Scream 2, a murder happens right in front of a cinema crowd who are already baying for on-screen blood and glorifying the villain.

Glorifying the Villain is something that Wes Craven has commented on before, most explicitly in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare – which has a lot of similar ideas to the Scream trilogy. (And is really, really worth a watch, but watch the original first.) In New Nightmare, Wes (as himself) comments that in the sequels to Nightmare, Freddy Krueger became less and less dark, and ended up being the character that you were rooting for. Especially since the victims were always cardboard cut outs. And this is why he has the power to push his way back into the world in New Nightmare – because the audience had forgotten the true horror of him, because the truly horrific story wasn’t being told. In the Scream the public glorify the killer and wear his face (the pranking kids in Scream 1, the “Stab” audiences in the sequels) which makes it all the easier for the various Ghostfaces to stalk their targets. Also, you’ve got Gail Weathers, who takes terrible things and spins them into bestsellers, and the movie producers who turn it into a profitable franchise. The media, as the agent of desensitization/glorification, could be seen as responsible.

In addition to that, the killers themselves don’t truly realise the evil of the acts they are committing – [Billy’s Partner], [Billy’s Mom’s Partner], and Roman all think of their acts as “making a movie” in some way or another, as if their actions are guided only by narrative rules. (The Lumis’ have more traditional motives of revenge, and Roman also has a real motive; he combines into one character what the other movies had two characters for. Because we were expecting two killers at that point, after all.)

All of this could make it seem like Scream, as a trilogy, was a parable about the evil influence of the media, desensitizing our kids and glorifying our worst urges. However, our heroine, Sidney Prescott, refutes this notion strongly in all three final confrontations – in particular in the third installment, where she opines “take some fucking responsibility for your actions.” When all fingers seem to be pointing at media fed desensitization and villain glorification, Sidney breaks it down for us – No-one’s responsible for murder except for murderers. Blaming the media and desensitization just gives the murderers an excuse for what they’ve done (see Scream 2.)

Given the prevalence of this theme in the Trilogy, it would be hard to imagine it not rearing its head in Scream 4. Horror movies aren’t the bogey-man any more in that debate (Grand Theft Auto may have stolen that crown,) but the basic themes remain. And then there’s the internet. Communication technology has changed utterly since Scream 1 (“What are you doing with a cellular telephone, young man?”) and I’m sure Scream 4 will be making use of that. I fully expect there’ll be a good amount of social networking involvement. I’m also predicting that the killings will be broadcast on YouTube. (Or equivalent.)

The original trilogy draws heavily on classic horror movie themes and references to articulate “the rules.” I can’t imagine someone writing Scream 4 and not using it as a platform to reference and commentate on horror movies in the last ten years.

Mainstream horror in the past decade has mostly been about sequels (The unkillable Saw franchise, most obviously,) remakes (Halloween, Nightmare, Friday the 13th,) prequels (Texas Chainsaw and the Exorcist) and imports.(Lots of J Horror, and a smattering of others) Not a lot of novel horror films made the mainstream.  I’m expecting that Ghostface will be trying to “reboot” the franchise in Scream 4, recreate the first story all over again, possibly with Sidney not actually being the main target (someone new has to play the heroine in the reboot.)

Aside from remakes/homages/reboots/prequels/sequels, the other thing that stands out about contemporary horror is the “horror porn” genre. Gratuitous violence for no purpose other than making the audience squirm in their seats. To an extent, this potentially extends the “desensitization” theme of the original trilogy, with audiences now baying for not only blood but suffering on their screens.

Finally… what are the rules of the fourth movie in a series?

By the time a 4th movie rolls around, the focus is usually on the villain. It was the 4th Nightmare on Elm Street where we learn about Freddy’s birth. Saw IV is all about “understanding” Jigsaw. The villain focus also results in villains whose capabilities become even more superhuman – To take Jigsaw as an example, by Saw IV he seems to be able to predict human behaviour with ludicrous precision.

That said, Scream 3 already did the backstory retcon where we saw who “birthed” Ghostface. So that ground has been trodden, and furthermore, Sidney’s actually still in the movie. This is pretty much unprecedented: That the original protagonist is still involved in the story by the 4th movie. The villain is usually the only source of continuity, which is usually why it become all about them as the numbers get higher… so perhaps we won’t see that in Scream 4. Scream has a tendency to appear to follow the rules to the letter in the first two acts, then subvert them in the final act.

So, quick capsule predictions:

1)     Killings on Youtube.

2)     A “reboot” motivation for Ghostface.

3)     Villain focus (reboots and 4th movies both tend to focus more on the villain. See Rob Zombie’s Halloween)

4)     Sidney’s not the main target. There’ll be a “new” Sidney, and Ghostface will want “old Sidney” to watch. Perhaps even approve.

5)     Ghostface will get called on being totally unoriginal at least once. In true arrogant fan fiction fashion, he will believe he is improving on something he purports to love.

I’ll do a follow up post after I see the movie, to see how much of my rambling was even loosely relevant.

I’ll be right back.

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