When Wes Craven passed away in 2015, I commemorated the loss by revisiting what I’ve long thought to be his crown jewel, New Nightmare. The late-in-the-game Nightmare on Elm Street sequel is a meta reflection on the philosophical conundrums of the director’s own work. By creating the evil of Freddy Krueger in his fiction, what exactly was Craven unleashing into the world and what power did he hold over that evil once it seeped into public consciousness? This intellectual launching pad allowed the director, who appears as himself within the film, to not only lament & poke fun at the way his vision had been bastardized by the Elm Street series’ diminished returns sequels, but also to engage with the nature of Art & Horror as ancient societal traditions & metaphysical lifeforms all unto their own. It continues to surprise me that the Scream series that followed the trail of these meta-critical inquiries is generally held in higher regard than New Nightmare, despite their much shallower mode of self-aware criticism. 1996’s Scream is a modern classic that completely rejuvenated the teen slasher genre, altering the trajectory of mainstream horror as an art form for many years to come. Scream is a great film. However, its meta-commentary on the nature of horror isn’t nearly as philosophical or as ambitious as New Nightmare‘s, as it shifted Craven’s focus away from self-examination & towards the deconstruction of tropes.
I was very young when Scream hit theaters in the mid-90s, so the film served as my Rosetta Stone for a genre I didn’t know much about at the time, outside titles like Killer Klowns from Outer Space & The Monster Squad. Its hook is that it’s a slasher film where every character is highly aware that they’re living in a slasher film. Before setting in motion its A-plot hybrid of Prom Night & John Carpenter’s Halloween, Scream opens with a vignette homage to When a Stranger Calls. A (supposedly) teenage Drew Barrymore is harassed over her parents’ cordless phone by a masked, off-screen killer who grills her over the line about her favorite scary movies. Their verbal cat & mouse game escalates to real life violence in a trivia game about horror classics like Halloween & Friday the 13th. When Barrymore gets enough answers wrong, she’s brutally murdered. This opener has become more infamous than the film’s main plot in some ways, if not only for the shock that Barrymore is so easily discarded after featuring prominently in the advertising (which might in itself be a nod to Vivian Leigh’s role in the first act of Psycho). Scream’s main plot follows (a conspicuously twenty-something) Neve Campbell as she attempts to survive her final year of high school despite being stalked by the same serial killer from that opening vignette. As the killer’s catchphrase is “What’s your favorite scary movie?” and most of Campbell’s friends appear to be horror nerds (including a video store clerk played by Jamie Kennedy), Scream allows itself to name check nearly every classic horror title it apes in its own dialogue: Psycho, Carrie, Friday the 13th, Candyman, Basic Instinct, Prom Night, The Silence of the Lambs, the list goes on. The film even openly jokes about the declining quality in Nightmare on Elm Street sequels and features a brief cameo from Wes Craven himself as the high schools’ janitor, wearing Freddy Krueger’s exact sweater & fedora costume. Having since caught up with virtually all of these reference points in the two decades since I first saw this film as a child, these namedrops now play like adorably clever winks to the camera. In the mid-90s, however, that list was a doorway to a world of horrors I would take mental note of for future trips to the video store. It was essential.
As a more seasoned horror nerd, my appreciation for Scream has shifted away from its direct horror references to its broader deconstruction of slasher genre tropes. As fun as it is to hear characters reference The Howling as “the werewolf movie that has E.T.’s mom in it,” it’s much more rewarding to pick apart the mechanics of the genre while still delivering on their basic chills & thrills. Neve Campbell is immediately introduced to us as a virginal Final Girl archetype, wearing the girliest white cotton nightgown costume imaginable for a “high school senior.” Despite her self-awareness about that archetypal role in horror films, she lives out her Final Girl duties in a textbook manner. In one breath she’ll deride how it’s insulting that female horror victims are idiotic enough to run up the stairs instead of out the front door, then in the next breath she’ll allow herself to be chased up the stairs instead of running out the front door. Characters seem totally aware of the mistakes that get victims killed in slashers, warning each other not to drink, fuck, or say things like “Who’s there?” or “I’ll be right back.” Despite a verbal assurance that “This is life. This isn’t a movie,” the soon-to-be-victim teens make all of these exact mistakes anyway and immediately suffer the consequences. The movie is so aware of its own participation in well-worn slasher tropes that even decisions like casting twenty-somethings to play high school students feels like an intentional choice of self-parody when it could just as easily be a genuine participation in a Hollywood cliché.
Scream’s meta-commentary on the slasher genre is much more clever & trope-aware than New Nightmare’s earnest, philosophical stares into the metaphorical mirror. This may be a symptom of the Scream screenplay being written by Kevin Williamson instead of Craven himself, who was certainly doing a bit of career-spanning navel gazing with his New Nightmare script. As intricate & delightful as Scream’s self-awareness of its participation in horror tropes is for a lifelong fan of the genre, the film’s not nearly as impressive in its thematic depth as New Nightmare’s more metaphysical interests. The closest the film gets to reaching those New Nightmare heights is in a sequence where a newscaster van is watching hidden camera surveillance footage of a teen party on a 30 second delay, helpless to save victims who are unaware of the killer behind them, despite shouting “Turn around! Turn around!” at the screen. It’s as if the characters themselves are watching a copy of Scream in that moment, which is an interesting logical thought loop the movie creates within itself. Since Scream’s release, I do feel like I have seen a trope-deconstruction meta-horror that does approach New Nightmare’s philosophical ponderings; Drew Goddard & Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods does a phenomenal job of satisfying both ends of that divide. What’s interesting now is that in the decades since its release Scream itself has become a kind of cultural object worthy of nostalgia like the countless slasher titles it namedrops in its dialogue. It not only has been spoofed by the (godawful) Scary Movie series (as if a self-aware meta horror needed spoofing) & was followed by four of its own sequels, but its 90s-specific details have amounted to a kind of cultural time capsule. 90s telephone technology & fashion choices, along with callbacks to a time when Neve Campbell was the star of Party of Five and Courtney Cox & David Arquette were America’s goofball power couple/punching bag have all aged the film in a way that’s ripe for its own nostalgia. Even the mask design of the film’s killer, colloquially known as Ghostface, has become just as iconic as the killer visages of Jason, Freddy, Michael Meyers, and any other fictional slasher villain mentioned in the film. Scream may not be as philosophically curious or thematically ambitious as New Nightmare is in its own self-examination, but it has proven to be one of Wes Craven’s most iconic works in its own right instead of getting by as just an empty callback to the titles that inspired it.