Scream (1996) is a Modern Horror Classic, but It’s Not Wes Craven’s Meta Masterpiece

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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One of the best, most unexpected developments in recent media has been the resurgence of Kurt Russell. His work in 1980s John Carpenter classics Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from New York, and The Thing helped establish Russell as a genre flick icon, a charming-but-gruff personality with a history of cult classic works backing up his instant likability. A starring role in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof threatened a comeback for Russell back in 2007, but it doesn’t feel like that potential has really been put into motion until this past year. After an oddly humorous supporting role in Furious 7, Russell has returned to the Western cinema work he began in Tombstone, in both the recent Tarantino film The Hateful Eight and in Western-horror genre mashup Bone Tomahawk, making 2015 the first time he’s ever had three feature film credits in a single year. And with a great part coming up in the next Guardians of the Galaxy entry, it feels like he’s just getting started.

In Bone Tomahawk, Russell plays a mustachioed, old-timey sheriff of a small, Old West town humorously named Bright Hope. When a couple of Bright Hope’s own are abducted by a rogue tribe of “inbred” Native American “troglodytes”, Russell’s hardened sheriff embarks on a rescue mission with his elderly deputy, a hothead husband bent on retrieving his missing wife, and a wildcard cad. As the cad exposes himself as a self-aggrandizing blowhard, the husband increasingly becomes crippled & enraged, and the deputy continues his descent into the mutterings of a doddering old fool, the sheriff remains as the sole member of the rescue party seemingly well-equipped for the journey. No one can be truly prepared for what lurks at the end of this particular rainbow, though: a ruthlessly sadistic tribe of cave-dwelling cannibals.

I’ll be upfront as I can about this: I’m not typically a huge of fan of the Western as a genre. Its hyper-masculine, protect-the-wives-and-horses-from-the-savage-bandits mentality & spacial pacing aren’t my usual go-to idea of entertainment. Worse yet, Bone Tomahawk delves into some grotesque Eli Roth/Cannibal Holocaust bodily horror that I have a difficult time getting behind. The latter half of the movie in particular is jam-packed with field surgery, scalping, decapitation, internal burning, and all sorts of other unpleasant gore I would typically avoid. For all of its brutality & no-nonsense masculinity, however, Bone Tomahawk does know how to subvert these genre hallmarks enough to leave behind a generally pleasing picture. The man-vs.-nature vulnerability of a broken leg or a lost horse is still essential to the plot’s macho problem-solving, but it’s undercut by nuances in the dialogue, like when a woman comments on the doomed-to-fail rescue mission, “This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the elements or the Indians, but because of the idiots. You’re idiots!” Speaking of “the Indians”, the film’s othering depictions of the antagonistic tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes’ demonic screams & skull armor is balanced by representation of other Native Americans who are much, much less barbarous & in exchanges like when a cowboy calls a native “a godless savage”, then immediately scratches his genitals with the barrel of a pistol.

Bone Tomahawk strikes a satisfying balance between living out a (possibly outdated) genre (or two)’s worst trappings & subverting them for previously unexplored freshness. Part of what makes it work as a whole is the deliciously over-written dialogue, like when David Arquette’s ruffian thief complains to the sheriff, “You’ve been squirting lemon juice in my eye since you walked in here,” but mostly it’s just nice to see Kurt Russell back in the saddle participating in weird, affecting genre work. I tend to go for a more cartoonish, morbidly humorous approach to gore than what’s presented here & I don’t see anything accomplished in this film that I didn’t enjoy far more in 1999’s criminally-overlooked Ravenous, but I also recognize that there are fans of the Western & of blunt, brutal horror that will get a kick out of what’s presented here. It’s a well-constructed, highly-disturbing genre pic with a solid lead hero, the exact kind of thing I’m glad to see Russell return to at this point in his career.

-Brandon Ledet

Ready to Rumble (2000)

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three star

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The Royal Rumble is the last major pro wrestling pay-per-view before Wrestlemania. It’s a chaotic, cluttered mess of an event, and one of the highlights of the annual wrestling cycle. My friends & I partied hard for this year’s Rumble, filling a tiny apartment with chips, dips, liquors, “royal rum balls” and drunken shouting. It was a blast until the disappointing, telegraphed conclusion to the main event, an inevitability that had the crowd both in our living room and on the TV screen openly booing. Knowing what was coming before the Rumble even started, I psyched myself up with a ludicrous YouTube clip of an infamous wrestling incident in 2000 that was met with its own open ridicule: the time professional goofball/actor David Arquette became WCW’s World Heavyweight Champion.

A wrestling fan himself, David Arquette knew an actor becoming the WCW World Heavyweight Champion would not go over well with the crowd. He reportedly protested the angle, but WCW’s booking insisted it would be great promotion. The product they were pushing? Arquette’s pro wrestling comedy Ready to Rumble, a massive critical and financial flop. Although it failed in its time, Ready to Rumble has gradually proved itself (through its mere existence) as a time capsule of a bygone era. It’s a strange relic of wrestling’s unexpected late 90s, early 00s boost in popularity. The fact that WCW felt it could justify a $24mil production alone frames the film as culturally significant, even if they were ultimately proved wrong. Their preposterous plan to promote the film by making Arquette a real life heavyweight champion makes the movie a truly singular oddity. Usually, if a wrestling promotion is going to push a film career, like with Hulk Hogan or The Rock, they promote from within. Bringing a Hollywood outsider (a real life fan or not) into the ring is not without precedent, but handing them the belt is beyond ridiculous and not something fans will suffer quietly.

Another strange facet of the Arquette debacle was his relationship with actual pro wrestler Diamond Dallas Page. In Ready to Rumble DDP plays the heel, the villain to Arquette’s unlikely hero. In the real WCW ring they were tag team partners. The inconsistency is even more bizarre when you consider that Oliver Platt played the film’s fictional face, wrestler Jimmy King. If you were trying to logically promote the film in a WCW match, the natural choice would be for Platt (as Jimmy King) to wrestle DDP on television in a quick, one-off promotion. Platt, despite being a legitimately talented actor, seems to consistently be slumming it in his choices of roles, so a 5 minute promotional wrestling bit doesn’t seem all that out of the question. Instead, WCW opted for a long-form angle featuring David Arquette (as David Arquette) becoming their undisputed champion, a decision that suggests a lack of respect for the sport & its fans, including Arquette himself.

In isolation from its ridiculous real-life promotion, Ready to Rumble displays a humble reverence for pro wrestling as a sport, falling clearly on the mark side of the mark/smark divide. The movie opens with claims that pro wrestlers are “the greatest athletes of all time” and “heroes of history”. These “superior athletes, superior men” are given plenty of screen time with the kind of overstated cameos that take an audience’s adoration for granted. Appearing here alongside DDP are the likes of “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Sting, Goldberg, Booker T, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, and a few other big industry names, including a brief glimpse of a young John Cena. There are a few smarky admissions, like wrestlers discussing choreography during matches and an unusually violent Martin Landau playing a Stu Hart stand-in, but for the most part this is a world where wrestling is both real and real important.

The movie’s major misstep is in its long stretches outside of the wrestling ring. The road trip segments of the film are overloaded with gross-out, non sequitur, teenage boy shenanigans: porta-potties, horny old ladies, and toothless hicks all played for unfortunate humor. There are some transcendent moments to be found in this frat house amusement, like Rose McGowan’s hot to trot wrestling fan engaging in “bedroom matches” and a van full of flatulent nuns performing a cover of “Running with the Devil” that’s less Van Halen and more The Roches, but for the most part it’s flat & forgettable. It’s the exact brand of dumb fun that plays well in a wrestling ring, but fails to translate well to the big screen.

I’m not sure that the film’s comedic failure is necessarily a bad thing. Ready to Rumble is unashamed of being a mindless trifle, marketable only to an audience already receptive to pro wrestling & complete garbage, a rather large audience at the time of its production. There’s a working class veneer to the film, complete with a Kid Rock soundtrack and Insane Clown Posse t-shirts. Arquette’s protagonist is the son of a cop who works in sanitation, loiters in front of corner stores, and dreams of meeting his favorite pro wrestler. He & his buddy rough house at their menial jobs and fantasize about executing wrestling moves on their bullies. It’s a pandering approach to comedy, but at least it’s closely familiar with the audience it’s catering to.

In the film’s promotion, however, all of this goodwill for pro wrestling fans was destroyed by Arquette’s championship victory cheapening the (already cheap enough) WCW title. 15 years later, that heartfelt betrayal plays more like a bizarre historical footnote, one with a feature film attached. Arquette’s championship may have helped ruin Ready to Rumble & WCW as financial enterprises in the year 2000, but it also gave them a strange longevity in cultural significance. It’s an occasionally funny movie with a thoroughly ludicrous context & execution that’s still worth scratching your head over in 2015.

-Brandon Ledet