Alfred Hitchcock. George Romero. John Carpenter. West Craven.
If I had to make a Mount Rushmore of Horror, these four horrifying haunters would be my first choices. When it comes to handing out horrors, nobody comes close to this fearful foursome. As a fan of the freakish, I’ve enjoyed many of these men’s finest works. John Carpenter’s “The Thing” only gets better with age, Romero perfected the art of zombie movies, Hitchcock’s greatest hits are among some of the best ever (looking at you, Psycho), and Craven gave us Freddy Krueger’s twisted brilliance.
People never hesitate to praise Nightmare on Elm Street. As far as horror’s scariest baddies go, Freddy is in elite company. But if I had chosen to reference another of Craven’s movies, a more down-to-earth thriller, on the tail of that paragraph, I might’ve upset some people, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
Because while Wes Craven made many very scary movies, there’s one that never seems to get the praise it deserves. So I’d ask you… to ask me…
Scream: Wes Craven’s Underrated Masterpiece
Before anyone gets started, no, Scream isn’t that scary. For my money, Craven’s scariest movie is the original “The Last House on the Left” from 1972. Scream has a couple of jump scares, and a few thrilling chases, but for the most part, Craven’s highest grossing slasher is more thriller than horror.
But that’s the big secret about Scream, isn’t it? It’s a thriller cosplaying as a horror on the surface, but do you know what it really is underneath the Ghostface cape and cowl? A satire. A tongue in cheek, wink wink, nudge nudge parody of the entire genre.
People my age probably remember the cringeworthy “Scary Movie” series and other subsequent genre-parodies. Over-the-top slapstick fart humor making fun of a genre’s cliches, as well as their bigger movies. Scream itself was parodied in the first Scary Movie pretty heavily. But what fans of the Wayans brothers probably didn’t realize was that they were late to the party.
Not only because Scream is a parody of horror movies, but because originally, Scream was going to be called “Scary Movie.” It was originally going to be that on-the-nose about it’s satirical nature. When writer Kevin Williamson was shopping his script, he did so as a comedy.
When Craven and the nameless producers were haggling with the studio, they were able to keep their R rating by insisting it was a comedy. Originally, the scenes were going to be shot at the Santa Rosa High School in California, because they were under the impression it was a comedy, but backed out when they learned how violent the film was (hence the “No thanks whatsoever to the Santa Rosa City School District Governing Board” dig in the credits.
The entire movie is built around the concept that horror movies share the same formula, and by following simple rules, you can survive. It’s self-referential, the plot predicts itself, and the entire plot of the killers was written up based on horror plots. Even after Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) runs down stupid girls in horror movies for “running upstairs when they should run through the front door,” she does exactly that after finding the front door is locked.
“Now Sid, don’t you blame the movies, movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative!”
This movie is so impossibly meta, it attends Greendale Community College. Here’s a list of the throwaway meta-references from the first Scream movie that I was able to spot that have basically no impact on the plot whatsoever.
- When Henry Winkler throws open his closet, looking for the source of a strange noise, his leather jacket from Happy Days is in there.
- In that same scene, Winkler barges into the hallway, yelling at an assumed prankster, who turns out to be the janitor… played by Wes Craven himself, dressed as Freddy Kruger.
- When Casey’s (Drew Barrymore) parents arrive at the house at the end of the first scene, her father tells her mother to go down the street to the Mackenzies… just like Jamie Lee Curtis did in Halloween.
- In my favorite scene in the movie, Randy, who is played by Jamie Kennedy, is watching Halloween and is yelling at the TV, “Jamie, look behind you,” trying to warn Laurie Strode, who is played by Jamie Lee Curtis, that the killer is right behind her… while the killer is right behind him.
- Sidney says her life has become like a Wes Carpenter flick, obviously a tribute to Wes Craven and Halloween’s mastermind, John Carpenter.
- Skeet Urlich, who played Billy Loomis, got the part over castmates Matthew Lillard and David Arquette because he resembled Johnny Depp, fresh off his big part in “Halloween.”
- Joseph Whipp, who plays the sheriff, was cast because he played a police officer in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
- The first kill of the movie, where Ghostface chases down Drew Barrymore’s character, Casey, is shot in a way to pay homage to the iconic shot from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
- At one point, Randy refers to Billy, the film’s killer, as “Leatherface,” from the previous mentioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
- Billy Loomis literally says “it’s all a movie” during the movie.
The following 30 horror and thriller movies are either shown or referenced at some point during the film:
- Frankenstein (1931)
- The Bad Seed (1956)
- Psycho (1960)
- The Exorcist (1973)
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
- Black Christmas (1974)
- The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976)
- Carrie (1976)
- Suspiria (1977)
- Halloween (1978)
- I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
- When a Stranger Calls (1979)
- The Shining (1980)
- Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
- Terror Train (1980)
- Friday the 13th (1980)
- Prom Night (1980)
- The Evil Dead (1981)
- The Howling (1981)
- Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
- Tenebrae (1982)
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
- A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
- A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
- Hellraiser (1987)
- A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
- Basic Instinct (1992)
- Children of the Corn 2: The Final Sacrifice (1992)
- Candyman (1992)
Masterclass in Subversion
Scream is a comedy about horror movies that functions as a horror movie. Ghostface, a spoof of unkillable horror monsters everywhere, is listed as IGN’s 19th greatest horror movie villain of all time. This is a film that pokes fun at itself, horror films, and horror cliches all the while being a perfectly capable movie-going experience. It’s almost too clever for it’s own good and was decades ahead of it’s time.
Sadly, most of the Scream sequels miss the point. The second one is good, still taking plenty of shots at horror movies, staying fresh by running down the rules of sequels, but the rest fall far short. The third one is too much of a parody, joining essentially every other “part three” in mediocrity, and don’t get me started on ignorant MTV nonsense. While Scream 4 is pretty good, it’s nowhere near as sharp or clever as the original, and nobody’s impressed by an old dog’s old tricks.
I’ve expressed my feelings about the rumored Scream 5, and while I’ll definitely see it, I have low expectations. As it becomes the very thing it used to mock, I will always love the Scream series, but none more than the first one, which I believe is an underappreciated gem.