In the original Scream, published 25 years before this week’s new sequel, a tabloid reporter is hired to investigate a murder in a small town. “I should be in New York covering for Sharon Stone’s stalker,” says Courteney Cox’s Gale Weathers, a vision of chunky blonde locks and frosty lipstick. That the same reporter covers two very different beats should be a conspiracy, but only if you didn’t know America. There, beautiful celebrities and gruesome murders share existential shelf space. As of this writing, America’s pop culture institution people magazine leads on the engagement of Megan Fox as well as the “horrifying murders of two teenage hitchhikers”. Through all of its incarnations, the Scream franchise understands this unhealthy cohabitation, reflecting, anticipating, and satirizing the absurdities of American fame.
That’s not what the Scream movies are best known for. Instead, they’re known as satires of the horror genre, with characters practically winking at the camera while lamenting the film’s clichés. Cry 4 (2011) randomly featured a killer filming his own murders to “redo” the original Scream murders. Seemingly a response to Hollywood’s fixation on horror remakes at the time, it was “the natural next step in psycho-slasher innovation”…or something like that.
The otherwise very amusing novelty Scream targets to poke fun at the current trend of franchise revivals like Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Halloween — or sequels that serve as fan-friendly quasi-remakes of their earlier incarnations. Scream dubs them “requels,” a term apparently coined for himself that we hope never to hear from again. But while jokes are made and there are plenty of movie references, the real purpose of it all doesn’t quite add up. As the franchise has gone on – and lost its original creators, screenwriter Kevin Williamson and the late director Wes Craven – it’s become hard to decipher whether these movies still have much to say about horror movies. When the characters of the new Scream start slyly riffing on “high horror” by arthouse writers like Ari Aster (Hereditary) and Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), you wish someone had realized sooner that poking fun at fame was the true franchise of the franchise purpose.
Basically, Scream movies have always been about the American and the famous. Back in the mid-’90s, when Kevin Williamson first crafted the original film, he had a deranged tabloid vibe to shoot. Her story was of a picture-perfect wife and mother raped and murdered in suburban America, and her fragile daughter Sidney (Neve Campbell) hunted down by a killer and late-night news a year later. It was practically a documentary, with a sensational crime involving beautiful people, a new and alarming part of the American media ecosystem at the time. There was OJ Simpson, of course, but also the Menendez brothers convicted of murdering their parents, Lorena Bobbitt cutting off her husband’s penis, and the attempted murder of 17-year-old and so-called “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher. . Six-year-old beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey was killed less than a week after Screamthe exit. They could all be easily editorialized – real people turning into stock characters like “the aggrieved woman”, “the teenage temptress” or “the handsome psychopath”. If they weren’t already famous, they would become household names, their faces decorating magazine covers, bad TV movies dramatizing their stories. The message was clear: Get harassed or killed in America, and you’ll get a movie about you.
Sidney jokes about the inevitability of such a thing happening to him halfway through Scream. Through Cry 2, she was no longer laughing. As if losing most of her friends and family in a bloodbath wasn’t enough, Sidney spends her college years harassed by reporters and preyed upon by copycat killers. Helpless moviegoers weren’t immune to his fame either, with the killer striking for the first time at a preview of Stab, the corny horror film based on his life. One of Cry 2The murderers even yearned to get caught, believing that conservative Christian groups would fund his legal costs once he blamed movie violence for driving him mad. “That’s where the real fun is,” he asserts, “because these days it’s all about the trial.” It would be funny if it weren’t so believable.
Included between Cry 3 – who explored the darker, Harvey Weinstein-esque underbelly of Hollywood stardom – and Cry 4, Sidney finally came to terms with her own tabloid infamy and fought to take control of it. She threatened to sue the manufacturers of Stab if they kept dramatizing her life, and becoming a dying aunt to traumatized youngsters. A self-help book called out of darkness followed. But the main killer of the 2011 sequel – Sidney’s cousin Jill (a brilliantly villainous Emma Roberts) – saw Sidney not as a survivor and an inspiration, but as someone who squandered an opportunity. Raised on Paris Hilton, MTV The hills and famous for being famous, Jill wanted Sidney’s level of attention no matter the cause. “I don’t need friends, I need fans!” she cries at one point, her knife still bloody from all her best friends she’s killed. “What am I supposed to do? Go to college, graduate school, work? How do you think people get famous? the shit that happened to you.
Jill’s motive is Cry 4the truest understanding of the franchise itself. Makes sense – it’s one of the few elements of the film that’s taken from Williamson’s original script, which was hacked to pieces mid-production by other writers. In the hands of people who aren’t Williamson, these movies tend to eat each other, getting bogged down in dialogue about their own mythology. Or anticipate their own criticisms by having the characters debate the cultural irrelevance of *cough* Stab movies. But Scream isn’t Scream because of its slasher movie jokes, or at least isn’t such an effective franchise because of it. Instead, it’s so good because it understands America’s media industrial complex and the round-the-clock absurdity of trying to navigate it. Characters are driven mad by it, others flourish and win, many lose their lives. Ghostface isn’t the scariest obstacle these characters have to overcome. It’s America.
The new sequel, meanwhile, is most interesting when it references stardom in 2022. Right from the start, former media icon Gale Weathers is vehemently dismissed as “the chick on TV.” Sidney Prescott is so famous and frightening – her arrival always coinciding with a gruesome death – that hardly anyone mentions her by name, instead gesturing at her obvious notoriety as if she were Lord Voldemort. And two nerds with a clickbaiting YouTube channel are being touted as models of relevance, digital fame and cultural commentary. The world has changed.
If the new Scream doesn’t get into a dissection of stardom in the modern era, that’s probably because it’s become too grotesque to really satirize. Exactly a year before Scream released in theaters, the American version of the masked singer spin off The Masked Dancer revealed that the woman hidden inside a huge moth costume was Elizabeth Smart, a household name in the United States who was kidnapped and held captive when she was 14. books, had her story turned into a TV movie – featuring, of all people, Scream star Skeet Ulrich as her captor — and become an advocate for sexual assault survivors. Wearing a sparkly dress with fairy wings, Smart opened up about her desire to have fun on national television while raising awareness. It was touching yet surreal – the inevitable pinnacle of a culture that positions pop culture entertainment and unimaginable horror as bedfellows. You have to pity a franchise like Scream accordingly. After something like this happened, what else can we say?
“Scream” is now in theaters