The story so far...
The Horror Film was invented in America in 1931, specialising in supernatural subjects inherited from European literature and folklore.
By the end of the Second World War, familiarity had blunted their horror value, and they had become fitting subjects for parody.
The genre retreated, its place taken by radiation-enlarged insects, alien visitation and the other terrors of the horror-science fiction film.
In the late fifties, Hammer, a British company, remade the old supernatural horrors with a new kind of realism in the acting and - most importantly - with onscreen blood and dismembered body parts. The result was the fluke revival of traditional horror not only in Britain but also America, Spain, Italy and elsewhere.
By the seventies, the public had again tired of monsters but the realism of Hammer's style, coupled with the collapse of American film censorship spawned a new kind of intense and disturbing modern gothic, led by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House On The Left.
What these films were not, however, is mainstream successes in the way that the '31-'45 and '57-'73 cycle had been. That was achieved by a low-budget horror called Halloween, which brought the new style into a crowd-pleasing suspense format.
The result was a whole wave of similar slasher movies in which teens are stalked and killed by masked outsiders in either high school or woodsy settings, often on significant festival days, and the third big horror cycle.
This became played out around 1984, shortly after the last freak hit of the cycle, an unusually supernatural variation called A Nightmare On Elm Street.
The next decade or so were perhaps the darkest year for horror, the genre kept alive only by an insular clique of fans, the films rarely rewarded with cinema release. Endless rounds of sequels to Freddy and Jason kept the genre out of mainstream consciousness, and the place of horror on screen was taken by another related genre, just as it had been when science fiction nudged it aside in the fifties. This time it was the serial killer film, inspired by a nasty, silly smash hit called The Silence of the Lambs, in which genius mass-murderers on killing sprees leave elaborate clues and ritualised crime scenes for the police to unravel.
Once again, the traditional horror film had been left looking old-fashioned and no longer viable.
Now read on...
Scream (1996), ostensibly another film about a masked psychopath stalking American high school girls, is in fact one of the most important films in the history of the genre, as central as Halloween (1978), Psycho (1960) or, indeed, Dracula (1931).
It is the fate of all true innovators to become commonplace almost overnight, and like many another milestone it is already a period piece. (“What are you doing with a cellular telephone, son?” the police ask one character).
Yet its achievement was vast. It rescued horror from the doldrums of what future chroniclers will call the genre’s ‘straight to video years’, and enabled it to once again to engage with mainstream audiences and get serious critical acclaim.
It rescued Wes Craven from a declining career post-Freddy Krueger, and even gave the genre an era-defining rep company of recurring players, reinforcing the feeling that a renaissance was underway. (But unlike the horror icons of a previous generation, these were all young women: Neve Campbell, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar.).
The twist was Postmodernism. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson was a Tarantinoesque film fanatic devoted above all else to Halloween and its progeny, and his screenplay seemed fresh in that it unfolded within an explicitly horror movie context.
The film is as much about films where teenagers are killed by a masked maniac as it is a film where teenagers are killed by a masked maniac. Heroine Neve Campbell bemoans the tendency of horror film heroines to run up stairs rather than out the front door, an error she promptly repeats when confronted with a 'real' killer. The murderers wear a ghoulish ‘Father Death’ costume, but the choice does not ‘mean’ anything, nor does it relate to some earlier circumstance; it’s simply the sort of thing the killers wear in a horror film, and that is how the murderers view themselves.
All the characters relate to each other via the set of movie clichés most befitting their station: the police employ the psychobabble of the serial killer movie (indeed Scream was able to bring horror back to public acclaim via a close alliance with this subgenre), the girls wonder who will play them in the inevitable movie, and the frat house element sit around watching horror movies and attempting to decipher the generic rules that might just give them the survivor’s advantage above others in the victim pool.
The scene in which movie geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy) explains the rules for surviving a horror film is one of two that most impressed genre-savvy critics, (“Behind you!” he shouts repeatedly to Jamie Lee Curtis as he watches Halloween, unaware that the real killer is lurking behind him); the other of course being the prologue, in which first victim Drew Barrymore is quizzed on her horror film trivia knowledge before being gruesomely dispatched.
The film's strength, however, is that it did not merely coast on these touches (as the sequels would) but grounded them in brilliantly directed suspense sequences and a genuinely effective and surprising whodunnit script.
It also had a hip young cast, a rock soundtrack and a new kind of attitude: basically one of extreme callousness, as censorship campaigners were quick to notice. The film is about characters who apply a film script glibness to real acts of horror and murder themselves inspired by cinema. No wonder it contains moments in which characters remonstrate with others over their heartlessness and detachment from reality (most notably Henry Winkler’s uncredited High School principal).
But the killers are allowed to dictate the overall tone of the film itself, and it is surely beyond dissent that the film glamourises brutality and the cult of murder, with all of the frivolousness and insincerity it purports to wag its finger at. It certainly goes out of its way not to distance itself from the killers’ glib certainty that violence is cool.
Nonetheless, it was the self-reference and sass that got everyone talking about horror films again, and - crucially - that got them going to see them again; that pulled off the old trick of making a moribund genre cool again.
There were precedents, of course - there always are once you know what you're looking for.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) had the intertextual postmodernism, if not, perhaps, the humour, but An American Werewolf in London certainly had both back in 1981. Meanwhile the genre’s re-engagement with mainstream young filmgoers, intertextual sass and new stars had all been first assembled in The Craft (1996), a fun film about high school witches that helped re-establish the teen credibility of horror, and thus not only pipped Scream to the post, but also paved the way for tv off-shoots like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the latter of which had ironically begun its days as a totally uncool movie about which nobody had cared much at all.
But then - how far back do you want to go? Wasn't Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein plainly on a road heading this way? What about Lugosi's The Ape Man, through which wanders a mysterious, unidentified character, revealed at the end to be the screenwriter. ("Screwy idea, wasn't it?")
You can go mad chasing these kinds of rabbits down these kinds of holes. In the end it's the winner that gets the gold cup, and Scream won because it took those ingredients - the ratio of inheritance to invention will be lost to time so we may as well let it rest - and put them all together and did it right, at just the moment that people seemed to want it. That's all there is to it.
Just as Halloween was used as a template by a decade of other movies not just in its essentials but its incidentals also, so Scream bequeathed a generation of movies that were structured as whodunnits, with the killers usually revealed to be one of the main cast rather than a masked outsider, monster or freak - an innovation with far more precedent in Italian gialli than the previous generation of American slashers ostensibly being referenced.
..The big surprise with the official follow-ups was how ordinary they were. Scream 2 and 3 (1997 and 2000) both feel much longer than the original to sit through, though their running times differ only slightly. Invention is strictly rationed, even with a whole new box of mirrors to play with. (The first sequel is set around the release of Stab, the movie based on the events of the first - with Heather Graham amusingly reprising Drew Barrymore's iconic opening scene, this time with old-style cliches intact, including a shower scene - and is full of discussion about the merits of horror sequels. The second concerns the making of Stab 3, and features one memorable moment in which Neve Campbell finds herself being chased by the killer through an exact replica of her house on a Hollywood sound stage.)
On the whole both films are considerable disappointments, suffering from a lack of freshness that is perhaps forgivable, and a rampant hubris which surely is not. Both sequels are outrageously in love with themselves, expecting us to remember every minor plot turn from the first film, and love the characters enough to welcome their constant survival of plainly fatal butcherings.
In both the killer turns out to be someone who only came in to the story for that movie, and in neither case is their identity a surprise. Which is not to say you'll necessarily guess who it is, merely that who it is doesn't matter. It could be any one of them, and it turns out it is.
The trouble with horror films is that they've always reproduced not in a Darwinian way, retaining the beneficial features and casting off the unsuccessful, but in a Rank Xerox way, reproducing every single chance innovation of the great defining template movie, be it Dracula or Psycho or Halloween or Scream.
There's no dramatic or stylistic reason why so many of the first-wave slashers should revolve around specific times of the year: it's just that Friday the 13th copied Halloween and so My Bloody Valentine and Prom Night and Happy Birthday To Me became a mathematical inevitability.
So, instantly, the post-Scream variations settle into a rut where the characters watched horror films on the television, icons of the genre appear in cameos and the poster would feature a large scary image beneath which the cast were shown in a line, looking cool, often in fan mag poses rather than their film costumes.
This way the films very quickly lose their crossover appeal - which is rooted in their novelty - and become again the property of audiences who 'like that sort of thing'. The result is ossification. It was ironic but inevitable that Scream's witty dissections of horror conventions, sharp enough to draw huge crowds of folks who ordinarily wouldn't dream of going to "some Wes Carpenter flick", should almost instantly become generic conventions, so that critics very soon started heaping praise on films that played the horror dead straight for their very absence of those qualities they had recently hailed as a breakthrough.
And when Williamson popped up again to wave his postmodern wand over the sci fi horror (The Faculty) and even the werewolf movie (Cursed), the general feeling was that the joke isn't funny anymore.
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997, my favourite of the bunch) was a hit, and cleared a space alongside Neve Campbell for Jennifer Love Hewitt to establish her scream queen royalty status, still being put to good use in her tv series Ghost Whisperer, an odd mix of great scares and sappy new age hugging and crying. The film, written again by Williamson but seemingly marking a conscious effort to put some layers of skin back on the genre onion, also featured Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose bubbliness and subsequent Buffy-derived reputation for invincibility makes her murder here, and even more so in Scream 2, a genuine shock.
Successful too, by and large, was Final Destination (2000), which applied the new rules to the supernatural, and revived the moribund trope of naming the characters after significant directors and stars.
But Urban Legend (1997, my other favourite) - which spun a chance remark in Scream into an an entire screenplay, kicked off with a great first scene and welcomed Alicia Witt and Rebecca Gayheart to the pantheon - and Valentine (2001) - which riffed on Carrie, borrowed David Boreanaz from Buffy and had a bikini-clad Denise Richards killed in a swimming pool with a road drill - played to noticeably smaller and more specialised crowds. No longer scoring the crossover success of Scream and Last Summer, the genre was showing worrying signs of slipping back into its teen male ghetto.
Cherry Falls (2000), which cleverly took on the original slashers' tendency to kill the young lovers and leave the wholesome girl alive by having its killer target high school virgins, didn't even get a cinema release. By the time Urban Legends: Final Cut and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer rolled around it was obvious that history was repeating itself.
Final Destination took three episodes to reach itself. I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer went straight to video. The unimaginable Scream 4 is apparently still on course for a 2010 release.
Clearly the genre was going to have to reinvent again, and quickly, if it was to stay a mainstream concern. This, surprisingly enough, it would do, but the formula would mutate at least twice more on the journey.
(To be continued, in Trends in Modern Horror 2: Revenge of the Remake)