I am told there is a Scream TV show out now. What better opportunity to review a film I pointedly and adamantly do not like, and also to finally fill the weirdly pesky “review a film from 1996” gap in my blog that has somehow tempted me longer than any other single year.
I am, by nature, a fan of cinematic post-modernism and deconstruction. It was just yesterday that I found myself praising the somewhat messy Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a film where Sam Peckinpah confronted the entire Western ideology and the revisionist “realist” Western and evoked a sense that no Western could truly coexist with a state of reality. It excavates deeper ideas, though. That Westerns are by nature so tied into the American lexicon for hope and identity, and that they are necessarily malleable and adaptable to modern American needs and desires and, on the other hand, always tangled up in the oppressive and masculine rhetoric of the past that still very much exists in the present. As a film, it addresses its own fictionality, encasing itself in a cadre of ’60s and ’70s actors and musicians who can not be disconnected from their identities as ’60s and ’70s personalities. It is a film that, by its very construction, asks us to question what a Western film is, and it does all this without ever once tipping its hand into lazy fourth-wall breaking.
It also, importantly, posits an alternative, a path beyond its own post-modernism, and it never retreats into the safety of nihilism. It is not a vindictive cannon ball to the Western, and even when it is, it arrives at this place through genuine self-implication and internal exploration. It is a film dedicated to its own idea of itself, a film desperately searching for answers to its own existence as cinema and as reality. A critique of cinema, yes, but also an empowering reminder of the possibilities of cinema to move beyond its own limits, or at least to address its own limits with humility and all the difficulty such a challenge entails. It is a film that uses the visual tools of cinema and performance to both critique itself and uplift itself by reminding audiences that, whatever the limits of cinema, it has the power to grapple with its own existence and to use the tools that limit it in inventive, controversial new ways. It has the power to adapt, to reckon with itself.
One might assume that a viewer such as myself would appreciate Wes Craven’s 1996 post-modern chiller Scream, the Mac Daddy of modern post-modern horror-comedy. At some level, the comparison is inapt; Westerns have always been more tied up in the nervous, nebulous webbing of their own history and imaginations, and they have thus had an easier time compared to horror films attempting to debate and dialogue with that spider web of American identity. But horror films have tried and succeeded at debating their own limits; Sam Raimi has always been the most effective at it, with Evil Dead II the still-reigning dissertation on the idea of horror and comedy, and by extension the very idea of how emotions exist as overlapping spaces rather than completely defined, mutually exclusive wholes.
Raimi’s more recent work Drag Me to Hell is likewise a referendum on the idea of a horror film hiding in the body of a horror film. And the Joss Whedon/ Drew Goddard horror flick The Cabin in the Woods, while not a great film and shamefully a touch too didactic and nerdish for its own good, had its own ideas about horror cinema and what to do with it. Even by these standards, Scream comes up wanting. Wes Craven has scripted and directed his share of effective horror films, but he has never been the violently perfect craftsperson that, say, John Carpenter was in his heyday, and Craven stumbles in Scream by openly comparing his film, with all the charisma and bludgeoning force of a frat bro, to Carpenter’s astronomically superior Halloween.
Which brings us to the film’s biggest problem: Scream is not a film dedicated to exploring the idea of a horror movie, or challenging it, or dialoguing with it in an attempt to explore the inner mechanisms and clockwork of the horror movie identity. Nor is it interested in legitimately proving itself superior to the films it is adolescently poking fun at. It just wants to mention other horror films, and make fun of them. It is, essentially, not sticking barbs into the horror movie project, but throwing water balloons at other horror movies from afar and then failing to notice it when the splash damage causes collateral damage in the form of the movie Scream itself.
Post-modernism is a slippery slope to irony and detached smugness, and Scream rides that slope like the fastest water slide in the world, and it doesn’t get off until it has had a second, and even a third, ride. You do post-modernism the Western way, which can encompass a number of variations. You can visually and aurally recreate the language of your forebearers so as to expose the limits of those forebearers and implicate the audience voyeuristically (like Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, which strangles its characters with its classical and austere Western imagery). You can recreate that classical cinematic language and then deviate from the language ever so subtly to contort and disconcert the language of the genre and the audience. Or, once in a blue moon, you can break down the walls of your chosen genre completely with a bonkers, gonzo alternative that bears almost no similarity to the history of the genre you are debating with. Scream does none of these. Instead, it is a bad horror film that wants to make fun of bad horror films and wants to be a bad horror film at the same time. The two streams cross and everything blows up in its face, and its smug, ironic habit of announcing that it knows it is a bad horror film as a retreat from criticism is close to disgusting.
What is Scream, then? It is the story of a group of teenagers being hunted by masked killer who wears a black cloak and a white ghost mask, and wields a knife. It is also a film with teenagers as stubborn and mulish and arbitrary as any other watery collection of young lambs for the slaughter in any other horror movie. A point that Scream insists on over and over again, mind you, and a point the film never does anything with outside of this defeatist self rejection. Which might have worked had it not been so smug about its defeatist position, backing us into a corner with its relative incompetence as a slasher movie and then mocking itself by putting knives at its own throat. The trouble with the film is that it never inserts the knives. It never commits to its self-exposure beyond a few half-hearted ribs at how horror movie characters are dumb (wow, insight) and cliched (again, the film is preaching to the choir). Scream is a classic case of a film trying to have its splattery cake and eats its mocking comedy too.
Outside of the introduction, the film never once works as legitimate horror, and it never develops a personality for its own genre deconstruction beyond anemic reference to other horror films. It is the sort of film that mistakes name-checking other, better horror movies for superiority to them. The film insistently commits to its own cleverness at every turn, while also resting on its own idiocy by implication. It is barbarically confused about itself, committed to ribbing other horror films with self-superiority and also announcing itself as a bad horror movie like all those other films, and it has no idea what its identity relative to these other horror films truly is. It wants to be both smart and dumb, where-as someone like Sam Raimi understood the genius of being smart-dumb.
At least give Scream points for being right on half of its thesis: it is a dumb slasher movie, but good slasher movies have had dumb characters before. Halloween is no masterpiece of writing, but it turns the caliber of the grisly, cruel shots and stabbing edits into characters themselves. It surpasses concern over character by making those characters functional objects on the screen, designed as replacements for us, converting the experience of horror to a sort of demented exercise in motion and empty space devoid of character. That, my friends, is art. That is a film turning its weaknesses into strengths.
Scream is just pointing out the weaknesses of other films, and then pretending they don’t apply to itself as well. Then, when one might criticize it, it announces that it is supposed to be bad, which is frankly lazy unless the film has a legitimate idea of what its ineptitude might mean. Or has a visual analogy to convey its own ineptitude, like a great many art films have done in the past. Pat Garrett, in comparison, dedicates itself to its ineptitude at chasing realism, but it uses that ineptitude to become a different, better beast dedicated to exploring its artifice as film and what that might mean for society. That is artistic artifice, artifice turned into an aesthetic (like Terrence Malick’s Badlands, where Malick announces his film as an artificial creation and then explores how beautiful and poetic artifice can be). These directors weren’t just smugly reporting that films are artificial products; they were using those artificial products with pride to say that films may be artificial, but so is all art, and if so, artificial cinema can be majestic and powerful in its own right without having to convince audiences that it is “realistic”.
Badlands boasts uniformly flaccid and arbitrary performances with characters who act like dime-store mannequins, but this is part of its aesthetic, sensuous exploration of what arbitrary mannequins can say about film and about reality. Scream is just pointing out that it is stupid and artificial, and leaving it at that. Its characters are dumb, but all the film does is announce this fact and then walk away; their artificial subscription to genre norms serves no purpose other than to announce that horror movie characters are dumb. Which is just about the safest, pettiest criticism of horror cinema you could imagine.
Again, Pat Garrett and Badlands approach their genres with scholarly consideration and genuine enthusiasm for debate. They jump into their genres, striving to understand them and visually recreate them, and only then do they realize the frailties of those genres. Only then do they reject their genres, comment on, and dialogue with them. That is intelligent cinema; they go through the process of self-reflexive consideration and emerge more intelligent on the other end. Scream never bothers. It simply woke up one morning and decided it was smarter than other horror films, pointed at the genre, and laughed, all without ever actually proving why it was smarter or exploring any visual ideas to buttress its argument.
Scream does not have the courage of its convictions, then. The film is torn between self-hate and self-love, and it pursues neither of these aims conclusively or with much effect. It is, in essence, the most didactic variety of film: a work that is all idea, and no execution of idea. It is the definition of late ’90s cinematic irony, where a film can say it is smart or say it is dumb without having to commit to either, and where a film does not actually need to develop its ideas so much as announce them as a display of superiority. It simply must demonstrate that it knows it is a horror film, rather than to actually use this knowledge for any particular purpose. It has not one visual or aural idea about how to experientially construct its critique of horror films, other than to cart out a character who lectures about the genre from time to time with all the assurance and humility of the person who came in fifth for the TA position in an introductory college film class. All idea, no execution. The only difference is that, with Scream, we get a nice bonus: the idea itself sucks to begin with. This is not a film. It’s a back-patting session with one participant.