SCREAM, AND ITS ECHO THROUGH THE 1990S
Picture this: you know you need to watch a horror movie from the 1990s for some
arbitrary self-imposed reason, but how do you decide which one? Turns out, the ‘90s were
not only weirdly lucrative in terms of producing horror films in general, they were really
good at producing lots and lots of different horror stuff that was really, really good, from
something overly ornate and visually textured like Coppola’s Dracula (1992) to a classic like
Silence of the Lambs (1991) to the indie smash hit Blair Witch Project (1999). Now you could sit
down and watch every iconic movie to come out of this generation, sure. Perhaps, however,
you could instead simply have an epiphany and find a movie, that movie that you need, that
encompasses as many other movies within it as possible (it’s simply a question of efficiency,
folks). A movie so reflexive, referential, and obsessively meta that watching it will give you a
culture shot concentrated enough to send you flying back into the ‘90s themselves, crappy
hair gel hairstyles and all. A movie possibly called Scream (1996).
Now, so much has already been written about how Scream transformed the horror
genre. To give you a rundown, it mainly formed a new influx of viewers for kitschy movies
filled with buckets of red corn syrup, revitalizing the horror-comedy/slasher/splatter flick
industry which continues to be steadfastly lucrative today. It also probably boosted sales of
those stupid plastic scream masks by some impossible exponent for years to come, and
literally created a whole new knock-off/parody film franchise (Scary Movie) to follow in its
wake. In the end, though, so much has been written about these long-lasting effects that I
won’t even bother really covering them, because who the fuck cares about legacy anyways?
No, as always, I’ll be focusing on the less immediately relevant approach, centering myself
on how Scream worked within the larger culture of the 1990s.
The first connection is pretty obvious, since it is, after all, what makes this movie so
gosh dang famous. It goes: “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to
successfully survive a horror movie.” Sound familiar? And then there’s something like “1. The
first rule of ‘surviving a horror movie’ club is not to talk about ‘surviving....’” Right? But
wait, no, now that one would just fuck al of the characters over immediately, wouldn’t it?
You know, since no one here ever shuts the fuck up, through intensely meta commentary,
about how many horror movies they watch and how well they understand them. In many
ways, sitting through this film just feels like being dunked into every trademark horror line
and moment from the preceding decade or so, resulting in a pop-culture roller coaster ride
that is both genuinely pretty entertaining and borderline obsessive and incomprehensible. I
mean, I’m not exaggerating when I say that the director literally drops his own name as
some weird meta-game reference within the world of the film; that’s like if I ended this
paragraph by going, “wow, this is almost starting to sound like an A. DZH essay or
something.” Which is exactly what I’m going to do, by the way. Wow, this is almost starting
to sound like an A. DZH essay or something. Hm.
Pair this with a specific obsession with structure - one of the most climactic lines of
the whole movie is literally “It’s al a movie.” I mean. Nothing subtle about that. This is all
an essay, by the way - and you get a semi-unique ‘90s trademark. I don’t want to be the kind
of person who touts this as some sort of paradoxically pop-culture post-modern
masterpiece, because that isn’t what this is in the slightest (it simply can’t be). It is, however,
certainly a reflection of those self-reflexive, structurally challenged, and (above all) ironic
cultural trends that found their peak in the 1990s.
A clarification that sharply leads me to my second connection, which concerns ‘90s
culture as a whole. Here’s the thing: Scream’s influence is rooted in a much deeper vein of the
1990s zeitgeist than just the horror scene. Besides just borrowing from the artistic
framework popularized by its time, Scream is weirdly salient when it comes to various
cultures and tensions of this time. I mean, would you expect this, a largely popular film
centered around a set of rich, white, traditional high school Americans, to feature “Red
Right Hand” not once, but a whole two times? As in, yeah, that iconic goth rock/pop track
written by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the one that kinda-sorta-maybe touches on
critiquing capitalism and (male) violence in society? Yeah. Whoa.
Not only that, but many portions of the dialogue - those not concerned with
rehashing imitations of Hannibal Lector and Michael Myers, that is - also do directly
address issues of violence, with specific notes to male and self-inflicted violence, and bits of
commercialism, all of which was only ramping up in the ‘90s as the decade was pushed into
overdrive. Most jarringly of all, the most crucial dialogue here is really about the interplay
between media like TV shows and movies (and even this movie itself... you see where Craven
probably went with this already, don’t you?) and increased crime, a phenomenon that was,
again, rapidly brought to public attention during the ‘90s. “It’s all a movie,” I quoted above,
but there’s also the absolutely bone-chilling, “Movies make psychos more creative,”
embedded into the last, climactic showdown in the film.
And if that isn’t enough for ya, add to this a layer of fascination with all of these
things; this is a slasher film, after all, and so it naturally has to obsessed with the macabre. A
trait it shares again with the 1990s as a whole, which were filled with a fixation on exactly
this kind of division and destruction. Strangely enough, Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” can
also be about this, as if this is all just some big, weird, beautiful conspiracy. All embedded in
the distinct cultural transformations of this time, making it, above all else, a uniquely ‘90s
There lies, I think, the mystery of Scream’s mass success in terms of cult audiences in
preceding decades. Beside the fact that it’s packed full of unique one-liners and properly
gruesome death scenes, the film touches on a unique nerve in more ways than one,
encompassing aspects structural, cultural, and artistic. Though this magnitude naturally
borders on arrogance sometimes (wow, almost like an A. DZH essay, am I right, folks?),
that’s just par for the course when a film tries to cover so much.
There lies also the success of watching this film above other ‘90s horror movies,
which it contains within itself in multitudes. Sure, you don’t get the psychological slow burn
of Silence of the Lambs or the fresh realism of Blair Witch Project, but you do get a whirlwind of
1990s sentiment, all crammed into a tight 112 minutes. Why watch 10 different films, after
all, when you could see them all packed into one huge, amalgamated conspiracy theory?