Why Scream Is My Favorite Slasher MoviePosted: October 31, 2014
I’ve never been a huge fan of slasher films. I certainly enjoy other types of horror films, but slashers have never really been particularly fulfilling to me. While John Carpenter’s Halloween is a masterclass in dramatic tension, and Rob Zombie’s remake was an interesting-yet-trashy exploration of a killer, neither one did anything to make me want to see sequels. The same can also be said for the original Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. I think it’s because most slasher films tend to be very surface-level affairs that are constructed wholly for a visceral exploitative punch, and have very little to offer in the way of character development or thematic depth. And that’s just the good ones. Most other slasher films seem to be soulless, cheap cash-grabs that mindlessly replicate a simple formula while being fully bereft of the craft that made their predecessors successful in the first place.
This is where Scream comes in. Where other slasher films left me entertained but usually unfulfilled, Scream provided many elements that I prize in films. With interesting protagonists, strong thematic undertones and legitimate mystery and stakes, Scream is my favorite slasher film by a long shot.
Now lets get one thing out of the way right now, for the gorehounds that are probably rolling their eyes at this non-connoisseur pontificating about one of their preferred genres: this has nothing to do with the meta humor. Yes, I appreciate the metafictional attitude, but in rewatching the film recently it actually bugged me a bit how everyone in the town seems to be a horror movie expert. If anything, the meta aspects only illuminate the reason why the film (and its sequels) are so successful. Being able to properly deconstruct something means you understand how it works, which makes you better equipped to make something truly effective out of it, and Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson truly prove that here. One of the most effective moments in the film for me is when Sidney (Neve Campbell) is attacked in the school bathroom during the daytime, which is not at all when you expect a jump scare to happen. It’s little moments like that which keep everything unpredictable and make it clear that the film is playing outside the box.
What really makes Scream work for me though is the character-driven nature of the story. This isn’t just a situation of a masked killer hunting down random people and killing them because why not. It all revolves around Sidney and her late mother, and the various issues that have sprung up around them. Sidney’s arc of the film leads her to not only confront the truth of who her mother was but also the effect her mother’s murder had on her own life. But not only is that Sidney’s personal arc through the story, but it’s the very impetus for Ghostface’s murder spree to begin with. With the other slasher films I’ve seen only the killer really has any backstory, and it’s mostly just there to provide definition to them. But here, the backstory is just as relevant to the main character as it is to the killer(s), which makes the plot much tighter and the events of the film into an actual catharsis to the hero.
All of that also illustrates another strength of Scream: Ghostface itself. Unlike other slasher films where we know the killers by name and they are treated like supernatural, inhuman harbingers of doom, in Scream the killers are undoubtedly human from the get-go but their identities are a complete mystery. This adds a level of mystery to the story, and it also gives the characters something proactive to do (finding the killer) instead of just running away or being oblivious. And by showing Ghostface as clearly human, capable of being hurt or tripped up, it keeps the identity of the killer up in the air and adds to the uncertainty. The final reveal that there are actually two killers is an added bit of understated brilliance, as it runs even more counter to the usual expectations of the genre. Plus, by turning Ghostface into a mantle inhabited by more than one killer, it opens the door for further Ghostface killers without resorting to ridiculous resurrection plots or making the slasher immortal.
And by having the killer be an enigma whose identity and motive are unknown until the end, we can actually view the protagonists as, yknow, the protagonists. It seems that in most cases the slashers essentially become the de facto heroes of their franchises, as they tend to be the only recurring characters, and they facilitate the violence that people tend to look for in these films. But in Scream, since Ghostface is an unknown (and its identity is changed from movie to movie afterwards), the audience connects more to Sidney and her steadily-shrinking circle of friends. By following the same characters throughout the series, we get to know the potential victims better, which not only makes for more tragic deaths when they do happen but keeps our investment on their side, rather than rooting for Ghostface to kill everyone. Furthermore, it’s nice that more than one female character survives the film (and its sequels), and that both Sidney and Gale are flawed, relatively real people, rather than just virtuous virgins.
Of course a major part of any slasher film’s legacy is the franchise that follows it, and Scream at least has a good one. While Scream 2 and Scream 3 don’t live up to their predecessor, they do still work, particularly on the narrative/thematic level that makes Scream such a success. Each sequel builds on the emotional story of the original, with Sidney coming to terms with her own past and her mother’s. And with numerous characters returning each time, there are multiple possibilities in terms of impactful deaths and possible killers. Then with Scream 4, Craven and company wisely adjusted the narrative focus to see what impact Sidney’s “adventures” have had on the people around her, while also delving into the media/celebrity elements that were always a factor in the previous three films. But as with the original Scream, there is much more on the filmmakers’ minds than just rehashing a formula and providing some easy kills; with each film they strive to tell a character-driven story with emotional impact, and they largely succeed.
As I mentioned earlier I am not a huge fan of slasher films usually, nor am I particularly well-versed in horror as a whole, so this isn’t meant to be an attack on the genre overall. And I’d rather watch non-slashers (or at least slasher hybrids) like Alien, or The Mist, or The Thing, or Kill List, or the best Halloween movie of all time, among others, before I watch a straight-up slasher film anyway. Rather, this is just an examination of why Scream worked for me in a way other slasher films have not. I certainly hope that if any of my five readers has some suggestions of slasher films that go above and beyond the usual trappings and pitfalls of the genre, but right now Scream is the slasher film for me, and I’m just fine with it.