Remembering Wes Craven: The Scream Trilogy

I was a latecomer to horror films and the frequently disrespected ‘slasher’ flick. My first real introduction to any kind of horror was the Scream Trilogy and I couldn’t have asked for a better example of the genre to get myself started. When horror is done badly it provides only soul destroying ‘white tile’ gore, thoughtlessly made and easily forgotten. In the years following my introduction to the genre, I vacantly sat through many a meaningless example. Wasted hours! With a quality piece of horror, you feel real concern for the central characters; you should be able to identify with them rather than feel superior to them and secretly long for their death. You should also perhaps be given cause to think, even if only a little bit. The Scream trilogy (I discount the disappointing fourth instalment) are meaningful and characterful enough to provide a relatively safe and satisfying introduction to the genre. Plus, the films function well as a cohesive triple bill, regularly imitated but seldom bested.

As a set of films, Craven makes light of the fact that his characters are aware of the filmic conventions of teen horrors, whole also ironically participating in them. This makes the film smart, but also funny – an intelligent level of funny that pale comparison spoofs such as Scary Movie (2000) so embarrassingly lack.

The first Scream was released in 1996, written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven. I found it interesting (perhaps showing my prejudices) that Craven directed Scream when he was fifty seven years old (Williamson was only just in his thirties). I had always imagined Craven as a hip, edgy figure akin to Quentin Tarantino, making comment on how violence in the media creates violence in society with a cool soundtrack and a fresh look.

What follows is my top ten countdown of my favourite aspects of the Scream Trilogy…

  1. The film nerd discussions. Particularly the light hearted classroom debate about sequels in Scream 2 (1997), name dropping classics such as Alien, The Terminator and The Godfather. This scene also allows the audience to spend more crucial time with the characters of Cici, Randy and Mickey.
  1. Cameos. By Scream 3 (2000) the self-referential, post-modern thing had been overdone. It’s without a doubt the weakest of the three, I suspect due to the fact that Williamson’s script was disregarded and numerous rewrites didn’t fully capture the characters we knew and loved. There’s also (due to her being in demand elsewhere) much less Neve Campbell. However, there are a few amusing cameos, including Jay and Silent Bob and Carrie Fisher as a woman who is sick and tired of always being mistaken for Carrie Fisher, “I was up for Princess Leia… who gets it? The one who sleeps with George Lucas.” I also enjoyed Henry Winkler’s cameo as the Principal in the first film, as well as Wes Craven himself as the Freddie Kruger costumed janitor. David Warner also adds a touch of class to Scream 2 as Sydney’s drama teacher.
  1. Sarah Michelle Gellar. I’m giving Gellar (who played Cici in Scream 2) her own slot as a guest actress. As a head-over-heels superfan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I can’t not. It is distressing and plain ‘wrong’ to see this actress playing the antithesis of her usual character. We feel added sympathy for Gellar here because she seems more vulnerable by contrast, more like our own vulnerable selves. Although she is stabbed, the choice to have Cici actually fall to her death makes her end even more poignant. In those last moments where she is falling from the balcony, the audience truly feels the tragedy of her pointless, unfair and horribly violent demise.
  1. GSOH. These films have an invaluable sense of humour. First off, with character names such as Gale Weathers, Deputy Dewey and Cotton Weary. I also enjoy the pantomime sense of unshakable delusion which the ‘killers’ take on, such as Debbie Salt (Laurie Metcalf) “What did you just say? Was that a negative, disparaging remark about my son? About my Billy?” People in life are naturally funny and I think that giving actors freedom to ad lib comedic moments helps to counterpoint the horror but also add a deeper sense of realism, particularly Matthew Lillard (Stu), “My mom and dad are going to be so mad at me!”
  1. Cassandra. It’s an oddly specific like, but there’s a great reference to classic Greek tragedy in Scream 2. This film is my favourite of the series and is also the longest. For me, it distils a more ‘epic’ feeling and this scene is particularly theatrical (the finale also takes place on the school stage). Here, Sydney is compared to a figure of Greek tragedy, Cassandra, who foresaw the fall of Troy. There are also some interesting moments where Craven plays visually with the performer’s masks.
  1. The on-again-off-again Gale and Dewey relationship. Famously, Courtney Cox and David Arquette met and fell in love on the set of Scream and it’s lovely to see them hook up in the fictional world of Woodsboro. It’s just a shame their real life relationship didn’t last as long.
  1. Back where it all began. The opening of Scream is so easily parodied (even in Scream 2 under the guise of Stab) because it is so well loved. In the end, what is remembered is Drew Barrymore walking around the house on her portable phone while preparing popcorn being asked, “What’s your favourite scary movie?” Magic.
  1. Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’. This track appears in some form in all three films and was my first taste of the Cave. The trilogy would not be the same without this atmospheric lump of moodiness and, likewise, I can’t hear the song out of the filmic context without feeling like I’m right back in Woodsboro.
  1. Ghostface. Although not technically one character but many (and usually played by a stuntman) the Munch-inspired ‘Ghostface’ mask is the stuff of horror movie legend and is still a Halloween fancy dress staple. Shout out to the equally memorable voice work by Roger Jackson.
  1. Sydney Prescott. She is a legendary lead character, embodying that same stubborn strength of spirit as Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley. Craven was always sure to create strong female leads in order to avoid the exploitative, misogynistic trap which so many ‘slasher’ style films, picking-off young girls, are apt to do. Sydney is a fully-rounded character, and it’s touching to see her still wearing Derek’s Greek letters around her neck in the third film, after his untimely death.

With Scream, Wes Craven’s contribution was not to the horror genre, but to movie making in general. If only people would pay attention. So few of the mass-made ‘slasher’ films which have followed the success of Scream have featured an ensemble cast of characters who I would feel fondly towards, or who indeed are treated with any kind of dignity by the filmmakers whatsoever. Far more attention needs to be paid to how writers and directors create a film with Scream’s special something, rather than dumbly imitating the masked killer guess-who format.

It has been noted recently that Wes Craven was reluctant to be labelled as a horror director specifically and that he became tired of the genre. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and the Scream Trilogy have become beloved horror classics, and unfortunately for Wes, no one loves as hard or with such obsession as crazy horror fans. Anyone working in film who has success in a genre will often find themselves labelled, but what Scream does is to exceed the horror genre, by taking the best elements from other genres, aspects of; comedy, adventure, mystery and – yes – romance. I don’t think that’s a bad way to be remembered. Wes gave horror a heart.


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