‘Screaming’ in a post-satire world

Image courtesy Paramount Pictures.

The first thing to notice about Scream 5 is that it isn’t “Scream 5.” Despite being a direct sequel in the same continuity, the number has been left off all official marketing material, and there couldn’t possibly be a better metaphor for a movie this lost in time and this lacking in its own identity.

Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) was an exasperated reaction to the barrage of pulpy, near-identical slasher movies that super-saturated the 1980s B movie scene because they were extremely cheap to make and had a built-in audience that would almost guarantee a profit as long as they heard each movie was more lurid than the last. Just pick up some corn starch, collect some girls just come to Hollywood who’ll do anything to get famous, and make some coin.

This sort of relationship, with a genre of near-identical B movies filling in underneath larger productions, is the norm throughout cinematic history, with films noir and Westerns defining the ‘40s and ‘50s and slashers themselves giving way to post-modern slashers – which the original Scream remains the icon of – which gave way to the found footage boom in the late ‘00s-early ‘10s. The market role is sort-of filled today by “smart” psychological horror films like It Follows or Midsommar, but there are significant differences created by how the rest of the film market has shaped around monopoly-class movies and the death of the mid-budget film.

Over the past 20-30 years, the roles have reversed. Crowds, now much more interested in fantasy characters that were sold to us as children to an extent that wasn’t always legal than the sex and violence the internet has brought to our fingertips, are now pleased by meta jokes in massive comic book franchises, and the spare change that used to turn into low-budget grindhouse movies is instead funneled into advertising and post-production labor costs for these monoliths. The historic role of B movies and mid-budget movies has been combined into low-budget auterist work from directors passionate enough to scrape the money together, usually within the “smart horror” genre. The Green Knight is probably the key signifier here in that it isn’t horror at all, but it’s heavily symbolic and psychological and, despite being a fantasy epic of grander scale than many corporate blockbusters, was put together for just $15 million.

None of this has anything to do with why Scream (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, 2022) was made.

Unfortunately, it has much more to do with the horrifying real-life process of collecting girls just come to Hollywood. Bob Weinstein was integral to the original Scream – he was the first producer Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson found who would leave its violence intact. Fast-forward to 2011, and The Weinstein Company wasn’t going to fund more of these after Scream 4 disappointed, but when the company dissolved after Harvey Weinstein’s long history of raping everyone he could get his hands on went from “open secret” to open knowledge, all of its copyrights were essentially up for auction. Spyglass Media Group bought the rights to Scream, and that wasn’t a sentimental purchase. They expect to recoup that money.

And so, 30ish years after the Golden Age of the slasher it was meant to satirize, 15 years after Paranormal Activity single-handedly closed the door on post-modern slashers like Scream (Craven, 1996) and after paying one of history’s most notorious serial rapists millions of dollars for the privilege, Scream (Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett, 2022) strolls into theaters, and the iconic movie about being tired of Hollywood formulae is processed completely unironically through the formulae of other slasher movies, of The Force Awakens and the specific formula of the Scream series itself.   

Scream (Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett, 2022) has everything you’re expecting, everything that modern fans would demand a retcon to include if it were absent. It’s got the iconic Ghostface outfit and knife, still mass-produced in a world where it’s been adopted by seven serial killers, and they’ve brought back Roger L. Jackson to do the killers’ modified voices. It’s got a remake of the original cold open, now with more smartphone. It’s got series mainstays Neve Campbell, David Arquette and Courtney Cox reprising their roles and returning to familiar sets at the head of a bevy of cameos, with apparently every actor who’s been involved in the series that would pick up the phone and even some horror vloggers who might be familiar to the target audience getting voice cameos. It’s got a crazed “for Wes” dedication at the head of its credits to make you that much less sure about whether or not anyone else understands the history here. It’s got familiar music. It’s got movie nerd characters listing off recent titles and a deadly game of slasher trivia. It’s got two “rules” speeches, one about the “requel” the characters find themselves in and one about the Scream franchise specifically, a tacit acknowledgement of how narrow this specific series of films complaining about how narrow slasher movies tended to be really are, and it’s got the gore and lurid material that slashers need, because, no matter how loudly any of the Scream movies gripe, they must also function as the things they’re griping about.

The meta elements of the Scream franchise are celebrated because those are what the fans focus on, but they’re really quite few and far between. For the most part, these are completely unironic slasher movies that will gratify any slasher fan’s unironic desires while stepping into most of the same pitfalls. All the pomp and self-reference does’t change the pornographic nature of all this, the women’s sexual histories being brought up just before they’re killed, the cleavage that suddenly deepens and the breasts that bounce a little higher as a masked killer penetrates them and rearranges their guts.

It feels as if a porn actress, in the process of being torn apart for her profit and my pleasure, suddenly turned to the camera and accused me of enjoying watching this, not as a customer, but as some kind of voyeuristic gremlin who doesn’t know what’s happening here. It’s genuinely surprising to find out later that the porno was “ironic” since that little aside is the only “ironic” thing about it.

In the cold open of Scream 5, in one of the only moments that really tie this movie to 2022, the targeted teen says she prefers The Babadook and other recent “smart horror” movies to the slashers of old, to which the killer replies that he prefers more straightforward horror movies. But The Babadook is extremely straightforward. The mother’s grief is literalized as a monster, and that’s the movie.

The film and its acolytes are much more straightforward than the average slasher movie, but slashers are just as psychologically revealing. Halloween is still the iconic image of dehumanized, unmotivated violence, of death as a force of nature that can invade your happy little post-war suburbs at any time. A Nightmare on Elm Street explores the realization of the blindspots we grew up with, of the danger our parents insisted they had conquered after merely turning a blind eye toward it literally stalking our dreams and killing us in our sleep. The bevvy of sequels in the genre, each focusing less on their thinning plots and more on their bloating bodycounts, reflect a more general obsession with the taboos of sex and violence, the degree to which their extremes can be hidden in a culture where they are taboo and the cheapness with which they can be brought to the screen.

Scream (Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett, 2022) naturally unseated Spider-Man: No Way Home at the top of the box office as the first major release of the year, so they’re already talking about the sequel – because there always has to be a sequel. What is perhaps the first film’s angriest insult toward its genre has become a simple statement of fact. I’m left to wonder whether it will be called Scream 6 or if they’ll leave the number off that one too, and every year there’ll be a new Scream in cineplexes, the lack of designation symbolizing the numbing erosion of what little identity the series had. The knife has finally plunged inside, and will stab over and over into a no-longer resisting body until not only has the soul long ago evacuated, but the remains are rendered unrecognizable even to a familiar observer.

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