In the original Scream, released 25 years before this week’s new sequel, a tabloid reporter is roped in to probe a small-town murder. “I should be in New York covering the Sharon Stone stalker,” says Courteney Cox’s Gale Weathers, a vision of chunky blonde highlights and frosted lipstick. That the same journalist is covering two very different beats should be a plothole, but only if you didn’t know America. There, beautiful celebrities and grisly killings share existential shelf space. As of writing, the US pop-culture institution People Magazine leads on Megan Fox’s engagement as well as the “gruesome murders of two teen hitchhikers”. Through all of its incarnations, the Scream franchise understands that queasy cohabitation, reflecting, anticipating and satirising the absurdities of American fame.
That’s not what the Scream movies are best known for, though. Instead, they’re known as satires of the horror genre, with characters practically winking at the camera while bemoaning film clichés. Scream 4 (2011) haphazardly featured a killer filming his own murders to “remake” the original Scream killings. Apparently a response to Hollywood’s fixation on horror remakes at the time, it was “the natural next step in psycho-slasher innovation”… or something.
The otherwise very fun new Scream targets for mockery the current trend of franchise revivals like Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Halloween – or sequels that serve as fan-friendly quasi-remakes of their first incarnations. Scream dubs them “requels”, a term it’s seemingly invented for itself and we will hopefully never hear again. But while quips are made and there are movie references aplenty, the actual point of it all doesn’t quite stick. As the franchise has gone on – and lost its original creators, screenwriter Kevin Williamson and the late director Wes Craven – it’s become hard to decipher whether these films have much to say about scary movies anymore. By the time characters in the new Scream begin snarkily riffing on “elevated horror” by arthouse auteurs like Ari Aster (Hereditary) and Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), you wish someone had realised earlier on that poking fun at celebrity was the franchise’s true raison d’être.
At their heart, the Scream movies have always been about the American and famous. In the mid-Nineties, when Kevin Williamson first conceived the original film, he had a deranged tabloid climate to pull from. His story was that of a picture-perfect wife and mother raped and murdered in American suburbia, and her fragile daughter Sidney (Neve Campbell) being stalked by a killer and the night-time news one year later. It was practically a documentary, with sensational crime involving beautiful people, a new and alarming part of the US media ecosystem at the time. There was OJ Simpson, of course, but also the Menendez brothers convicted of killing their parents, Lorena Bobbitt slicing off her husband’s penis, and the 17-year-old attempted murderer and so-called “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher. Six-year-old beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey was killed less than a week after Scream’s release. They could all be easily editorialised – real people morphing into stock characters like “the wronged wife”, “the teen temptress” or “the handsome psychopath”. If they weren’t famous already, they’d be turned into household names, their faces decorating magazine covers, bad television films dramatising their stories. The message was clear: get stalked or killed in America, and you’ll get a movie made about you.
Sidney jokes about the inevitability of such a thing happening to her midway through Scream. By Scream 2, she wasn’t laughing anymore. As if losing most of her friends and family in a bloodbath wasn’t enough, Sidney spends her college years harassed by reporters and preyed upon by copycat killers. Defenceless moviegoers weren’t safe from her fame, either, with the killer first striking during a preview screening of Stab, the tacky horror movie based on her life. One of Scream 2’s killers even aspired to get caught, convinced that conservative Christian groups would fund his legal fees once he blamed cinema violence for driving him insane. “That’s where the real fun is,” he claims, “because these days it’s all about the trial.” It would be funny if it weren’t so believable.
Between Scream 3 – which explored the darker, Harvey Weinstein-esque underbelly of Hollywood celebrity – and Scream 4, Sidney finally accepted her own tabloid infamy and wrestled for control of it. She threatened to sue the makers of Stab if they didn’t stop dramatising her life, and became an agony aunt for the young and traumatised. A self-help book called Out of Darkness followed. But the primary killer of the 2011 sequel – Sidney’s cousin Jill (a brilliantly mean Emma Roberts) – saw Sidney not as a survivor and inspiration, but someone who had squandered an opportunity. Raised on Paris Hilton, MTV’s The Hills and the famous-for-being-famous, Jill wanted Sidney’s level of attention no matter the cause. “I don’t need friends, I need fans!” she cries at one point, her knife still bloody from all her BFFs she’d killed. “What am I supposed to do? Go to college, grad school, work? How do you think people become famous anymore? You don’t have to achieve anything – you just gotta have f***ed up s*** happen to you.”
Jill’s motive is Scream 4’s truest understanding of the franchise itself. It makes sense – it’s one of the few elements of the film carried over from Williamson’s original script, which was hacked to pieces mid-production by other writers. In the hands of people who aren’t Williamson, these movies have a tendency to eat themselves, bogging themselves down in dialogue about their own mythology. Or anticipating their own criticism by having characters debate the cultural irrelevance of *cough* the Stab films. But Scream isn’t Scream because of its slasher movie in-jokes, or at least isn’t as effective a franchise because of it. Instead, it’s so good because it understands the US’s media industrial complex, and the round-the-clock absurdity of trying to navigate it. Characters are driven mad by it, others flourish and prevail, many lose their lives. Ghostface isn’t the scariest obstacle these characters need to overcome. It’s America.
The new sequel, meanwhile, is at its most interesting when referencing stardom in 2022. Early on, the one-time media icon Gale Weathers is witheringly dismissed as “the chick on TV”. Sidney Prescott is so famous and spooky – her arrival always coinciding with horrid death – that barely anyone mentions her by name, instead gesturing to her obvious notoriety as if she’s Lord Voldemort. And two nerds with a clickbaiting YouTube channel are held up as paragons of relevance, digital fame and cultural commentary. The world has changed.
If the new Scream doesn’t go all in with a dissection of celebrity in the modern era, it’s probably because it’s become too farcical to truly satirise. Exactly a year before Scream hit cinemas, the American version of the Masked Singer spin-off The Masked Dancer revealed that the woman hidden inside an enormous moth costume was Elizabeth Smart, a household name in the US for being kidnapped and held captive at the age of 14. In the decade after her rescue, she’d spoken to Oprah, released self-help books, had her story turned into a TV movie – starring, of all people, Scream star Skeet Ulrich as her abductor – and become an advocate for sexual assault survivors. Dressed in a sparkly gown with fairy wings, Smart spoke about her desire to have fun on national television while also raising awareness. It was touching but surreal – the inevitable climax to a culture that positions pop culture entertainment and unimaginable horror as bedfellows. You have to pity a franchise like Scream as a result. After something like that happens, what else is there to say?
‘Scream’ is in cinemas now