In literary theory, post-modernism is full of high-anxiety themes, multiple media formats invading daily life and a general remittance of grand narratives & classical structures. It’s associated heavily with irony, and the resulting texts are often a combination of human malaise and humor. Most importantly, however, postmodernism was the first movement that consisted of writers who had studied not just the texts that came before them, but the critical theoretical texts analyzing them. Similar movements have sprung up multiple times in cinematic history: the French New Wave (like Godard & Truffaut) who studied films, wrote about them and then made their own; the Film School generation, composed of greats like Spielberg & Scorsese, who studied film at the university level; and then the Video Store generation, with members like Linklater & Tarantino, who grew up renting videos and working at video stores.
The 1996 horror Scream is very much a piece of postmodernist filmmaking. With a younger Kevin Williamson as the writer and horror film giant Wes Craven as the director, it works in both directions to recreate classical horror films. It’s almost a pastiche of slasher flicks, hugely influenced by Halloween and the like. It wears these influences on its sleeve: like the most famous line, uttered over the phone by the killer, “What’s your favorite scary movie?”
The film begins with two teens being gored by a killer in the iconic grim reaper costume with a droopy white mask. The killer appears throughout the rest of the film wreaking havoc on the town of Woodsboro, taunting his victims and clumsily being knocked around. He’s chatty and manic while on the phone, but remains silent when face-to-face. Tensions build as commentary on the media circuses and sensationalized news intensify, especially with the batch of new murders happening amongst high schoolers. One of the central characters, played by Jamie Kennedy, works at a video store and constantly interjects with what people, namely babysitters and their boyfriends, do wrong in horror films.
The references make up a large part of the dialogue and urge the viewer to decide who the killer could be. Red herrings throughout, the film pushes forward in a way that makes you constantly think, “It’s gotta be that guy!” soon followed by “Oh, wait, it’s definitely the other guy.” Guilt ping pongs around with a new person cropping up dead every other scene.
As a kid growing up, I didn’t really grasp the highly referential nature of Scream, even if I did find the film frightening. It is full of jump-scares with a handsome dollop of tension building, making for a generally scary scary-movie (note: it was originally going to be titled Scary Movie). But for a generation of folks that grew up watching all the films it namedrops and mimics, Scream must’ve been a confusingly funny delight when it premiered. The film is a postmodernist extravaganza: ignoring the formats it continually references by always being a step ahead or a step behind. It forces the viewer to second guess everyone and everything. Watching it now, I can laugh at its obsessions while retreating underneath my blanket. It’s quite candid in that way.
For the month of February, Nitehawk Cinema will be showing 1990s teen horror flicks at midnight on the weekends, as part of their Death Candy series. Be sure to catch Scream this weekend, February 3rd & 4th.