Ricky Church on why Scream is a perfect black comedy…
When Scream was released in 1996, it revitalized the slasher genre with new life and energy after it was on the verge of dying out. Scream had plenty of aspects that made horror slasher films great with its memorable kills, scares and great direction by horror legend Wes Craven. But Scream was also something very few horror movies were: it was funny. Not only was there good humour within the story, but it wasn’t afraid to poke fun at itself and the horror genre, making it a perfect black comedy.
For those who don’t know, Scream follows Sidney Prescott (played by Neve Campbell), a young woman in high school whose mother was brutally murdered. Now a year after her mother’s death, a serial killer, known as Ghostface to fans, is running around their town and targeting Sidney, making multiple attempts on her life. With nearly everyone she knows being a suspect, Sidney and her friends have to figure out the killer’s identity while following the rules of horror movies to stay alive.
What makes Scream so enjoyable is its meta deconstruction of the horror genre as it plays with many of the common tropes found in horror films. After all, the film opens with Drew Barrymore’s doomed Casey and Ghostface discussing their love of Friday The 13th and other horrors, making “Do you like scary movies?” one of the genre’s most iconic lines. Craven and writer Kevin Williamson weren’t afraid to poke some fun at the genre they loved and in Craven’s case at the time, since this was Williamson’s first writing credit, spent the majority of his filmmaking career in. The little bits of satire, such as Freddy Krueger’s quick cameo or the numerous pratfalls Ghostface has as characters outrun him, are done with care and love to the whole genre rather than making fun for fun’s sake (as Scream‘s direct parody Scary Movie and its subsequent sequels would do).
If that is not enough to consider Scream a black comedy, look no further than its eccentric cast of characters: Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), a reporter who is in it for the fame of reporting on a murder spree and doesn’t care about much beyond the story she’s chasing; Dewey (David Arquette), a local cop who is a bit of a nerd and in way over his head; and then the killers themselves, Billy and Stu (Skeet Ulrich and Matthew Lillard respectively) with Billy as a walking 90s psycho and Stu as a guy committing murder for no other reason than he thinks its fun. One of the funniest parts in the film is when Billy, full of seriousness in a dramatic scene, explains his motives for killing Sidney and her mother and the camera cuts to Stu who is staring in wide-eyed shock as he apparently never knew Billy even had a real reason for all these murders. It’s only a few minutes later where Stu breaks down crying after Sidney tells him she called the cops because, as the climax is taking place at his home, his parents will “be so mad” at him. The only character who plays it straight throughout Scream and its sequels is Sidney as she actively fights against her leading role and doesn’t believe in the horror movie rules with but one exception: always aim for the killer’s head.
Last but certainly not least, however, is Randy, the one character most aware he is in a horror movie and bonafide cinephile. Not only does he call out the fact the killer is most likely Billy, but he also spouts out the many ways to survive a horror film, particularly in the memorable scene where he lists the three main survival rules: Never have sex, never drink or do drugs, and never ever say ‘I’ll be right back’ because you will end up dead instead. However, nothing of Randy’s awareness compares to what is one of the absolute best fourth-wall breaks in cinema when Randy, played by Jamie Kennedy, is drunkenly watching John Carpenter’s Halloween by himself and is telling Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie “Watch out Jamie, behind you Jamie, he’s right behind you, Jamie!” – all as Ghostface is sneaking up behind Randy preparing to kill him. It is a very funny, subtle fourth-wall break because, as he has been throughout the whole movie, Randy is a mouthpiece for the audience. He’s us, a fellow fan who loves movies and can’t get enough of them, enough so to recognize all the tropes and what to do to prevent them. It’s the one reason why his death in Scream 2 still stings so much as our audience avatar was mercilessly hacked away.
While Scream is the best film in the franchise, its sequels are pretty good to varying degrees and continue its black comedy and meta humour with Scream 2 lamenting how sequels are never as good as the originals (including Randy saying how sequels have killed the horror genre) while Scream 3 pokes fun at that film’s behind the scenes problems of constant rewrites, different endings and the longevity of horror franchises with its movie-within-a-movie ‘Stab 3’. And while I haven’t yet seen Scream 4, that film apparently deals with the popularity (and sometimes laziness) of reboots and remakes in the age of social media where anyone can achieve their 15 minutes of fame whether it’s positive or negative.
Scream may have some brutal murders and legitimate scares, but its status as a black comedy is hard to deny as Craven cleverly plays with the tropes found in horror movies – many of which he himself made popular. From its meta humour to its characters, Scream is a whole lot more than just another slasher flick as it deconstructs the genre and why we love it and movies in general. It may not be a traditional Halloween film compared to the likes of The Exorcist, Nightmare on Elm Street and, of course, Halloween, but if you want a film that both pokes fun at and honours scary movies, look no further than Scream.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.