B Sides: A Farewell To Wes Craven And 'Scream'
    • WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 02, 2015

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    [Ed. Note: Hello, everybody, and welcome back to the second edition of B-Sides, our new non-music related weekly culture piece on the site. For those who were wondering why it didn't return last week after our initial piece (a review of Straight Outta Compton), we got a little busy here in the offices preparing some exciting future content for the site. But, we're back, and after the death of Wes Craven this weekend, I knew I wanted to pay tribute to his career and the role his films played in my pop culture upbringing. There are footnotes at the end of this piece for anyone who sees the superscript numbers and is momentarily confused.]

    Two of the great pleasures in my life have always been professional wrestling and horror movies, and they have more in common than you might think. A great professional wrestling story makes even the most cynical "smark"1 a believer. I know that wrestling isn't "real" 2, but watching Daniel Bryan -- a fan favorite who was overlooked for the big push his entire career because of his size -- overcome the odds to win two matches in a single night at Wrestlemania XXX is what great wrestling is all about. You can't help but allow yourself to suspend your disbelief and simply enjoy the ritualized displays of athleticism and larger-than-life storytelling because you genuinely care about the characters and their athletic ability3. The best horror films do something very similar.

    It's easy for people who don't have any interest in the genre to dismiss horror out of hand. What's the point of a genre meant to "scare" you if you're never in actual danger while you're watching the piece? I'm not talking about the legitimate philosophical concerns about horror: the misogyny of the genre, the wanton cruelty of contemporary "torture porn4," or the shoddiness of most of what passes for "writing" and "craft" in the genre, but the idea of a medium meant to "frighten" you in a safe and comfortable environment. And at a rational/analytical level, we all know that the scares in horror can't reach us, but the best horror films know how to twist and bend and warp our rational expectations, and they make you a believer. And over the course of his forty year career, few (if any) horror filmmakers could make the most genre-aware and savvy viewers a believer with the same effortless precision as Wes Craven.



    Wes Craven passed away Sunday at the age of 76 after a battle with brain cancer, and he left behind one of the great libraries of films in all of cinema. It's not to say that Wes Craven didn't make some duds; I think the original The Last House on the Left is one of the most loathsome and abominable films ever made and his late 90s/early 2000s output felt like a man coasting on his laurels. But, with his best films, Wes Craven brough genuine auteurism to a B movie genre. And although Wes Craven owed an unpayable spiritual debt to Alfred Hitchcock and the classics of Hammer Horror, he was a filmmaker and writer of genuine vision examining fear and "fear as entertainment" itself. And I wouldn't love movies the way I do today were it not for Mr. Craven.

    Scream was released in 1996. I was seven years old. I can't imagine my parents letting me watch the film that year. But before my tenth birthday in 1999, I saw Scream. When I was ~9 years old, I'd never heard the word "metatextualism" before, and I didn't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the horror genre. But I knew fear. I knew the fear of the dark. I knew the fear of strangers. Less than two months after my tenth birthday, I would learn to fear going to school because of the Columbine High School shooting. And although it would be years before I understood just how layered and self-aware Scream ultimately was, I did know one thing from those initial viewings. Scream scared the Hell out of me.

    Scream wasn't my first horror movie, but it was the first that I watched more than once, and unlike so many movie monsters over the years, Scream works because it is clinically, terrifyingly plausible. Two unhinged teenagers who'd seen too many horror movies and go on a killing spree in their small, rural town feels less like the plot of a movie in 2015 and more like something we're just waiting to hear about in the news. And as someone who grew up in the rural no man's land outside of a small West Virginia town -- and especially as someone with such an overactive imagination -- Scream was enough to keep me up at night, but whenever we'd make one of our family trips to the video store, I'd ask my parents to rent it -- despite the fact that I'd seen it a billion times -- and it was years til I was old enough to answer the question of "why" I was drawn to it beyond the fact that it could still frighten me despite knowing each and every one of its little tricks. But the answer was simple: character.

    Wes Craven has always been different from other horror filmmakers for a simple reason. His films are populated with characters that we don't want to see die. One of the laziest and cheapest (but all too common) tactics of horror films is that they lighten their scares by filling their films chock full of the most unlikeable and intellectually vapid figures this side of a frat/sorority mixer. They die, and their deaths are formula. There isn't plot or characterization. Deaths are plot and characterization5. And the films' "scares" are based around jumps and blood and guts. It's much scarier when you see yourself reflected in the figures being terrorized on the screen, and Wes Craven knew that and exploited it. And even as a kid, I recognized in Scream what I recognized in Don Bluth's kids' movies: this film starred people with recognizable, human emotions and motivations, and I didn't want anything bad to happen to them.



    Wes Craven sets that tone perfectly in the Hitchcock-homage6 opening of Scream. Drew Barrymore is a normal teenage girl, home by herself, making popcorn and preparing to watch a scary movie when she gets a prank call. It's impossible in 2015 to go back now and watch that scene and not know that it's Billy (or Stu; it could be either one) taunting her before the violence becomes grotesquely, graphically real, but the way that sequence spins from playful prank call to creepy prank call to murderous games is razor-sharp, cinematic tension personified. Scream makes you like Casey7. Who didn't have a night home by themself in high school where they watched bad scary movies and ate popcorn? And who wouldn't want to have witty banter with a stranger about the movies we love (although maybe not one calling your wrong number)? But Scream uses that familiarity and endearing Barrymore charm to make it all the more brutal and upsetting when she finally dies: choked and stabbed within throwing distance of her oblivious parents. Craven's films work at the logic of nightmares, and is there anything worse than feeling helpless and not being able to stop inevitable doom even when you can see your saviors so close by?

    I watched Scream Sunday night after I heard about Wes Craven's death. It was my first viewing of the film since high school. Scream has always been an important film for me. When I was younger and I began to understand how self-referential and genre-aware it was, I began to dive into all of the films the movie mentioned -- and then all of the sequels of those films and then all of the films that inspired the films that inspired Scream. I grew up in the last days of the video rental store. And while my family was one of the initial adopters of Netflix, we were religious visitors to the local video store. And I became obsessed with finding another horror movie that could hit me at the same level Scream did. When I was younger, none of them did. The only one that came close was another Craven film -- the original A Nightmare On Elm Street. It was like those stories you hear about recovering heroin addicts who wanted that next hit to be as good as their first, but it never is and they keep chasing. That was me. I was diving into the refuse of the horror racks at the Bridgeport Video World 8 trying to find anything that could make me feel what Scream made me feel. I shudder to think of the number of Friday the 13th sequels I watched in my futile quest.

    I got into "serious" movies because Scream made me obsessed with discovering films on my own. Before Scream, every movie I watched was decided for me by my parents or it was part of our VHS collection which means I might have been choosing to watch it then but my parents were the reason it was in the house. After Scream, I was allowed to pick out my own films at the video rental store, and I inevitably found something new from the horror section (or I just rented Scream again; I think we probably just eventually recorded it from the TV with our VCR). But after a trip to Disney World when I was a freshman in high school, I bought a trivia book on the AFI's 100 Greatest American films and I started watching the films on that list and started spending less time with Critters 49. My love of movies would lead to me making my blog eventually. I got my first professional writing work thanks to that blog. And now I'm Baeble's Managing Editor. At least on an inspirational level, I write about culture for a living because of Wes Craven and Scream.



    And so I watched the film again last night for the first time in nearly a decade. And, enough words will be and have been written on how "meta" and satirical Scream is, but I was mostly struck by how genuinely fresh and scary that film remains. Scream has its share of jump-scares (but mostly false jump-scares) and gore abounds, but it also handles tension with surgical care. The anxiety and dread of that film slowly rises. Your inability to know who to trust and where you're safe becomes suffocating. The film's climax is twenty minutes of uninterrupted, adrenaline-fueled terror. And while Kevin Williamson's scripts is rightfully lauded as one of the all-time great in the genre, enough can't be said about how Wes Craven takes what could have (and has since become with countless imitators and the film's sequels) been too much of a wink-and-nod game with the audience and still delivers bone-chilling fear.

    There are a lot of laughs in Scream, and occasionally, it can be a little too self-aware for its own good. There's a bit right before the climax hits its full swing where Ghost Face is behind Randy (Jamie Kennedy) and he's watching Halloween and screaming at Jamie Lee Curtis to turn around. But there are no laughs in Scream's violence. It is brutal, direct, and horrific. More than anything else, that's what Wes Craven got right about horror again in that film. After a decade worth of horror films meant to get audience's off on violence, Craven brought bite back to how viscerally ugly murder can and should be in this sort of work and that you have to care about the folks this ugliness is happening to.

    I'm not willing to say that there will never be another Wes Craven. That's not how inspiration and art works. An obvious heir to Craven's throne is Ti West whose films The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and The Sacrament10 are all modern horror opuses that bring genuine thematic heft and real characters back to the genre. But for so many folks that came of age in the last forty years, few men made their mark so completely on our collective imaginations and nightmares as Wes Craven. And for that, he will be sorely missed.

    To quote a certain murderous psychopath, "What's your favorite scary movie?"



    [Ed. Note: Something that didn't fit into this piece is a discussion on the role of "brutality" as entertainment, and as someone who thinks Funny Games is the peak of horror filmmaking...and even meta-horror filmmaking more than Scream, I think that's an important conversation to have, but, sometimes, we enjoy problematic things, and even if horror is a fundamentally problematic genre (which it very well may be), it's still indescribably important to my evolution as a consumer of popular culture.]

    1. "Smark" is a portmanteau for the phrase "smart mark" which is professional wrestling slang for a wrestling fan who doesn't simply know that wrestling is "fake" but who is also savvy to many of the behind-the-scenes realities of the business.

    2. A conversation about the reasons that I prefer to refer to wrestling as "choreographed" instead of "fake" could make up its own article.

    3. I dare anyone to watch Adrian Neville vs. Sami Zayn from NXT Takeover: R-Evolution from last year and tell me those two (and any of their peers) aren't real athletes.

    4. I'm referring here to the Saws and Hostels of the world. Basically anything connected to Eli Roth and his ilk who think cheap gore is a real alternative to bone-chilling horror.

    5. Watch any of the Final Destination films and tell me I'm wrong. An entire genre of horror exists where the raison d'etre is finding the most original and gruesome way to kill meaningless teenaged protagonists.

    6. Killing the initial protagonist was a trick Hitchcock originally used in Psycho -- a film which is explicitly name-dropped at least once in the film.

    7. Casey is the name of Drew Barrymore's character. Her boyfriend is named Steve. We don't get to meet him much but things don't go well for him either.

    8. The defunct video rental chain that was home to my formative years as a film lover.

    9. Yes, someone thought it was a good idea to make four Critter films but we couldn't get a second season of Freaks & Geeks.

    10. The Sacrament in particular nearly made me faint when I watched it and horror films don't have that sort of physical effect on me anymore. It's very impressive.
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