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Evaluating slasher horror through Wes Craven's 'Scream'

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Although the horror genre has long remained a staple of mainstream filmmaking, dating back to F. W. Murnau’s classic vampire film Nosferatuit enjoyed its cultural heyday in the late 20th century. Inadvertently buoyed by the moral panic of the ‘video nasty’ craze that swept through the western zeitgeist, putting graphic horror films in the crosshairs for some of the most abhorrent real-life crimes, the genre enjoyed a healthy period of great success where teenagers particularly enjoyed its terrifying offerings. 

Inundated with copycat films of low-brow quality, the 1980s became a decade where slasher horror thrived, thanks to the work of John Carpenter’s Halloween and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released in the late 1970s. Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as Jason Vorhees, the star of Friday the 13th, would later bolster the sub-genre and help to establish a large number of ever-growing cliches. 

From the idea of the ‘final girl’ to the typical outcomes that resulted in saying “let’s split up and look for clues”, people quickly became bored of this formula, and as horror entered the 1990s, its popular admiration departed. However, in 1996, horror aficionado Wes Craven returned to fix the genre he had helped to establish with a satirical meta-commentary that would take it apart. 

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Set in the sleepy town of Woodsboro, Scream conducts a terrifying, hilarious and self-reflexive examination of the conventions of horror which Wes Craven himself helped to establish. It is a brilliant work of horror that is aware of the limitations of the governing rules of the genre, constantly undermining the fear with mockery. In an interview, Craven elaborated on the nature of the film, stating: “Most of the scripts that come across your desk are terrible. They’re derivative, they’re ugly and they’re just gore for gore’s sake…I found it a very appealing script,” the director added. “It’s really wonderfully written, it’s very funny. It’s scary when it means to be scary, extraordinarily well-informed about the genre itself”. 

Invigorating and imaginative, Scream’s success signalled a revival of the genre, sparking a revolution in horror that turned its back on the slasher popularity of old, whilst others murdered its legacy altogether. Imitating the delightful self-reflections of Wes Craven’s masterpiece, films like Scary Movie and later, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, became focused on a new brand of meta-horror, a sub-genre that looked to dismantle the past and reconstruct a future. 

Igniting a train reaction of sequels, the Scream franchise has since seen three sequels, as well as a TV series and a fifth film set for release in 2022. Whilst its intentions were well-meaning, Scream’s legacy left a double-edged effect, creating a new brand of horror that was able to shift and change its rules whilst inextricably linking the genre to self-mockery. The wounds of the genre were now exposed to heavy criticism, and for many years the genre failed to gain the respect it deserved. 

As the 20th century came to a close, Scream acted as an evaluative critic, sieving its greatest qualities from the toxicity of its long-lasting cliches. Scrubbing the genre to its pristine best, Scream served a 21st-century vision of pre-millennial horror and provided the perfect starting block for the decade to come.

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