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How Wes Craven's masterpiece 'Scream' changed the horror genre

Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.” – Wes Craven

One of the most influential directors to have graced the world of horror with his unique artistic vision, Wes Craven’s works regularly appear in most lists made by fans of the genre including ours. However, his 1996 masterpiece Scream is often the one praised by critics for its enduring impact on the countless horror films that followed it. Set in the sleepy town of Woodsboro, Scream conducts a terrifying, hilarious and self-reflexive examination of the conventions of horror.

It is a brilliant work of art which 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, “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.”

For starters, Scream redefined the focus of slasher films. It predecessors like Bob Clark’s 1974 film Black Christmas and John Carpenter’s seminal masterpiece Halloween perfected the horror elements, exploring how terror manifests itself through iconic psychopaths like Michael Myers. Scream shifted away from this tradition, choosing to build its narrative on a dysfunctional family which helped ground the fantasy of cinematic horror in the reality of psychological problems. It also deconstructed the figure of the unfeeling killer, arming the primary antagonist Ghostface with a cruel sense of humour.

While deviating from the didactic rules of the genre, Scream laid an outline for the various tropes and clichés present in other horror films. Kevin Williamson’s brilliant script manages to strike a fantastic balance between the hilarious subversions and the terrifying moments of cinematic mystery and violence. The way it does this is by acknowledging how other horror films operate, using the character of video store clerk Randy Meeks, who is an avid horror fan, to formulate a survival guide by not repeating the mistakes of victims from other films who would get killed whenever they separated from the group to indulge in drugs, sex and alcohol.

More than any of these, Scream’s greatest contribution to the perception of the horror genre in popular culture is its revision of the female protagonist. Unlike Halloween’s Scream Queen, Sidney Prescott is a woman who has her own agency and does not rely on misogynistic biases to gain subjectivity. She is aware of her own culture and the resources at her disposal, utilising them to their full extent in order to tackle Ghostface. She is empowered and courageous, flying in the face of the audience’s expectations of a timid girl in trouble. The film also does not attempt to discredit her trauma by ignoring the permanent effect an ordeal like this can have on any individual. In the subsequent films of the Scream franchise, we see her shaping her identity on the basis of her unsettling past which places her unique story in a framework of realism.

With its invigorating reimagining of the genre, Scream’s success signalled the revival of horror films which were in decline at the time of its release and paved the way for a “post-Scream” era where other films began to imitate the delightful self-reflexivity of Wes Craven’s masterpiece. Works like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend were vastly influenced by Scream’s brand of meta-horror, indicating that the sensibilities of the genre had shifted for good. The 2000 parody film Scary Movie drew so much inspiration from Scream that it transcended the genre of meta-horror and found its place in the realm of meta-humour instead. Even after 24 years, Scream’s enormous legacy is untarnished and it still remains one of the pioneering works of horror.