I am forever fascinated by the changing fortunes of the horror movie.
I used to make a point of highlighting certain horror films – such as John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (1995) – precisely because I knew almost nobody was going to see them. Horror had become, a little sadly to my mind, purely a video-store genre; the era of mainstream horror successes like Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski ), The Exorcist (William Friedkin ) or The Omen (Richard Donner ) seemed long in the past.
But you can never conclusively predict the fortunes of a movie genre. There are always knight's moves, sudden, unpredictable surprises in the direction of popular taste. So, I'm not sure if the horror genre in toto is making a comeback, but I do know that one very fine, contemporary horror film scored a big success: Wes Craven's Scream.
Craven is one of those totemic figures – like Carpenter, George Romero or Dario Argento – who has never abandoned the horror genre. In 1994 he come out with the modestly titled Wes Craven's New Nightmare, his valentine to the Freddy Krueger Nightmare on Elm Street series which he originated. Pompous and pseudo-mythological, it was a perverse attempt to talk-up the low thrills of the horror genre by smuggling in allusions to scholars of popular mythology like Bruno Bettelheim and the unspeakable Joseph Campbell.
I didn't like New Nightmare much, but it did show the strange corner in which horror movies, and horror moviemakers, have found themselves for about the last decade. In a nutshell, horror cinema became cult cinema. Cult has a glamorous, streetwise ring about it these days, particularly when publicists hurl it around, labelling some new film an "instant cult classic" – which is either a contradiction in terms, or pure wishful thinking. Originally, a cult movie was something that had been spat out, unheeded by the mainstream, but was then picked up, promoted, pored over and fetishised by a small following of devoted, protective fans.
This gave rise, in the '60s, to the phenomenon known as midnight movies. These days, the mainstream system itself tries to manufacture cult movies, by hook or by crook. Contemporary movie cults are so widespread and so quickly formed in some cases, that the term cult has lost the sharp, underground edge of its initial meaning.
Be that as it may, horror movies do indeed have some genuinely cultish rituals built up around them. The directors I've mentioned – Craven, Carpenter, Argento and the rest – are acutely aware of the international cult-audience that feverishly follows their output. They'd have some passing knowledge of all the little magazines, fanzines and internet sites devoted to their kind of cinema and their achievements. They'd have some inkling of the adulating, fannish commentary that goes on – the constant rap about special effects, gore and authentically terrifying thrills and, occasionally, about "subversive meanings" and subtexts. Even the most anti-intellectual horror buff can tell you, for instance, that Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), is an allegory of America and the Vietnam war, or that the sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978) is a satire on rampant consumerism.
These modern horror directors have gotten into the habit of aiming their films, at least in part, towards these special cult-sensibility fans. There's one very good, very understandable reason for this: to the cult devotees, these filmmakers are unquestionably artists. In the world of mainstream culture, these directors find it hard to be accepted or acclaimed in quite the same way. If you don't believe me on that, check out a 1997 issue of Quadrant (an essentially right-wing Australian magazine), where you'll find the film critic of the Australian newspaper, Evan Williams, poking vicious, lordly fun at Wes Craven, at Scream and particularly at Craven's first film, Last House on the Left (1972).
Last House is a raw, violent, nightmarish film, which its director describes as a "scream of rage", but Williams uses the oldest trick in the film reviewing book in order to discredit this fascinating and influential horror-thriller: he retells the plot of this film in such a way as to make it sound ludicrous and absurd in the way it plays on our fears and terrors. You can pull that trick on Shakespeare or Jane Austen too, for a very simple reason: all narratives are in some fundamental sense contrived and artificial, and many of them depend on a certain emotional manipulation. But for Williams, Last House on the Left is just a dirty old horror movie; he doesn't acknowledge the fannish wisdom that it, too, is an allegory of the Vietnam war.
When a filmmaker consciously plays to his or her cult audience, that can create an odd sort of movie, as when, in the '60s, certain oddball American directors, like Frank Tashlin and Samuel Fuller, were "discovered" and praised by serious French critics. Once these gentlemen got wind of all this flattering attention, their films became flagrantly baroque, full of weird plot convolutions, digressions and in-jokes for the delectation of their special fans. A very similar thing has happened with modern horror filmmakers.
Scream starts with a sterling cameo from Drew Barrymore, walking around with a telephone in her hand. She keeps getting calls from a stranger which quickly become menacing, and soon she's engaged in full-out, one-on-one combat with this terrifying stalker. Just as important for Craven as this basic plot are the little details and digressions: Drew is talking on the phone to her friend about what horror videos to watch later, and she points out – as Wes's last film also pointed out – what every true Craven fan knows: that he hates all the sequels to his original Nightmare on Elm Street film. It's a fascinating experience to watch this kind of movie with a large crowd: part of the audience is in on the joke, but many are not, and they wonder what the chosen, happy few are laughing so much about.
After this initial scene, which escalates artfully from gags to horror, Scream becomes perhaps the all-time reflexive horror movie. This gives it a baroque, convoluted air – and a certain edge of almost avant-garde delirium. There are moments when this film approaches the outright, intense irrationality of David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997).
As I suggest in my review of that film, a certain experimental art belongs not only or strictly to avant-garde or arthouse cinema. There's a tradition of very radical fooling around in popular genres too – in horror movies and off-the-wall comedies and certain B movies in particular. We could take, as an example, the episode of The Simpsons in which Homer auditions to be a voice-over artist for the Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. Much earnest discussion ensues as to whether Homer has the right kind of voice to be a cartoon character – and of course he already is a cartoon character. At the recording studio, Homer meets another voice-over artist – and, in a very Lynchian moment, this woman talks with the voices of both Itchy and Scratchy. This is another in-joke because, as fans well know, the voice of Bart Simpson is supplied by a woman.
Eventually, Homer is chosen as the voice of the new character in the Itchy and Scratchy show, a ridiculous cool-dude dog named Poochy. This triggers a running commentary on useless, roped-in extra characters in television programs, and whenever this commentary occurs, a superfluous and hitherto unknown extra character – the cool-dude human equivalent to Poochy – suddenly wanders into the frame before being summarily dismissed by the regular Simpsons.
Much closer to Scream in the reflexivity stakes is a truly amazing horror movie called Anguish (Angustia, 1987), which you can find if you look hard enough in a good, well-stocked video store. Anguish is by the fascinating Spanish director Bigas Luna, who worked his way up from conceptual art to the most amazingly vulgar and baroque entertainments. Anguish begins like an over-the-top amalgam or pastiche of several Hitchcock movies, Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) in particular. About twenty minutes in, the camera pulls back from a violent scene to reveal an audience watching this crazy movie: we see the different reactions of audience members to a typical horror movie. At a certain point in the film-within-the-film, there is a psychedelic hypnosis scene. A member of the "real" audience is hypnotised by these images, and starts prowling through the rooms and corridors of the picture theatre, acting out the violent psychosis of the main character. His actions are absolutely in sync with his counterpart on screen, and – wouldn't you know it – the onscreen character also starts murdering people in a movie theatre. The finale of this mind-boggling film comes when the hypnotised spectator is about to murder someone standing in front of a movie screen, which shows the in-movie character standing in front of a movie screen about to murder someone.
Scream is written, extremely cleverly, by a young horror-movie buff named Kevin Williamson, although I also detect many touches of Craven's own scriptwriting art and craft. Mercifully, this is not a talky, pretentious, sub-horror film like Wes Craven's New Nightmare. It returns to the visceral, unnerving delights this filmmaker can turn on so well, and is one of his best movies. It does more than simply offer jokey dialogue about dozens of previous horror movies. Every plot twist, every character motivation, depends upon an explicit reference to some "rule" of the horror genre.
In particular, Scream revisits the "slasher" cycle inaugurated by John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Once again, a group of gorgeous, sexually curious teenagers are being stalked by a mysterious, psychotic killer. Once again, some horrific trauma from the past appears to be rising up and haunting a small community. Once again, there's a single, large house where a lot of the action happens. And – very Cravenesque this – there's a parade of rather sinister, predatory adult figures throughout the plot. Wes Craven is a master at playing on the adolescent suspicion of the sickly corrupt grown-up world.
There's one big difference, however, between the slasher movies of the '70s and this 1990s version. Here, the teens are themselves video connoisseurs, horror movie freaks. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of slasher movies. They know all the corny rules and moves of these films, and they yell them out as they hit the freeze-frame button on their video player. One of the most delightful moments in Scream comes when some teenagers are talking in a video shop, and one of then suddenly exclaims hysterically, "Don't you know the supreme rule of horror movies – EVERYONE IS A SUSPECT!", meaning anyone could be the psychotic, stalking killer – the camera flicks around the shop, showing everyone frozen in their tracks, looking, well, pretty suspicious.
It's precisely this rule of paranoia that makes modern horror films at once cartoonish and suspenseful, corny and resonant, ludicrous and avant-garde. I'm reminded of a horror film called Society (Brian Yuzna ), in which a character earnestly explains that he's "a little bit paranoid – within normal limits". The elaborate twist in Scream comes eventually from the fact that these video-loving teenagers are also veritable philosophers of popular culture and its effects – they appear to believe the hyperreal view that "life is a movie", to the point of acting on that belief.
© Adrian Martin April 1997