The legacy of Wes Craven and Scream
The recent passing of master filmmaker Wes Craven has left many a movie writer and moviegoer with the task of re-evaluating and re-appraising his catalog. I teamed with fellow New Orleans film critic Chris Henson to come up with a dueling Q&A of sorts — I ask him a question, he asks me one — that would help us express our feelings on Craven, through the prism of his Scream franchise.
- What is it about Scream, as an individual film and a franchise, that resonates so much with you as a critic? As a moviegoer?
Chris Henson — As someone who writes a lot about movies, one of the most frequent questions I am asked is “What is my favorite movie?” Which, as anyone knows, especially for film lovers, is nearly impossible to answer. A long time, I decided to just go ahead and answer that question quickly and resolutely with Scream. Even with that, no, I do not think Scream is the greatest movie ever made, but I do think it is a great film. It means a tremendous amount to me and helped foster my lifelong love of film.
I saw Scream for the first time when I was about 13 at the cheap movie theater a town over at the very, very end of its theatrical run. Even though I wasn’t much of a horror fan (and am still not), I immediately connected with and immersed myself in it. I must have seen it over 100 times — first recorded on a scratchy VHS off HBO, then as one of the first DVDs I ever bought.
When you watch a movie over and over again, you begin to see things, notice things, and appreciate all that went into it. Wes Craven did a commentary track on the DVD that was kind of like my first film class. He talked about camera angles, symbolism, color palettes, the importance of music, and everything that makes a film truly great. It really blew me away and I soaked it all up.
There is a lot going on in Scream that most people overlook. Craven was an immensely talented and knowledgeable director. He and the film don’t really get the credit they deserve.
- Is it justifiable to give Scream credit for reinvigorating the horror genre as a whole in the mid-90s, which up until the film’s release had been mired in bad sequels and waning respect?
Bill Arceneaux — I’m not sure if the horror genre, at the time of the release of Scream, was suffering from stagnation or the perception of stagnation. It could be argued that it boils down to a popularity contest, where the flick with the most buzz gets copied for the next several years (The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity come to mind). Of course, this makes the mechanics of horror a bit more sleazy than it really is…
… but yes, Scream was certainly responsible for the surge in masked slasher movies. Were those movies creative? Were they just cash ins? The irony is, Wes helped energize a genre that would, almost immediately, stall itself by pumping out piggy backed projects and devolving into repeated efforts. A movie that points out these very problems is the root of these recent problems.
- Too meta for its own good? Not meta enough? What is Wes Craven trying to say with these movies? Is it harmful for a film to be too self aware?
Chris Henson — I think the first film is just right. That super clever, self-reflexive playfulness fit the overall film, plot, and era perfectly. The ’90s generation grew up on the good and bad horror films of the ’70s and ’80s and knew them almost too well. I think that is part of the reason why the horror genre was a bit down during this time. Audiences needed something new, something more representative of that self-aware, sarcastic, and harder to please generation.
Scream examined those played out horror clichés and tropes with a very attuned eye. It simultaneously played against them, while also playing right into them. It allowed for the audience to become more engaged, essentially play along with the film — with rules of surviving a horror film, Halloween on the TV mirroring the action in the film itself, etc. Scream was great at doing this, but first and foremost, it was still scary. It also made the film far more relatable and believable, which in turn, makes it scarier.
You have to remember that Craven had already done the whole meta-horror movie thing with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, his return to the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise after sitting out the 5 sequels to his original (though he did write #3, I think). It allowed to him to play with this idea long before making Scream. New Nightmare is just practice for what he perfected with Scream. Having worked for so long in the genre, Craven was aware of the inherent ridiculousness of the genre, and he played up on that. People like to be scared, its fun for them. To comment on that ridiculousness was another way to make it fun–now it is scary fun and funny fun, allowing people enjoy the film both ways.
- Did Scream, with its multiple, noticeably declining sequels (and even a TV show), ultimately fall victim to the very same horror trappings that it is critiquing/satirizing? Or are sequels, increasing implausibility, and declining relevance an unavoidable evil of the genre itself?
Bill Arceneaux — Yes and sort of. While I would point out that 2 and 3 were and still are clever commentaries on themselves and sequel tropes in general, the demand and interest for MORE Scream was difficult to ignore. If money can still be made, then a studio will green light. If more can be told with the story, then a director will return. Really, it’s kind of a fascinating example of the chicken or the egg saying. Which came first? The idea or the commentary on the idea? The want to make money or the want to express more with the movie?
Horror movies don’t HAVE to fall victim to the POTENTIAL evils of sequel making and diluted importance. And these evils aren’t really specific to horror, either. It’s more noticeable in horror (and romantic comedies), but anytime a film or franchise makes money, it could potentially lose credit if it doesn’t evolve and adapt. Probably why Marvel Studios have a diverse stable of creative types.
- I clearly remember people committing knife related crimes around the time of theatrical release. How do you feel about responsibility in filmmaking and the power of movies to influence good and bad behavior? Did Scream 2 successfully comment on this?
Chris Henson — A couple of horror-movie obsessed teenagers turned real life serial killers is a terrifying notion. Unfortunately, as time has shown, it is also incredibly believable. (Not that I, in any way, blame movies for creating killers.) This is even referenced in Scream, and even more so in the following films. One of the first film’s killers, says during the climactic finale, “Don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative,” which has to be the filmmakers commenting directly on this issue.
I have always taken that approach to this controversy as well, which has been around since long before Scream was released. Violence is far more prevalent in film and television these days, but I don’t think that should be to blame for violence in real life. Humans are an inherently violent species. I think it is far more art imitating life, rather than the other way around. Movies do wield an extreme power over people, but not in that way.
In Scream 2, Craven and Williamson delve even deeper into this idea (and are mostly successful in doing it again) with a “copycat” killer, the opening movie theater murders, and having one of the killers explicitly use violence in movies as his motive (which the filmmakers effectively shut down as a dumb idea). The third film, well, not so much. Scream 3 (not written by Williamson) backed off on a lot the themes that made the first two great, just one of its many problems.
- Wes Craven is (rightfully, in my opinion) given a majority of the credit for the success of Scream. But what credit should be given to Kevin Williamson, an unknown at the time, whose very first script ignited a bidding war between multiple studios?
Bill Arceneaux — Isn’t this part of the debate over the auteur theory? Whether or not the director is the end all be all, make it or break it of a film? In the case of Scream, the atmospheric and thematic feeling of the movie has Craven’s fingerprints all over. He built upon Williamson’s foundation, which I’m sure gave the director some direction as to where to take the story and characters.
Was Williamson an out of nowhere, video store film school hot shot like Tarantino? Honestly, I don’t remember much about the man. I associate Scream with Wes Craven and, with that, answered where I stand on the auteur debate.
- Could Scream have been done in the same way with a younger filmmaker — someone without years of genre experience? Do we only get a film like this with a wise and wary auteur? Which modern day director would you like to see take the helm? (I’d pick Adam Wingard)
Chris Henson — I think Craven was in the perfect position to make this film and deftly comment on the very genre he helped mold, kind of like Clint Eastwood did with westerns and Unforgiven. A grizzled old veteran that knew both the usefulness and absurdity of those genre tropes that deserved to be simultaneously admired and mocked. His experience allowed him to be more attuned and playful with it all. And being in the business for so long, he saw how the audience had evolved into that sarcastic, harder-to-impress, hyper-aware moviegoer, and he realized he could reference that as well. Craven, and other horror directors in the early 70s, began his career in kind of the same way–challenging the establishment, pushing the limits, etc. Craven evolved as much over his career as the audience.
I have never been good at what-if speculation like this, but I like to play. I am sure other filmmakers could have made a great film as well — the base idea and script are too solid. On the other hand, I am sure far more filmmakers would have fumbled it and/or laid it on too thick, especially a lot of current horror film directors.
Wingard is a good choice (though I am mainly just thrilled you didn’t say Eli Roth). I’d love to see what someone like Edgar Wright would have done — kind of like a Scott-Pilgrim-vs.-Michael-Myers kind of thing. It would take that level of playful filmmaking knowledge and genre geek cred to pull it off as a younger filmmaker.
- Wes Craven is the man behind bona fide horror classics in three separate decades — Scream (1996), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and either The Last House on the Left (1972) or The Hills Have Eyes (1977), depending on who you ask (I prefer Last House). Is he an underappreciated filmmaker by most, largely because he worked almost exclusively in the horror genre? Was he pigeonholed by his genre affiliation? Could he have been a successful filmmaker outside of horror, despite the limited chance?
Bill Arceneaux — While working within horror storytelling, I’d be willing to bet that Wes felt like some of his movies were spiritually part of other genres. Like how Herzog considers his narrative and documentary ideals, I think Wes made comedies and dramas first and executed scares and thrills second.
So no, I think he was fully appreciated as a filmmaker. People love going to movies, and they love going to horror movies. Wes is known for making those, and very famous at that. Not to mention his name evokes creepy imagery. With all of that taken in, regular moviegoers probably have as much of a fondness for what the man created as much as we do.
Maybe Wes was more comfortable telling stories with scare tactics. Maybe he had more fun with those elements. Could he have made something like a biopic? Could he have transitioned? I don’t think he had to. He could and did make those flicks over his career. Horror can be drama. Horror can be funny. Horror can be romantic. Maybe it was more about style than genre for him.