Within the first five minutes of the new Scream movie, I was giggling uncontrollably. Ensconced in my seat at the front of the theatre next to a whole row of twenty-somethings, my little cinephiliac mind flooded with endorphins. I felt positively giddy. Because the Scream franchise is among the cleverest out there, a self-aware product trading at once in parody and real slasher film aesthetics. And Scream 4 (or Scre4m, apparently) goes to a place that the others only hinted at. In a phrase, it goes beyond postmodernity.
In some ways, admittedly, the slasher film has run its course. The knife-wielding psychopath isn’t really all that scary–the first Scream traded more on references and pastiche than in real scare tactics. The Millennium did not require motives, but today horror films are faced with a public that is not easily shocked or frightened. Your typical Western audiences are so accustomed to the tortured terrors of the Saw Franchise, Hostel I and II, and the whole bevy of torture porn that ups the ante for pure shock with every new installment that a dude in a mask with a knife just does not provide serious shocks. The Scream movies depend on an audience aware of the so-called rules so sharply laid out in the first installment: virgins survive, sex, drugs and alcohol kills, the blonde always dies, the multiple red-herrings, and that all-important final scare when you think it’s all over. How then to cope with an audience that struggles to be shocked?
Well, the answer is simple. Don’t shock them. Entertain them. What Craven is good at–has always been good at–is providing the jump factor, the pure enjoyment of waiting for the inevitable bloodbath, of betting on who will survive to the final act, who could be the killer, and what that final twist will be. The darkness of the subject is lightened by the fact that it’s all a joke, a massive prank that the audience is in on. For all the blood and guts, it’s still funny and we’re meant to laugh at it.
Scre4m merrily acknowledges the changes in technology that the other films did not have to address. There are cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, iPods and iPhone apps, digital cameras, live streaming and web cams. There are hyper-aware film geeks to lay out the rules–namely, that all the rules have changed–and to subsequently comment on them. There are films within films, references to reboots and remakes, the veneration of the original, a whole pop cultural world the audience can recognize, relate to, be versed in. There’s also an edge of commentary, amid the gleeful mayhem. Cults of celebrity and the public lives of every individual are fixed securely in the viewfinder, right before the knife tears out their innards. The film recreates the genre for the generation raised in the Millennium, a group able to surf the waves of metanarrative without ever stopping to have it explained.
Which brings me, finally, to my criticism of the critics. I’ve already read several reviews of Scre4m that claim, among other things, that the film is for a generation afraid to be frightened. Yes, it is addressed to us, the smart-asses, the hipsterish masses so aware of our hyper-reality that we seem incapable of existing offline or disconnected. While the high schoolers of the original went to Blockbuster, we buy DVDs and mp4s, download music and hold four way conversations over multiple cell phones. But we’re not afraid to be frightened. We’re frightened all the time. We’ve been told, for years now, that there are a million things to be afraid of, and the media, the government, Mom and Dad and the whole consumer culture trades on our fear. Can you blame us if the psychokiller in a ghost mask doesn’t quite scare us? That we laugh rather than cringe at the obviously fake entrails or the crushing of bones? Or that we take open and obvious pleasure in the flaunting of the rules of horror that the makers of Scream themselves created? In the face of such overweaning terror, we either despair…or we laugh. It seems to me that this generation has chosen laughter.
Nearing the end of the film, one character expresses to another:
“Wow. That’s just so meta.”
“I dunno. Something I heard the kids say.”
We’ve gone round the bend, past meta, past postmodern, into an unknown land the critics have no word for. Welcome to the Millennium. Motives are incidental.