It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Fears come back from the dead and walk in the day. Goths thrive at midnight showings of “Rocky Horror” and vandals throw eggs at houses. And the Film Beat? We’re popping popcorn and crawling under blankets to watch some of our favorite scary (or just vaguely spooky) films. ’Tis the season for tricks and treats — whether we’re jumping in our skins or howling at the moon. Join us as we walk through films that remind us of the dark night of Halloween.
When I was about eight years old and my oldest brother was 12, my mom bought him a surprisingly well-made Halloween costume from Target. It was a simple black robe, the spooky yet generic ghost mask from the villains in “Scream,” a bag of fake blood and a tube that made the blood burst onto the robe as though the wearer had been stabbed. I don’t recount this story to accuse my mom of desensitizing us to violence — if I learned anything at all from “The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy” or “Courage the Cowardly Dog,” horror should be allowed to be a bit fun and silly. “Scream” does just that, while making its own points about how horror affects the way we view violence.
Directed by Wes Craven (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”), “Scream” is known for its deep respect for — and simultaneous repurposing of — the horror genre. While high schoolers are picked off individually and methodically by a mysterious killer, the characters crack jokes about typical horror tropes before turning them on their head. Randy (Jamie Kennedy, “Son of the Mask”) leads an iconic scene in which he explains the rules of a horror movie:
“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: You can never have sex. Big no no! Big no no! Sex equals death, okay? Number two: You can never drink or do drugs. The sin factor! It’s a sin. It’s an extension of number one. And number three: Never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, ‘I’ll be right back.’ Because you won’t be back.”
When Stu (Matthew Lillard, “Scooby Doo”) teases him by saying he will, in fact, be right back, Randy replies, “See, you push the laws and you end up dead. Okay, I’ll see you in the kitchen with a knife.” In typical “Scream” fashion, Stu is later seen in the kitchen with a knife, where he is revealed to be the killer. The film twists the tropes to work their way, like when Sidney (Neve Campbell, “The Craft”) tells the then-unknown killer on the phone that she doesn’t watch horror movies because “they’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who’s always running up the stairs, when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting.” When the killer pops out of her closet, she tries to run out the door but can’t because she had previously locked it. So she’s forced to run up the stairs like the hypothetical girl who can’t act. It’s clever and hilarious and so iconic.
However, “Scream” already established in the opening scene that it will not play by the rules. Casey Becker, a pre-Y2K ingenue, is played by Drew Barrymore (“The Wedding Singer”), arguably one of the most famous actresses at the time the film was released in 1997. The actress told Entertainment Weekly, “What I wanted to do is to take that comfort zone away. I asked if I could be Casey Becker so we would establish this rule does not apply in this film.” It’s such a beautiful introduction to how the film subverts the genre it clearly loves so much — “Scream” won’t keep someone alive just because they’re a movie star.
That’s probably the most fascinating aspect of “Scream:” It toys with the meta in a way that would have “Deadpool” fans on their knees. The killer tells Casey the rules of the horror movie, what stupid characters would do and even quizzes her on horror movie trivia as he threatens her. It would almost be funny if it weren’t so violent. Which, of course, is another idea that “Scream” explores so masterfully: What does our obsession with gore do to us? Is it right to laugh it off?
The killers are finally revealed to be Stu and Billy (Skeet Ulrich, “Riverdale”), and they appear to be in a film club composed of just them. Billy quotes “Psycho” and sprinkles in fun facts about Brian de Palma’s “Carrie” as if it’s all some joke to him. Lillard is gut-bustingly hilarious as a piece of comic relief in the film, lamenting how his parents are going to be angry with him when they find out he’s a murderer. It’s black humor and social commentary all at once when Billy says, “Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!”
The film has these other eerie prophetic elements, as the killers appear to be disturbingly aware of some kind of panopticon, like they know their lives are actually within the parameters of a film. It reminds me of the way we interact with the eyes in our cameras today, wishing we were characters in a movie, soundtracking our lives as directors rather than actors. Billy and Stu speak as if they know they’re being watched, as if their life is a movie, which, of course, it really is.
The most gratifying case of self-awareness, though, is when Billy is incapacitated on the floor and Randy says, “Careful, this is the moment when the supposedly dead killer comes back to life for one last scare.” Billy, of course, does jolt awake, and Sidney shoots him in the center of his forehead. Completely calm and victorious, she says, “Not in my movie.” She’s the ultimate Final Girl.
The Final Girl is a term coined by author Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book “Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.” First and foremost, the Final Girl must be the literal final girl who survives the pursuits of the killer. More specifically, Clover writes:
“Unlike her girlfriends, she is not sexually active … She is a boyish girl, even named something like Stevie or Will or Stretch, but a girl nonetheless … That quality makes her a congenial double for the adolescent male.“
The Final Girl typically has an androgynous name that allows male audiences to project themselves onto the character, to believe that this element of masculinity is the key to her survival. Her abstinence keeps her from the “sin factor” that Randy references, keeps her womb from wandering. Any number of Tumblr mood boards present the Final Girl as the feminist hero; Clover herself admits that “this account of the Final Girl is not entirely wrong” but ignores the conditions that female characters are typically forced to meet to survive.
“Scream” turns this all on its head. Sidney is not a virgin by the end of the film, although she jokes that she is “sexually anorexic.” She is not separated from her female peers by her name or personality. Her best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan, “Jawbreaker”) teases the killer with the same knowledge of the rules of horror that Sidney has, joking, “No, please don’t kill me, Mr. Ghostface, I wanna be in the sequel!” Sidney is not a victim whose fate suddenly changes course to favor her survival; her instinct to fight tooth-and-nail rather than flee never leaves her in the whole film. She is an agent of her own decision to live.
Maybe the writers of “Scream” felt that the Final Girl needed some updating as the new millenium approached. The sexual revolution of the ’70s was a far cry from the post-Recession working woman of the ’90s. Whatever their intentions, I’m glad they did. The Final Girl deserves to be a heroine.
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.