12) Rebuilding A Genre: Scream (1996)
Scream is a very interesting (not to mention mind-bending) breach of the fourth wall. The characters within the movie continually reference the fact that this situation, in which there is a maniacal, unknown killer at large in a small town, could be playing out like a traditional slasher-type horror movie (such as Friday 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street) – that always includes certain plot twists, and certain characters who will always behave in certain ways.
This means that they are also all aware that they themselves may be ‘in the roles’ of those characters – which, it bloodily transpires, they are. There is no direct character to audience contact, but there doesn’t need to be. The entire movie is taking the audience through the meta-deconstruction of a horror movie, as played out and narrated by the characters in this horror movie. It is a breach of a fourth wall, that is inside of a fourth wall, that is already inside the movie. That is, Scream breaks its own, internal, fourth wall – and it does it without crossing into the realm of the spoof.
Once everyone has retrieved their brains from the wall behind them, we can move on to the wider point which is that throughout the film, Scream operates on two levels. Most obviously, it is itself a horror film. At that time, very few scenes had recently been as disturbing or as terrifying as those first ten minutes in which Drew Barrymore and her boyfriend meet their brutal ends. In this way, Scream used the nostalgia that many viewers still felt for the traditional slasher plotline.
But, more ingeniously, Scream is a clever comment on the horror genre in general, and on the clichés that are churned out so frequently. This is made even more impressive by the fact that it was the director of Nightmare on Elm Street himself, Wes Craven, who directed this revitalization of a genre.
Until now, Craven had, to utilize a handy modern phrase, owned this genre. In fact, in 1994 Craven had actually even directed a specifically meta horror-film – Wes Craven’s New Nightmare – in which Freddie Kruger slashes his way through the fourth wall by invading the lives of the cast and crew of the Elm Street franchise. But although New Nightmare featured clever cross-overs between reality and fiction, and is considered by many to be a sort of precursor to the Scream series, its fourth wall break is fairly obvious. Scream’s, in short, is not.
By drawing attention to predictable plotlines and stereo-typical characters, Scream firstly ensured that this series was the only one that could legitimately still produce this type of movie without seeming horrendously hackneyed, and secondly demanded that the entirety of mainstream horror reinvent itself. I Know What You Did Last Summer was an obvious attempt to prove that slasher films could still be original, but the majority of viewers’ reaction to that movie was “I Don’t Care.”
Scream also caused a rebirth of ‘the sequel,’ but it had the monopoly here, too. Scream 3 was admittedly overstretched, but Scream 2 was an undeniable success. Audience responses to I Still Know What You Did Last Summer were, generally, “I Still Don’t Care.”
Overall then, and despite looking incredibly simple in design and execution, Scream was a smart and ambitious project. It broke the fourth wall not just between movie and audience, but between movie and an entire area of the movie world in general.