Scream if you're fed up with all this irony

After 'Blair Witch', ultra-hip teen slasher movies are looking a bit passé. What will Wes Craven do next?
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The Independent Culture

Try this on for postmodernity. In Scream, a masked serial killer hunts down a bunch of teenagers - and their knowledge of the conventions of movies in which masked serial killers hunt down bunches of teenagers doesn't stop them from being kebabbed one by one. In Scream II, the survivors of Scream find themselves under the knife again - on the campus where they're studying film theory, and declaiming in seminars their belief that "sequels suck". Soon, of course, they're being dead-headed like tea roses. In Scream III - steadfastly the last of the series - the survivors are embroiled in another round of slash-and-purée - this time on the set of Stab III, a movie being made about their experiences in the first two movies. As one of the characters reflects, "it's a perfect example of life imitating art imitating life ..."

Try this on for postmodernity. In Scream, a masked serial killer hunts down a bunch of teenagers - and their knowledge of the conventions of movies in which masked serial killers hunt down bunches of teenagers doesn't stop them from being kebabbed one by one. In Scream II, the survivors of Scream find themselves under the knife again - on the campus where they're studying film theory, and declaiming in seminars their belief that "sequels suck". Soon, of course, they're being dead-headed like tea roses. In Scream III - steadfastly the last of the series - the survivors are embroiled in another round of slash-and-purée - this time on the set of Stab III, a movie being made about their experiences in the first two movies. As one of the characters reflects, "it's a perfect example of life imitating art imitating life ..."

So too for Wes Craven, director of all three - as the Poverty Row slasher flicks of the 1970s and 1980s derided by the dramatis personae of these movies were all his own work. The cannibal hillbilly shocker The Hills Have Eyes (1977) is one of his, as are the original Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and the notorious rape-revenge picture The Last House on the Left (1972), which is still banned in the UK. Doesn't he feel anxious about colluding in the parody of his life's work?

"Oh, sure," he says. "But it had to be done. After the proliferation of Nightmare on Elm Street movies - which I had very little to do with, by the way - the horror genre had become trite, and deserved to be punctured or lampooned. Part of the price of going on is to discard what is used up. The remarkable thing is that it didn't happen sooner. Mary Shelley could have done it in Frankenstein if she'd wanted to. There were other horror novels around at the time which she could have made reference to."

Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818) was probably the first novel to stick the knife into the Gothic genre. And Craven himself had his first shot at ironising horror in 1994. The plot of Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) - the seventh of the progressively knackered Nightmare on Elm Street series - had the actors from the first film under attack from a real-life manifestation of its villain, the steel-taloned Freddy Krueger.

Craven's film was a flop - but it recognised that audiences were too familiar with the clichés of teen horror for the characters in these narratives to remain plausibly ignorant of them. It took Scream - and, crucially, its screenwriter Kevin Williamson - to turn this admission into profit. Williamson used a dilute version of the same formula in Halloween H20 (1998) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1998), and applied it more strongly in The Faculty (1999) - an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers parody in which high-school crusaders battle a malignant extraterrestrial cephalopod which has somehow disguised itself as Piper Laurie. The kids' careful study of pulp sci-fi paperbacks gives them the secret of how to defeat the aliens - by slamming ball-point pens into their eyeballs, cutely enough. Postmodern intertextuality saves the earth from alien invasion, and also allows cinemagoers who think they're above the simple pleasures of the horror film to enjoy stories about teenagers being dismembered by homicidal maniacs and bug-eyed monsters.

There are respectable precedents for this kind of entertainment. Like the characters in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, the protagonists in these movies are tyrannised by other versions of their story which determine that the action must run a certain course. Bear with me a moment on this one. The Trojans spend an entire scene arguing that, on reflection, it would be better to return Helen to the Greek camp - only to change their minds (and return the plot to its conventional pattern) in an illogical about-turn contained in the last few lines.

In the Scream films, characters are more certain about the details of slasher films than they are of their own lives. Most of Scream III's dialogue is extratextual reference. "Very Hannibal Lecter. Very Seven," rumbles a police officer. A dim ingénue complains that her screen murder lacks originality: "The shower thing has been done before!" she wails. "Hello?! Vertigo!" The heroine receives a videotape - marked "Scary Movie", the working title of Scream - which contains a message from one of the slaughtered film theorists in Scream II, telling to deal with the latest spate of murders as if they were part of a movie cycle. "Think trilogy," he warns, reminding them that in the third instalment, the villain is always superhuman and even the leads can be garotted.

But can horror films afford to be this arch? Especially when the genre, under the influence of the no-frills scares of The Blair Witch Project - seems to be on a back-to-basics kick. All the indications are that irony-free schlock is slowly emerging from its coffin. Nigel Wingrove's Sacred Flesh - an honest-to-goodness exploitation Britflick about blood-smeared medieval nuns - is released on video next month. Charles Saatchi has just bought the rights to the Hammer name, generating the possibility for a rebirth of po-faced sex-and-horror costume drama. Warner Brothers is re-releasing 17 old Hammer pictures on video over the next few months. The Sixth Sense demonstrated that a horror film could be played totally straight, and still prevent most of the audience guessing its final twist.

And thanks to this reorientation, some of the genre's old guard are now keen to revisit the scenes of the hideous crimes that kick-started their careers. George Romero, creator of the zombies-go-wild-in-Pittsburgh classic, Night of the Living Dead (1968) shot a new genre picture, Bruiser, in Canada last summer. Sam Raimi, the director of that other gore-slaked standard, The Evil Dead (and its two sequels) says he's keen to add a fourth zombie runaround to his cv. "I just want to make one more character-based movie," he tells me. "Something like Elizabeth, maybe, that would be cool - and then I'll be back to a really scary horror picture. Like Evil Dead IV. That would be really nice." Either the trauma of having just directed Kevin Costner in a baseball movie - For the Love of the Game, released later this year - has sent him scuttering for the celluloid equivalent of a sucky-sucky comfort blanket, or the old-fashioned way of terrorising a cinema audience is moving back into vogue. Even Universal's daft resuscitation of The Mummy (the sequel to which is now in production) suggests that horror narratives can play to audiences without being doused in the salad dressing of irony.

The financial returns on the latest crop of self-conscious teen shockers, Scream III and Final Destination (in which the Grim Reaper hunts down members of a school party who fail to board the plane upon which Fate decrees they should die) may well determine how far the next generation of horror films are prepared to put their tongues in their cheeks - before ripping them out and slicing them up, of course.

Craven acknowledges that the ironic approach may have run out of steam. "Certainly in the Scream series has found something, recognised it, taken it to its fullest level so that it can't go any further. It's like the ultimate car chase in The Blues Brothers. After that, all car chases look like parodies. So there'll probably be a move away from irony - until horror establishes a new reality to be ironical about." If Craven ever directs another horror film, he says he'll strip it down to the basics.

In Scream III, however, he takes this self-referentiality to a dizzying level. Wizened exploitation flick producer Roger Corman has a bit part as a wizened exploitation flick producer. Carrie Fisher supplies a cameo - as a Carrie Fisher lookalike who was an unsuccessful candidate for the role of Princess Leia. Jay and Silent Bob, recurring characters in Kevin Smith's films - largely because the latter is played by Smith - toddle by on a tour of the studio shooting Stab III. Jenny McCarthy, pneumatic former Playboy Playmate, now an ambitious starlet on the make, plays an ambitious starlet on the make. "I feel like there is a candle inside of my body and it was just lit when I got my first part on TV," she told me when I interviewed her in 1997. "And now, baby, it's turned into a motherf---ing torch! And it wants to go bounce!" In Scream III, it gets its wish: until the snuff scene comes along.

If you remember Ernest Thesiger taking lunch on a coffin lid in The Bride of Frankenstein, or the Claude Rains incarnation of The Invisible Man skipping down an English country lane, singing "Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May", you'll know it wasn't Kevin Williamson or Wes Craven who first realised that a bit of incongruous humour at the right moment could up the horror ante. But you've got to wonder how much of this a normal audience can take. Unless, of course, there's now no such thing as a normal audience.

"They can take as much as we've given them so far," reflects Craven. "There's a fascination in most audiences for looking at different levels of reality in the process of seeing a film. Look at Being John Malkovich. Or Magnolia, even. I was in Amsterdam the other day and went to a museum where we saw all the paintings of the Dutch masters. In there you see every detail of the life of that period - what they ate, what they wore, how they went to the bathroom. The details were all there. In a similar way, it's impossible to make a film with teenage characters that doesn't reflect the details of their world. They're just swamped with images, hyperbole, heroes, villains, fictions. You can't talk about teenagers without talking about all that stuff."

So here's my idea for Scream IV. Scream III star Emily Mortimer plays British actress Emily Mortimer, on trial for the murder of all the movie critics who gave iffy reviews for her performance in Scream III. She is defended, of course, by her father. Or maybe Rumpole of the Bailey. But it's Wes Craven who really dunnit. "Yeah, great," says Craven, tolerantly. "You should pitch it to Miramax. They might go for it." He's being ironic, of course.

'Scream III' opens on Friday

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