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1997. Directed by Wes Craven. With Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan

When does self-referentiality turn into decadence? I know it when I see it, and Scream crosses the line before it's half over. In this extravagantly self-conscious horror movie, both killer and victims have, as one kid puts it, "Seen way too many horror movies," making the gimmick here their sense of irony about their own situation. "This is so unoriginal," they keep saying as their friends turn up slashed to death. Does having the characters say it before we do make it any more acceptable? Actually yes...for a while. But then it begins to seem that perhaps Wes Craven has made way too many horror movies. This is the teens-terrified-by-maniac genre at the end of its rope: Freddy Kruger reduced to cannibalism.

In this movie, the crazed killer quizzes his victims about slasher-movie trivia before disemboweling them. The imperiled kids throw around references to Psycho, Prom Night, and Wes Craven's own Nightmare on Elm Street series. One of the kids works in a video store and prides himself on knowing all the scary-movie rules: Only sexually active kids get killed; the main suspect will turn up dead in the last reel; if you say "I'll be right back," you won't; etc. And at the big party held to celebrate school's being closed (because two schoolmates and the principal have been hacked up; kind of heartless, these suburban kids), the evening's entertainment is, inevitably, Halloween.

Initially, this strategy is disconcerting and effective. There's a way in which movie characters become more "realistic" when they have seen the same movies we have, adore the same stars, quote the same lines of dialog. Suddenly, we lose the protection of being "the audience;" these kids are as up on horror-movie conventions as we are, and they get murdered anyway. But it becomes obvious before long that this movie has nothing to do with the intersection of "real life" and "movies," because the whole thing is a joke. The plot is incredibly far-fetched; the murders are ludicrously excessive; the characters are caricatures; the suspense sequences are made to be laughed at. For example, one of the few kids to survive into the last reel lounges like a sitting duck in the living room watching Halloween. He kibbitzes the TV: "Turn around, Jamie! God, you're so stupid; turn around!" while the masked murderer is creeping up behind him. This is a joke so broad (there's an almost identical gag in Arsenic and Old Lace) that we begin to suspect that the interplay between multiple generations of ironies is Scream's whole raison d'etre. It's like two facing mirrors that reflect only each other.

Fair enough. It's fun for the first hour or so, with enough "distancing" to be not too scary, and enough self-referentiality to make viewers (it's been very popular among people in their teens and early 20s) feel in on something sophisticated and post-modern.

But I don't think it compares to Craven's previous film, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, which didn't just have fun undermining itself, but went on to imply a connection between horror films and some lurking, universal evil that searches constantly for a medium through which it can enter our retinas, our dreams, our brains, and, once lodged there, start slashing.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein