When a full and thorough history of the popular culture of post war America comes to be written, the Scream films should have a special mention, because Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson have achieved through them something quite remarkable.
The films are a referential and post-modern nod towards the impact that the teen slasher genre has had on US society since the 1960s, and it is also a nod towards something deeply American, that curious and sometimes dangerous crossover between filmic fantasy and reality.
The fear of the random killer, the anonymous stranger, the predator picking up naïve hitchhikers on darkened country roads, was really a product of the late 1960s. A period of unparalleled affluence, relative social harmony and cohesion and national self confidence was starting to unravel. The counter culture of the 1960s, that whilst confined to a bohemian fringe, made great TV during the troubled year of 1968, representing a frightening challenge to the orderliness of US suburbia. The dark side of that culture was personified by Charles Manson in 1969 with the Tate and La Bianca murders in Los Angeles.
Following those killings, that, even with subsequent atrocities such as the Columbine High School shooting, still remain singularly horrific, the mood in America began to change overnight. No one crime before 9/11 has affected the US mindset more than the Manson family killing spree, because it represented the dark side of a dream gone wrong, the search for a utopia (which, let’s face it, is the whole point of America) had produced monstrousness.
Richard Nixon campaigned successfully on a platform of moral restoration, a war on crime, disorder, drugs and ‘subversive elements’, and along with a host of new bogeymen to frighten the US public with, the folk devil of the serial killer was born.
There are, obviously, serial killers in the US, and in many ways the 1970s would be the golden age of the American serial killer, you only need to see David Fincher’s brilliant Zodiac, or study the case of Ted Bundy to see how public fascination and horror at this seemingly inexplicable phenomenon had peaked.
The Scream films could not have been possible without John Carpenter and Halloween. The godfather of all slashers Michael Myers was born on the big screen in 1978, at the end of a decade of growing fear and anxiety about lawlessness, and a decade in which there was a profound sense of social fragmentation in America, under Nixon, Ford and Carter’s watches, it seemed there simply were more strangers to be murdered by. The old, cohesive communities of the 1950s, those halcyon days referenced by Robert Zemeckis’s Back To The Future were long since gone.
Throughout the 1980s a slew of ‘video nasties’ as the ever eloquent British Tabloid Press dubbed them, from Friday the 13th through to Child’s Play gradually shifted beyond genuine scariness to levels of absurdity.
Films such as My Bloody Valentine, New Year’s Evil, Happy Birthday to Me, April Fool’s Day, Prom Night, Christmas Evil, Graduation Day, Mother’s Day took the genre to the level of farce.
In an early episode of Beavis and Butthead, Mike Judge casts a knowing eye over the cultural form when Beavis is arrested and accidentally mistaken for ‘The Hippy Ripper’, a Manson-esque killer, who has evaded capture since the 1970s.
Scream could have trod the tired and ultimately unfunny path of the spoof movie, and indeed, Scary Movie, a tired and unfunny spoof was made out of Scream.
Williamson and Craven did something altogether more sophisticated; they created an homage to the genre, without doing the often clumsy Tarantino style homage, where the entire film becomes a rather boring exercise in observing how clever the director has been this time with his ‘homage’.
Instead, Williamson, formerly the creator of Dawson’s Creek, has made four tributes to both the culture of the slasher flick in the USA, and to the cult of the teenager, one of the truly American ideas to dominate the 20th Century. Even when they are murdered, they are somehow valuable, somehow special, somehow iconic, their brief, beautiful lives extinguished by some unspoken madness.
Scream 4 is probably the final installment of this franchise, I do hope so, franchises that are allowed to drag on become sloppy and lazy, they need to end on a high. The films, I believe, will stand the test of time, because they are the distilled essence of a uniquely American cultural form, part of the telling of the American story, with its fears and troubles wrote large.