How WES CRAVEN Revolutioned Modern, Meta Horror
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How Wes Craven Revolutionized Modern, Meta Horror

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“A bunch of articulate teens sit around and deconstruct horror movies until Ghostface kills them one by one. It’s been done to death. The whole self-aware postmodern meta shit. Stick a fork in 1996, already.” – Scream 4

There are many masters of horror. Carpenter. Romero. Cronenberg. Barker. Miike…However, in spite of all of the achievements of these experts of the trade, none of them truly revolutionized modern horror in the same way that Wes Craven did. In lieu of the legend’s passing, it felt appropriate to dissect three of his films, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Scream (and its sequels), and Cursed, that epitomize the director’s ability at pushing the genre forward, especially in terms of establishing a brand of horror that was self-aware and reflexive.

There’s a fascinating through-line that’s present in these films that’s deeply representative of the newer brand of horror that came to be embraced, which would not have been possible if not for the work that Craven did here. This all comes down to Craven’s obsession with reality and the simulacrum constantly keeping it in flux. With New Nightmare he depicts a world where a movie comes to life; with Scream, the idea is that life is a movie; and in Cursed, it’s almost like you’re watching “life’s movie.” What that means is that it’s the self-aware film that would have been made by the characters out of the previous films. In spite of the spark of this beginning in 1994 with New Nightmare, Craven was already beginning to do a ton to move horror to a more modern, meta place.

New Nightmare
“This is still a script, right, Wes?”

NewNightmare1

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the final film in the canonical Nightmare on Elm Street series which Craven began ten years prior, is sort of a fascinating animal. The ambitious storyline sees Freddy’s horror from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies crossing over into the real world. The smart film even goes as far as having Heather Langenkamp, the actress who played Nancy in the original film (and Dream Warriors; go Dream Warriors!) being made the protagonist here, but forcing her to “play” Nancy one last time to beat this evil. There are countless layers going on here between reality and fantasy. Even the first scene terrifically undercuts what you think is a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, until it reveals itself to actually be the real life filming of a scene (complete with Wes Craven there as himself). Actors from the Elm Street films are constantly appearing and weighing in, and a moment is even taken to insult all of the past Elm Street sequels, essentially retconning them and establishing a new continuity. In the process, New Nightmare manages to “fix” the franchise so to speak, in a very ambitious, interesting way.

Craven would go on to play with this reality/fantasy meta hybrid heavily in the second half of his career, but it really feels the most organic here as the movie just casually spools off into real life. There’s a dazzling energy that fuels the film as you watch a real person try to become their movie persona (versus six years later in Scream 3, where he has characters being literally paired off with their movie version counterparts) so they can save the real world based off of the horrors that her movies have indoctrinated. That is insane, and sounds like it should never work, but it turns into one of the better Nightmare on Elm Street movies simply because of the reinvention it takes. Even more power is gained when considering that this series in general is all about determining what is real and what is a dream, so to double down on that concept to say, what is real, what is a dream, and what is a movie, is for sure the strongest synthesis of Craven’s themes in this series.

This film also introduces a concept that remains fairly consistent through all of the films looked at here, which is the idea of these people doing interviews in the movie, reflecting on their fictionalized selves. We see Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp doing it here, Sidney and Gale doing it throughout Scream, and hints of it throughout the celebrity heavy portions of Cursed. All of this just adds more to the thesis being pushed here, as the truth is forced to comment and dissect the fiction that has informed their lives.

Another welcome dimension to the film is that there’s a pleasant symmetry to this idea of Freddy coming to life coinciding with Craven making another Elm Street movie, which of course coincides with the actual release of New Nightmare. This film is all about legitimacy, and as Freddy is given more focus and attention, his strength only continues to rise. There’s an interaction in the film that even echoes this:

“I think the only way to stop him is to make another movie. Now I swear to you I’m gonna stay by this computer and keep writing until I finish the script, but…when the time comes, you’re gonna have to make a choice.”
“Choice? What kind of choice?”
“Whether or not you will be willing to play Nancy one last time”

In the end it comes down to real people taking agency to overcome these imaginary horrors that are invading their world. It might sound fairly pedestrian now, but at the time it was really pushing something new. It’s a concept that’s even quite similar to what’s going on with Sidney throughout the Scream sequels. She’s not choosing to reprise a role in a film, but by again rallying against Ghostface and putting herself in the fray, she’s accepting her title as Sidney Prescott, Final Girl, one last time, to conquer this reflexive evil. While New Nightmare would do much to usher in Craven’s fascination with a modern, self-aware approach to horror, he took this idea to staggering new heights a mere two years later with Scream.

Scream
“But this is life. This isn’t a movie.”
“Sure it is, Sid. It’s all a movie. It’s all one great big movie. Only you can pick your genre.”

Scream1

The Holy Grail of Craven’s career in a lot of people’s eyes, beyond being just a very solid slasher film, Scream is all sorts of meta goodness in a way that you wouldn’t think would work. Scream chronicles a serial killer who’s killing a bunch of teens who happen to be tremendous horror aficionados. The film expertly breaks down the genre, discussing mistakes made in horror classics, horror film firsts, and even laying out the rules of the genre. It honestly feels like a film thesis that keenly dissects the genre…that also has gratuitous grisly murders.

If New Nightmare is about people struggling with the idea that they are their movie personas, then Scream is about how to use those personas to rise above the genre and stay alive. If we are tropes, then there are rules, and if we follow those rules then conceivably we can survive. The concept that Sidney and the people of Westboro’s lives have been transformed into a horror film is fully embraced by them too, as characters shout out things like, “No, please don’t kill me, Mr. Ghostface, I wanna be in the sequel!” They’ve full out accepted their fate in many cases. At other times they’re outright dismissive of horror, “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.” Characters almost have a disdain and lack of respect for the genre, until this killer can legitimize it and bring back its power (for the characters in the film, and for the audience).

Repeatedly, the life and death of our cast seems to be dependent upon horror tropes, or the film wisely choosing to skewer them whenever it’s appropriate. It’s such a simplistic idea, to crack open horror’s skull and just play around in the metaness of it all, but with a lot of the greatest horror films, simplicity works. There’s no denying that this more modern take on horror was being accepted by audiences. Scream essentially brought the horror genre back to life in the ‘90s, and a slew of self-aware knockoffs like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Final Destination, and Urban Legend began crowding the box office. Even now, the tongue-in-cheek, reflexive titles like Cabin in the Woods and the wealth of television efforts like American Horror Story and Scream Queens wouldn’t be possible without the trails being blazed here.

While Scream is much to credit with this phenomenon, it’s still highly worth reflecting on Scream 2, which not only carries over the themes that Scream has introduced, but becomes even more reflexive by taking the canon of sequels under its wing now, too. As a result of this it arguably has more to say than the original film and pushes Craven’s modern horror even further. The film is also well aware of the burden and stigma that sequels see, and even addresses this head-on a number of times:

“So, you’re suggesting that someone is trying to make a real life sequel?”
Stab 2? Who would wanna do that? Sequels suck! Oh please, please! By definition alone, sequels are inferior films!”

By wearing its sequel-ness on its sleeve, it not only is capable of hitting new reflexive heights, but it manages to surpass the sequel slump that most horror witnesses. There’s something to be said for the incredible set piece that opens the film where a crowded theater are ostensibly watching the Scream murders on screen, while criticizing the genre and the characters’ actions, yet simultaneously being guilty of them themselves. It seems so simple, but there are many layers going on here contributing to a massively meta product that courses through the whole film. Maureen’s death in the theater is perfectly synchronized with the murder happening on the movie screen as everyone is oblivious and just cheering at the chaos. There are few situations where you could justifiably have a room filled with Ghostface killers, and yet this one pulls it off perfectly.

Even just having these characters in a film class now, taking apart sequels and talking about movies being responsible for violence is a huge set piece that could play out terribly awkward. Due to the college setup and everything the movie establishes, it’s surprisingly natural, in spite of its glaring on the nose-ness.

Scream’s sequel also allows itself to buff out many of its rough spots by becoming the critic itself. A more self-aware eye often means a more critical one, so by proxy the movie is capable of cleaning up some of the original film’s plot holes. We see people telling others to, “Star-69 his ass!” to figure out who the killer is, as technology moves on and is incorporated into the film accordingly. Elsewhere the film even has Sidney being terrorized by a caller early on only for her to immediately undercut him with Caller ID. The times are changing and the film is smart to use that to its advantage rather than ignoring it. The film even insults the previous one for its killers’ motives, saying they were too thin or unbelievable, as this film is set on surpassing it with a better ending.

The lasting message that Scream 2 seems to want you to take from it is the whole “blame the movies” aspect. It’s Mickey’s defense, and the entire film is predicated on it since the success of the fictional Stab is what has brought these killings back to life. Even though the motive is simplified to be “too ‘90s”, it’s an extension of what the first film introduced. While that was using the knowledge of horror movies to survive, this one has used horror films as the justification for causing the killings in the first place. It’s carrying out the damage that the first film introduced, with the meta answer that Scream caused Scream 2 to happen, both in the logic of the film, and in its real world context.

Scream 3, which we’d be remiss to not touch upon here, is certainly not as focused of trilogy-centric in the way that Scream 2 is about sequels, but it is focused on the Hollywood movie aspect of it that seemed to slowly take over Craven’s focus. There’s much more here about artifice, attacking cinema, and the trappings that make horror movies in the first place. The film does much with these murders taking place on the Stab set, or a production lot, with cinema clearly being the lens that all of this is being filtered through. We have cast members of the movie being killed now and murders actively changing the film that’s being created, rather than it just being a device. Now the killer’s murders are consciously changing the production of Stab that is being done, as these worlds mix and the audience is supposed to pull out some message about reality. We even have characters appear from beyond the dead via videotape, bridging these two ideas of reality and cinema even further. The missteps taken with Scream 3 were not necessarily corrected with Craven’s next modern horror film, Cursed, but it still carries on and tries to add to the message that he’s carefully cultivated through these films.

Cursed
“Fair fight? This is Hollywood!”

Cursed1

Cursed is a big, sprawling mess of a film, but if you squint really hard you can see what Craven was shooting for here. Cursed is trying to reinvigorate werewolves, like Scream did slashers (right down to Craven reuniting with Scream screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, for the picture), but rather than it playing into conventions, it tries to break them. In Scream, everyone is fascinated by movies. They are their Gods and the rulemakers. Here, they’re the shitty bosses that keep you late at work; you’re still beholden to them, but the worship is gone and the snark is turned up, and it’s (one of the reasons) why this movie doesn’t work. At the same time, it’s almost a better product judged based on what it’s attempting to do–and with the film going through such a production hell, it’s easy to believe there was a good version of Cursed in there at one point–It has the same knowledge and reflexivity that Scream does, but it does substantially less with it. It’s like this is the film the characters from Scream would have made.

What Wes Craven is trying to do here is absolutely admirable though, and had this project worked and he brought the werewolf genre back to life, it could have been a very interesting time. It’s easy to picture a Cursed trilogy much in the same vein as Scream, as the werewolf lore continues to get bent and reworked. In a sense, he was trying to bring werewolves–and by proxy, monsters in general–into mainstream slasher territory. Obviously that’s not saying werewolf films are niche or that creature/slasher hybrids haven’t been popularized, but this is trying to do it in such an endlessly “hip” way and lacks most of the conventional baggage that you see associated with werewolf films. It’s treating them completely different, in a way that’s not unlike Robert Rodriguez’s Body Snatchers riff, The Faculty.

To begin with, Cursed lacks the huge reflexive set pieces that kick off New Nightmare and Scream, instead opting to go down a much “hipper” route. Right down to the wolf howl and “edgy”, “subversive” Little Red Riding Hood song that kicks off the movie, clearly the intention here is to buck your expectations. There’s a weird needless obsession with wolves in this universe too that tries to pass as self-awareness, but is simply sloppily inserting wolf references. There’s a scene where Ellie is spooked by a clock, which just happens to be a Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood cuckoo clock. This is a clock that she owns, mind you. This sort of wolf-inization is constantly going on throughout the movie in lieu of actual depth.

Elsewhere we get attempts at reflexivity in the form of these characters getting hard-ons for Lon Chaney’s cane from The Wolfman and other werewolf iconography as they spout out facts and crib notes on the topic. One character runs a Planet Hollywood aping horror venue called Tinsel’s that acts as an excuse to have everyone racing through a mock graveyard, a house of mirrors, or staring at a dormant cenobite as these worlds continue to bleed together awkwardly. Just like Scream posited what would happen if a slasher attacked people that were slasher film experts, Cursed similarly looks to explore what would happen if werewolf aficionados were attacked by a werewolf. Except they just look like werewolf experts. This is a film that has several sweeping crane shots over the Hollywood sign, after all. Or the fact that the werewolf is taken down by Ellie negging and insulting her to the point that her vanity gets the better of her and forces her to reveal where she’s hiding (while also giving them all the finger in werewolf mode, which is just too insane to believe).

There’s also a very bizarre feeling going on in Cursed as you ricochet between needless characters that almost act as a who’s who of Craven’s latest films. These familiar faces feel like they’re showing up to answer nostalgia and convey a certain tone for the movie to convey rather than to actually be taken seriously as characters. It’s all part of the aesthetic that Craven is trying to put together, but falters terribly. Along similar lines the film tries to sloppily handle “subtext” like turning into a werewolf being analogous to homosexuality. The entire film works off of the premise that we’re all “cursed” as we make our way through this thing called life, just only some of us are turning into werewolves. We all have secrets and baggage that we want to hide, and this movie makes that abundantly clear. ”Men, they’re all beasts,” is sort of the mission statement being put out here.

Even if Cursed is a complete misfire that continues some of Craven’s work with modern horror and breaking the fourth wall, it largely focuses on the wrong elements of celebrity and fantasy. At the least, this wasn’t his last film, and the proof of its intentions are at least encouraging. It’s the sort of attitude that surely slowly accumulated to Craven and Williamson finally reuniting for his final picture, Scream 4, which essentially takes everything these three films are trying to say, and contextualizes them together nearly perfectly (while also adding on the fodder of horror’s recent obsession with “torture porn”, the endless onslaught of remakes, and the fever pitch that being a celebrity has hit).

The horror community is truly at a loss with Craven now gone, and it’s endlessly enticing to think about what the master might have come up with next considering where his latest pictures were dwelling. While many new up and coming auteurs are starting to make a name for themselves in the genre, it will still be hard for any of them to hold a flamethrower next to Craven and how he managed to push modern horror into a new, exciting place, with New Nightmare, Scream, and Cursed largely being responsible for this renaissance of the form.


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