Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
***SPOILERS for Scream to follow.***
Synopsis for Scream: A year after the murder of her mother, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is terrorized by a new killer, who targets her and her friends using horror films as part of a deadly game.
Queer Aspect: Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu (Matthew Lillard) are secret gay lovers.
Happy New Year, Trace! Jan 2019 marks our one year anniversary of Horror Queers, which I can unequivocally say was one of my biggest achievements of last year. I’m so glad that you said yes when I pitched you on this series of articles and I’m especially excited that we’re expanding this crazy adventure into the podcasting realm starting January 16!
Now that the exciting news is out, let’s get down to the task at hand: Wes Craven’s 1996 revisionist slasher Scream (aka “The Film The Reinvigorated The Slasher Subgenre – And Possibly Horror – In The 90s”).
I will cop to being so scared to discuss this film as our very first podcast topic because it is so near and dear to my heart. I literally watched this film EVERY.SINGLE.DAY for a month when I got it on VHS in 1997 so you could say that I connected to it. To this day I can recite nearly every line from memory and, while I know that Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) is essentially your spirit animal, I will always have a soft spot for Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan). Without hyperbole, I can honestly say that Scream is literally one of my all-time favourite horror films.
But let’s eschew the histrionics and get down to brass tacks: Scream is a queer horror film. Not only is it written by genre horror vet – and notable “out” gay man – Kevin Williamson, it features one of the most covert queer bro-mances of the 90s in the form of killers Billy and Stu. And no, we’re not actually reaching with this claim!
I’ll confess that I didn’t really consider Scream anything other than a great horror movie until a few years ago. After Joshua Cross (of Toronto’s Queer Fear fame) scheduled it, I hopped online to do some research and indeed this observation has been made several times, most notably in the third chapter of Michael DeAngelis’ Reading the bromance: Homosocial relationships in film and television. The chapter, written by David Greven and entitled “Fears of a Millennial Masculinity: Scream’s Queer Killers”, identifies Billy and Stu as emblematic of both the shift in masculinity and the pervasive undercurrent of queer desire in 90s films. There’s a heavy dose of homoeroticism in the way that the pair interact throughout the film, and most particularly in the climax, when Stu hangs off Billy and the pair stab each other with their phallic weapons (knives = penises for those in the back).
It would be easy to suggest that Stu, emboldened by Lillard’s exaggerated physical and vocal performance, is the true queer character. Indeed his lack of motivation suggests that he goes along with the murders principally to appease Billy, his best friend and the man that he is in love with. But this also overlooks key identifiers about Billy: his unhealthy obsessive relationship with his mother’s love (Oedipal to say the least and very much a gay trope). Throw in his cosmetic costume styling akin to queer icon James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and Billy’s Norman Bates reference when he outs himself as the killer to Sidney (Psycho tends to skew queer due to Norman’s relationship to his mother and because he is played by closeted – at the time – queer actor Anthony Perkins) and you’ve got a litany of gay associations.
Greven’s chapter also positions Billy and Stu as the latest cinematic iteration of the infamous 1924 Leopold and Loeb case, in which two queer killers commit murder to prove that they are smart enough to get away with it. The notorious incident has been recreated on film numerous times, most notably as the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 classic Rope.
Trace, what do you think of Billy and Stu’s “relationship”? And what are some other reasons that Scream resonates with queer audiences in your mind?
Happy New Year to you as well, Joe! And happy one-year anniversary! This past year has truly been an adventure and I’m honored that you chose me to join you on it. And yes, for any readers who glossed over your first paragraph: we are expanding the Horror Queers series into the podcasting medium! The first three episodes will drop on Wednesday, January 16th, and we will be releasing one episode every Wednesday after that. We hope you enjoy! Actually, I hope you just listen to it. Enjoying it is secondary.
Moving on to Scream, which is our 20th(!) article together: I share your nervousness in discussing this seminal film. Not only is it one of my favorite horror films of all time, but it’s also just so, so sacred to the genre. It’s been discussed to death among critics and film scholars alike, so hopefully, we’re able to add something new to the discourse. And if we don’t? Eh, who cares? At least we get to talk about Scream.
I’m fully on board with your (and apparently many others’) interpretation of Billy and Stu as queer lovers. Reading the infamous third act stabbing sequence as their first time having sex with each other makes total sense. The stabbing so clearly represents their painful virginal (anal) penetration. Even if you don’t read it that way (and to be clear: it’s totally fine if you don’t), you can’t deny that there is some definite homoeroticism peppered throughout their scenes together. Also, Stu playing with Randy (Jamie Kennedy)’s earlobe in the video store is a little, well, gay. Straight guys: if I’m totally off the mark here and this is something you like to do with each other, please correct me in the comments (or send me pics).
Billy and Stu aren’t the only things that contribute to Scream’s queer reading, however. There is a reason you and I both connect with and adore the two “bitchy” female characters in the film. The queer community loves a good bitch, and both Gale Weathers and Tatum Riley fit the bill. Why is that, though? Why do we flock to bitchy female characters? I took to Twitter last month to find out and this was one of the more inspired replies:
I also think the intellect, wit, and camp of the series is appealing to the LGBTQ community because these are personality traits we had to cultivate to get by much like defense mechanisms
— jamie grayson (@TheBabyGuyNYC) December 12, 2018
This reasoning totally tracks, at least for me. I don’t consider myself a funny person (though I do aspire to talk just like Kevin Williamson’s characters), but I’d like to think that I have developed a certain sense of witticism in my daily vocabulary. This was developed after years of being picked on and being made fun of for being effeminate, even before I knew I was gay. You can imagine how crushed I was when, after years of defending myself to bullies and saying that I wasn’t gay, I realized that I was. I hate being wrong. Anyway, when you spend the bulk of your middle school career being made fun of, you have to come up with ways to defend yourself. For someone like myself, who wasn’t a physical fighter, I had to fight back with words. Granted, I wasn’t good at it, so maybe that’s why I connect so much with characters like Gale and Tatum. They embody the way I wish I could have spoken to my bullies back in middle school.
This theory bleeds over into the make-it-or-break-it issue that people have with Scream: the meta-humor. Scream is a beloved piece of horror cinema, but it has its detractors, though I’ve found that folks mostly take issue with the wave of copycats that Scream inspired rather than Scream itself. I maintain that if they have a problem with those films for ripping off a popular cash cow (see: I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, Valentine), then those same people should also have a problem with almost every slasher movie from the ‘80s, starting with Friday the 13th, which we all know is a blatant rip-off of Halloween.
One has to wonder if Williamson’s affinity for quippy teenagers stems from his own experiences from growing up as a queer adolescent in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. That knowing, smart-ass, self-aware humor is a Williamson trademark, and though it hasn’t made its way into all of his work (particularly TV series like the dreadful The Following or the canceled-too-soon Stalker), it’s something he undoubtedly has a knack for and many members of the queer community flock to it. Why is that?
Joe, why do you think the Scream franchise has amassed such a large queer following? Is it franchise-specific or has the slasher sub-genre as a whole earned that following, as well? And most importantly, do you think Tatum’s face looks like Michael Jackson when her head is crushed by that garage door?
Oh dear! I had never thought of that and now I may never be able to look at the great dummy work that KNB Effects did on the film in the same way! (Though as much as I love Tatum’s doggie-door death, I’ll confess that I lean a little more towards the waxy, tree-strung corpse of Drew Barrymore’s Casey from the opening sequence in terms of impressive body work).
But back to the task at hand! I think one of the reasons that Scream is so beloved by the gay community (do lesbians love it as much as the gay boys? I’m unsure) is definitely because of its verbal wit. There are absolutely some who don’t care for meta humour; I personally like it a great deal because it validates my keen attention as a horror fan when the film makes an “inside baseball” reference that only we horror fans will know. “Wes Carpenter”, you say? <wink>
To me, Scream negotiates that fine line between “meta” and “pandering to the audience” with smarts aplomb. I don’t find Scream particularly scary, but Williamson’s script is incredibly savvy; it playfully mocks the conventions of the (sub)genre, while still adhering to the expected slasher tropes. Other films that attempt to do this tend to fail because they mistake a meta reference for a punchline, or they don’t know how to balance the comedy and the horror aspects (horror comedies are notoriously tough to pull off). Williamson knows how to land a joke and craft a scare; his love and knowledge of the genre shines through in his references and his reverence.
At the end of the day, Scream is also just a really well-made film. The script spends enough time with its core cast to make you like them. The dialogue is memorable and it crackles in all of the right bitchy ways (see: the bathroom commentary from two random girls who dress down Sidney’s problems using Ricki Lake-speak). This is also Wes Craven working at the height of his powers – a brief listen to his audio commentary on the Blu reveals just how tuned-in to crafting scares he was (from the selection of the opening’s country home for its large expanse of windows to his continuity observations about the killer’s footwear). Wes really was one of the greats.
There is one other reason that I think that Scream has become a legendary film: Ghostface. If you consider how synonymous the slasher subgenre is for its gaggle of ghouls, it’s always a bit of a surprise that the roster of truly iconic villains is as sparse as it is. The killers of the “Big Three” franchises – Freddy, Michael and Jason – are still sitting pretty on top, and while Chucky, Pinhead and Leatherface aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, they’re instantly recognizable. But who stands out from the second cycle of slashers (or, more broadly, from this century of horror films)? To me, there are only two: Jigsaw…and Ghostface (no, Victor Crawley does not make the cut).
What distinguishes both Jigsaw and Ghostface is how verbal they are (which – as we considered back in our Freddy’s Revenge post from late last year – is also why Freddy tends to be a favourite of les gays). While there’s undoubtedly something terrifying about a silent killer ala Michael & Jason, for my money, a verbose killer has more personality.
While Tobin Bell’s voice is memorable, Jigsaw isn’t an exceedingly fun killer (his appeal arguably lies in the gory traps he concocts and I’d argue that his puppet is more visually evocative than he is). Ghostface, on the other hand, has it all: in addition to a memorable look, his voice is playful, witty, sarcastic and, at times, even a little sexy. As the first film to introduce the character and his/their mannerisms, Scream instantly vaults into classic territory for fans (and gays) alike.
Trace, I’ve left you Scream’s excessively leggy box office performance, but what are your other key Scream take-aways? (We’ve barely even touched on its iconic opening sequence!) Where does the series sit in the pantheon of slasher film franchises for you? And, given the choice, who would you F/M/K in this first film?
I don’t know what “inside baseball” means, but I’ll just say that I agree with you because it sounds right. Anyway, horror comedy is not only difficult to pull off, but it is also notoriously difficult to sell to an audience (just look at the poor box office performance of Slither back in 2006). The fact that Scream was as successful as it was is kind of a miracle. Of course, Scream isn’t as much of a comedy as something like Slither or Drag Me to Hell, but the comedic aspects are definitely there.
About that box office though: it’s rather astounding how much of a success Scream was, especially considering that it opened five days before Christmas in 1996. It earned $6.3 million its opening weekend ($12.7 million with today’s ticket prices) in the #4 spot, which isn’t great for a film with a $14 million budget. Scream should have flopped, but it didn’t. Despite never reaching the #1 spot, the film stayed in the top 10 for nine weeks (never dropping more than 30% from weekend-to-weekend) and, in the case of its second and third weekends, actually increased its box office weekend grosses.
“Pandering” is such a great word to use, because that is the reason why I’ve disliked so many recent horror comedies like You Might Be the Killer (my review) and Blood Fest (my review). Those are horror comedies that pander to the audience and treat us like we’re novices. YMBTK even stops the movie dead to lecture us on what a Final Girl is. Like…really? Blood Fest simply seems so proud of itself for having an expansive knowledge of horror movies that it’s unattractive and insulting. And it makes me actively hate those movies (well, YMBTK is fine…Blood Fest is hot garbage). Scream never falls prey to those traps, and that is a big reason why it works so well even today. It treats its audience like we’re semi-intelligent.
Ultimately, I think people’s affinity for Scream boils down to how much they like their killers to be quippy (though anyone who adores A Nightmare on Elm Street or the Child’s Play franchises but scoffs at Scream is immediately labeled a hypocrite in my eyes). The reality is that Ghostface isn’t even that quippy. He can be funny (I’m partial to the “I’m going to slit your eyelids in half so you don’t blink when I stab you in the face” line from Scream 4); he’s more of a menacing threat than the Freddy and Chucky we get in the later installments of their respective franchises. Ghost isn’t here to fuck around, and that’s precisely what makes him scary (Well, he does fuck around a little bit, but he doesn’t dilly dally). That being said, I totally get why someone would prefer the silent terror of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees to Ghostface.
It’s interesting that you don’t find Scream scary, though. While I don’t really find it scary anymore, it most definitely frightened me when I first saw it. The opening scene with Barrymore still manages to send chills up my spine. It clearly scared moviegoers, too, as the purchases of Caller ID tripled after Scream came out. I do wonder, though: would Scream be as successful today if that opening scene were different? Or if it had starred anyone other than Barrymore (she was originally cast in the role of Sidney, after all)? Sure, the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to that impeccable opening sequence (which is part of the reason why I find Scream 2 to be the superior film), but does it really matter?
This will show my age, but Scream is the king of the slasher franchises for me. I adore the heavy-hitters like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. I find the Friday the 13th franchise to be entertaining but it’s not “good.” Child’s Play is fantastic. The less said about Hellraiser and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises the better (I’m speaking about the franchises as a whole, of course, not just the original films).
Scream is a different beast, though. It just works. It’s the most consistent franchise, and even its weakest entry (that would be Scream 3) is at least entertaining (I’ll cut it some slack for being filmed in a post-Columbine world, hence the lack of any true horror and gore).
I’m sure some commenters will attack me for this all of this franchise talk, but what can I say? I’m a child of the ‘90s.
The scary question is…do you think the children of the ‘00s will choose the Saw franchise as the king of the slasher franchises? I’d be interested to find out.
Finally, fuck, marry, kill? What are we…12? (But fuck Billy, marry Randy and kill Dewey, of course)
The Horror Queers will return in February.
Scream is available to stream for $3.99 on Amazon Prime.
And don’t forget to catch up on our previous Horror Queers articles here!