The nineties saw something of a renewal in horror movies, as the bloated old franchises such as Halloween, Friday 13th and Elm Street were rescued by a new breed of film, the so-called “post-modern slasher”. Beginning with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, this genre really hit its stride with Scream (1997), followed by I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) Urban Legends (1998), and their sequels. They injected new energy into the genre with slick production, high body-counts and ingenious ways of killing their characters.
Unsurprisingly, organisations like Christian Spotlight on the Movies (CSOTM) and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops were less keen, calling them “thoroughly repugnant”, “gruesome tales of bloodlust taken to extremes” and finding “no redeeming morals or values contained in the two-hour blood fest.” Horror movies were never going to be high on the must-see list of such organisations, but it wasn’t only the rampant gore and high body-count they found objectionable. Reviewing Urban Legend, CSOTM declares “It is illogical, self-serving and straining to be hip.” and “can’t resist winking at us periodically to let us know it’s just a movie.”, whilst its sequel was criticised by the US Conference for its “flimsy premise”.
These criticisms seemed to be honing on what was distinctive about the new style of horror – its ironic, self-referential and even post-modern pretensions. Instead of competing with seventies classics like Halloween by coming up with original material, Scream simply recycled its predecessors, deliberately replicating situations and tropes whilst winking knowingly to the audience. It introduced its audience to a killer whose idea of a good night out was to phone up a girl left alone in her house, quiz her knowledge of previous horror movies, before killing her according to the timeserved traditions of the genre. Everything in the movie is carefully self-referential: the leading couple describe their relationship in terms of film censorship ratings and another character speculates upon the killer’s identity based upon previous films, before advising everyone to obey the “rules for surviving a horror movie”, which include not having sex, indulging in drink or drugs, and absolutely never saying “I’ll be right back.” The film is littered with in-jokes and trivia from horror movies, even down to the songs heard playing in the background, and the surnames of characters. The sequel took this a stage further, inventing a movie Stab, which was based on the killings in the first movie and shared the same theme song, and the set of Stab II provides the setting for Scream III. The film’s “postmodern” credentials were given a final touch by the Halloween mask worn by the killer, which was based on Edvard Munsch’s The Scream: co-opting a famous piece of high art for avowedly low-rent purposes.
Urban Legend demonstrated a similar style, drawing on campfire stories and urban folklore instead of horror movies to frame the narrative and provide more and more outré means of death. The flood of in-jokes continued in names and background music – though it was questionable what the Dawson’s Creek theme-tune joke added to the film, it certainly called attention to the piece’s fictionality, pointing out that the apparently “real” characters were being played by actors who had become famous via other roles.
It’s easy to understand Christian Spotlight on the Movies’ lack of patience with a genre which preferred taking life to taking life seriously. Drink, sex and death are slung around fairly carelessly in these movies for momentary effects – hence CSOTM’s criticism that Urban Legend reflected the “modern zeitgeist of shock”. Exploiting violent death for sensational purposes was bad enough, but using it for jokes as well becomes even more shocking. The complaint that the film was “self-serving” reflects a deeper unease with the world it presents. All three movies (Scream, Urban Legend, I Know What You Did Last Summer) are set in either high school or college, meaning almost all the main characters are teenagers. Parents are generally absent, and authority figures tend to be either corrupt or incompetent – a slow-witted gum-chewing sheriff, a campus security guard obsessed with blaxploitation movies, a bumbling well-meaning father easily outwitted by his daughter. One interesting example is the headmaster in Scream who confiscates a Halloween mask from two students, railing against the “desensitized little shits” produced by modern culture, but can’t resist trying it on and posing in front of the mirror. In fact the character is played by Henry Winkler, famous for playing “the Fonz” in Happy Days, so the role is already undercut – the authority figure leads back to a comic character in a teenage TV show. Such solipsism might well make CSOTM uneasy, as it presents a world in which reference and allusion lead not to the Bible or American history, but to Friends and Dawson’s Creek. The highest source of authority is Tarantino’s back catalogue. Contemporary teenagers are often described as alienated from the rest of society and disconnected from their parents; these films apparently enact that process in themselves, creating a genre that is apparently “of the teens, for the teens”, and working against the “family values” which organisations like CSOTM propose.
However, this view only takes account of the glossy surface of the films. Despite these movies’ apparent hyper-modernity and need to plaster irony over any emotion and self-refer to the point of destruction, they are actually deeply engaged with concerns over America’s past and present. In fact perhaps their refusal to ground themselves in anything other than previous horror movies points up their main concern: that America has lost its sense of history. In ridiculing the link between screen violence and copycat killings as “so Moral Majority”, and marooning their teenage characters in a world where authority is either misguided or incompetent, these films tap deep into anxieties about that cultural cliché, “family values”. Their protagonists are all comfortably-off high school and college students, making the best of lives of cheerful materialism. A little booze here, a little sex there, but nothing that will affect their prospects of a solid graduation and a good career. Parents and teachers are to be ignored or got round as necessary. Into the lives of these characters comes insane and relentless violence, apparently without any reason, and only bound by the arbitrary conventions of a fictional genre.
Looking more closely, however, there are reasons. Not sufficient reasons, but they are there – none of these characters is wholly “innocent”. Though not all manage to get drunk and run over a fisherman (the title reference in I Know What You Did Last Summer), in all of the films characters commit minor moral indiscretions. These are often sexual: Sidney Prescott of Scream flashes her boyfriend to satisfy his teenage ardour, the student DJ in Urban Legends embarks on a practical exploration of the Kama Sutra, and the Scream killer’s first victim tells him “I don’t have a boyfriend” when he suggests he might be interested in her romantically. (Striking that the moral scheme here equates female sexual self-expression with sexual deceit.) Though practically unnoticeable, this marks the point at which she steps outside strict truthfulness, and her quality of life goes swiftly downhill. Though she is only guilty of enjoying the attention of a stranger on the phone, retribution follows swiftly: the killer reveals that he has tied up the boyfriend she just denied, and forces her to answer movie trivia questions in an attempt to save his life. She fails, of course, and ends up being slaughtered as well.
Clearly the carnage unleashed on Casey is not in proportion to her infraction, but that is the point of these movies. They don’t dramatise meaningless violence, but rather massive, disproportionate, retribution. Mucking around in a car and accidentally causing a crash bought the heroine of Urban Legends a week of abject terror, some stab wounds and the collateral murders of several of her fellow-students. In Cherry Falls, the connection is even more tangential: all the victims are virgins, so “innocent” even in a technical sense, but the killer is a psychopath conceived when their fathers drunkenly gang-raped a local white trash girl many years ago. The sins of the fathers are being visited upon the children, with a sick but sharp critique of small-town hypocrisy: a meeting of the parents refuses to tell the town’s teenagers that they could avoid death by means of a premarital quickie.
This “sins of the fathers” motif also surfaces in Scream, when Sidney discovers that one of the killers is out for revenge because her mother’s affair with his father broke up his parents’ marriage. Postmodernist trappings apart, the plots of Scream and Cherry Falls read like a sermon on the consequences of a decline in “family values”. The teenage characters are condemned for other people’s actions, and before they were old enough to know right from wrong. The idyllic towns and colleges do not fall victim to an invasion of evil from outside, but from the corruption which has been developing inside them for generations.
The unease these movies tap into is not a simple matter of secular despair over violent movies and easy divorce, however. “The sins of the fathers” is a Biblical phrase, and the “don’t…don’t…never” of Randy’s rules is just a modern “thou shalt not”. Coveting, adultery and parental dishonour are all met with overwhelming Old Testament retribution in these movies, even unto generations unborn. The root of the terror they inspire is a fear of being called to account, not by a proportionate, understanding law, but a retributive wrath. (Urban Legends and the contemporary Candyman also hint at anxieties about mocking old stories and powers who don’t care how subtle and ironic you’re being when you summon them.) Their glossy and frequently rather smug “postmodernism”, which refuses to acknowledge any authority other than previous horror movies, masks a fear that such authority is all too real, and is probably furious with them.
The identity of that authority is encoded in the concern with generations and disproportional justice: it is the greatest American parent figure of all, the Pilgrim Fathers. America has betrayed its children into lives of value-free materialism and left them for pay for its own sins, and in doing so has betrayed its founders, whose stern Puritan notion of justice is still seen to prevail. What The US Conference of Catholic Bishops and Christian Spotlight On The Movies missed in their criticisms was that horror movies aren’t manifestos or pastorals, but designed to scare their audiences. The “post-modern slashers” of the nineties are, at root, deeply uneasy about the society they depict, and the media which shape and maintain that world. In some angsty way, they almost seem to disapprove of their own medium. Now that’s postmodern irony.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, June 2007