Scream: Then and Now

Do you hear that? Do you hear, from all the way back in 1996, that echo of a terror-stricken scream? Of course, I’m talking about the release of “Scream,” the first in the now-iconic franchise. Eleven years after Ghostface last slashed through theater screens, “Scream 4” will be opening nationwide this Friday.

The horror landscape has changed dramatically in the past decade, and with the classic slasher series making a comeback the question must be asked: Is the “Scream” series still relevant to today’s 3-D gore-loving audiences?

The first “Scream” snuck up on audiences in the mid-90s, initially starting slowly but then gaining momentum after much word-of-mouth praise. This was the pre-Internet era of the video store, and audiences were well versed in slasher movie clichs.

Babysitters were watching “Halloween” and learned from the victims’ mistakes. Informal rules to avoiding a masked killer’s knife were concocted in VCR-centered sleepovers.

Audiences were becoming too jaded and the era of the slasher movie was waning so Wes Craven, maestro behind “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” decided to take the genre and turn it on its head by completely deconstructing it.

“Scream” and its two subsequent sequels were parodies of horror movies disguised as actual horror movies. All of the characters are all too aware that they are in a slasher movie and are perfectly well read in the survival rules. They know it probably isn’t the safest thing to go investigate that strange sound, but still do it out of sarcastic defiance. Their irreverence is usually met with the sharp end of a blade.

The series made constant visual and verbal allusions to classic slasher and horror movies with gleeful abandon, making it both a celebration and a spoof of the genre. Craven made this jaded new horror movie audience the victims, and it paid off big time.

With “Scream 4” coming out at the end of this week and Lionsgate’s release of the original trilogy on Blu-Ray last week, it has to be addressed that the horror landscape is nearly unrecognizable from what it was during the release of “Scream 3” over a decade ago. The slasher film, especially the new wave that “Scream” ushered in, has fallen out of vogue.

Today, horror is ruled by what some have dubbed “torture porn” – movies like the “Saw” franchise that depend more on the instant gratification that comes with graphic displays of intense violence rather than the slow-burning suspense of the slasher genre.

The “Saw” franchise is now comprised of seven installments, all consistently making big bucks at the box-office during strategic releases around Halloween time.

With this new, more blood splatter-oriented breed of horror, it’s a fair question to ask whether “Scream 4” will be able to successfully satirize this new era of the horror genre or simply revert to old tricks. The Ghostface mask has become such a staple of Halloween costume stores that one has to wonder if today’s audiences will even bother to give the littlest of jolts out of their seats.

Trailers for the new installment make it very clear that this is a “Scream” for the 21st century, acknowledging all of the changes to the horror genre and the new set of rules that have been established, chief amongst them being “the unexpected is the new clich.”

Horror movies are now made to shock more than they are to thrill or entertain, and if “Scream 4” decides to stick to the guns of previous installments while only making passing reference to the new ultra-violence movement in horror, its lasting power will be lowered significantly.

In the age of the Internet and the life-or-death opening weekend, a wise old beast like “Scream” may not have the legs to become an immediate smash.

Still, hopes for “Scream 4” are high and it is considered to be the first event release of 2011. But even if it is still massively successful, it still may be looked at as a bit of a black sheep in a year filled with horror releases like “Paranormal Activity 3” and “The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence).” It may make more box-office revenue than those releases, but it’s still a decidedly old-school take on the genre and may just be seen as a passing novelty.

On the flip side, “Scream 4” may be coming at exactly the right time and may herald in a new, less stomach-churning reign in horror movies. We won’t know until after this Friday if “Scream 4” delivers its promise of the unexpected.