“Saw,” “Scream,” and the modern horror genre

Neve Cambpell (center), Courtney Cox (left), David Arquette (right), 2011
Courtney Cox as Gale Weathers, Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott, and David Arquette as Dewey Riley in a promotional image for Wes Craven’s “Scream 4” (2011). LIKE THIS POST IF IT BROKE YOUR HEART WHEN DAVID ARQUETTE AND COURTNEY COX BROKE UP AHH #GALEANDDEWEY4EVAR. (Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia).

I finally caught up on two classic horror series last weekend: Saw and Scream. I’d seen Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) and Scream 2 (1997) a long time ago, but never 3 (2000) or 4 (2011) until this past week, and I hadn’t seen James Wan’s Saw (2004) or any of its sequels before. I didn’t plan on having this genre marathon – my sister and I were the only people we knew who hadn’t seen Saw yet, and I loved Scream and Scream 2 so much that I finally decided to Netflix 3 and 4 – but, unintentionally, I stumbled upon the absolute best and the absolute worst that modern horror has to offer, all in one fell swoop.

The Lost Weekend

Why on Earth is Saw so popular and influential – or James Wan, for that matter? Between this, Insidious (2010), and The Conjuring (2013), I don’t get all the hype about him as a horror director – there is nothing “horrifying” about his movies, other than the fact that people find them “horrifying.” Actually, that’s not fair – The Conjuring is pretty decent, better than most of its contemporary “jump scares” competition, and a hell of a lot better than the rest of Wan’s filmography – but Saw, Insidious, and Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) become accidentally hilarious with their needlessly stylized editing and their reliance on creepy puppets or creepy songs, forgetting that “mildly creepy” is not the same thing as “lose-sleep-at-night scary.”

Shawnee Smith, "Saw," 2004
Shawnee Smith as Amanda Young and her “reverse bear trap” in James Wan’s “Saw” (2004). (Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia).

That’s not to say that Saw doesn’t have its unsettling moments – the torture sequences almost always make your skin crawl, and the cut to black with Leigh Whannell’s screams mixed over the end credits is thoroughly disturbing – but I had to stop halfway through Darren Lynn Bousman’s Saw III (2006). When a movie about people getting tortured to death bores you, that’s cinematically unforgivable. As a series, Saw becomes so lost in its own mythology that it grows formulaic, predictable, and mind-numbingly repetitive.

What Is It With Me And Adverbs Today?

Scream, on the other hand, is so much more than just highly entertaining horror – it’s brilliant filmmaking. I don’t find the films to be particularly scary, more bloody and suspenseful than anything, but there’s more to a good horror movie than how “scary” it is, such as how intelligent, creative, or witty it is. “Scary” is easy – our trillion-dollar debt to China is “scary” – but that’s where Saw fails, because it doesn’t even have “scary” going for it, and that’s where Scream succeeds, because it transcends the smoke-and-mirror conventions of a genre that’s more known for its zippered costumes and strategically timed black cats than it is for its cultural commentary on what those filmic devices really mean to our society.

Film, even horror film, has more meaning than the average moviegoer gives it credit for. Nothing in an accident – scripts are written and rewritten, actors are rehearsed and critiqued, and each individual shot you see is one that wasn’t left behind on the cutting room floor – and pictures are given million- or billion-dollar budgets because people are paying back those millions or billions of dollars to see these things, and you’re not going to go out and pay to watch a movie unless it’s something you want to see. That’s what makes Scream so much more universally appealing than Saw; Saw caters to a niche demographic of people who enjoy “torture porn” and people who are curious about torture porn, whereas Scream has a good time with clichés we all know about and we all can make fun of, horror fans (who are familiar with Jamie Kennedy’s “rules” for surviving a horror flick) and non-horror fans (who aren’t impressed by these “rules”) alike.

Because of Jamie Kennedy’s Randy Meeks, Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott, Courtney Cox’s Gale Weathers, and David Arquette’s Dewey Riley, the self-referential and self-aware Scream stays tongue-in-cheek without sacrificing the more “human” element of its beating heart. These smart and fleshed-out characters develop over the course of the series, with protagonist Sidney, for example, evolving from an angsty high school student into a mature (but traumatized) woman who goes through each film coming to terms with the events preceding it, as though they are real things that happen to a real person. The only character who stays constant throughout the Saw franchise is The Jigsaw Killer himself (or herself), much harder to get invested in.

Another excellent trope showcased in Scream is the mystery behind who the “Ghostface” killer(s) is in each film, with a slew of new secondary characters introduced every installment either as victims or as potential suspects. These casts of characters are developed enough in the little screen time they have (Sidney, Dewey, and Gale being the main focus of all four films) that you suspect them, and that takes some degree of screenwriting talent from a genre which traditionally contents itself in churning out made-to-order victims whose only defining characteristic is how stupid they are to go into the dark, alone, unarmed. Scary movies work only when the characters die after making decisions that a normal, rational viewer would make herself (or himself) – otherwise, all you’ve got to be is smart enough to know that “splitting up” is never a good idea for the group, and, viola, you’ve outfoxed the killer.

Wow. Such Scary. Much Chilling. (For Me, The “Doge” Meme Never Goes Out Of Vogue)

As much as Scream parodies the horror genre, it’s a loving parody, and so it doesn’t alienate horror fans by dismissing their taste in movies. It does so by paying homage to what makes the genre great, rather than concentrating on what makes it silly, like killing off star Drew Barrymore in the first scene of Scream in the same way that Sir Alfred Hitchcock kills off star Janet Leigh in the first half of Psycho (1960) – no one is safe, not even the person you thought was going to be the main character for the rest of the film. Hitchcock, of course, is oftentimes considered the greatest filmmaker who ever lived, many critics consider Psycho to be the greatest film by the greatest filmmaker who ever lived (it isn’t – Vertigo (1958) is the Master of Suspense’s masterpiece, but Psycho is still definitely up there), and “psycho” serial killer Norman Bates is the acknowledged father of the “slasher” subgenre in horror that Ghostface occupies, i.e. Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Jason Voorhees in Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), and Freddy Krueger in Wes Craven’s own A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

Any Post Of Mine Isn’t Complete Unless It Makes Mention Of Hitchcock And Vertigo

Scream would not have worked as well without Wes Craven directing all four of them, for he is an accomplished horror artist. He is responsible for the original Last House on the Left (1972), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), The People Under the Stairs (1991), Red Eye (2005), and Cursed (2005). He is a connoisseur of the classics as well as a creator of the classics, and his ability to self-deprecate makes him as funny a comedian as he is a genius storyteller, with this black comedy coloring every frame of Scream.

That being said, I don’t understand all the hate leveled at Scream 3 and Scream 4. Scream 3 is definitely the weakest out of all of them, with a plot that depends more on stupid choices from the characters than the other three, but it deserves a lot more than a thirty-six-percent critical rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes (Saw has a forty-eight-percent rating), and Scream 4 (fifty-eight percent), I would argue, is an even better sequel than Scream 2 (eighty-one percent), almost as good as the first Scream (an absurd seventy-eight percent; Scream is far superior to the over-the-top Scream 2). Sure, nothing could top the original, but at least Scream doesn’t fizzle out of steam like Saw does (I thought Darren Lynn Bousman’s Saw II (2005) was better than Saw and Saw III; when a mediocre-at-best series peaks with its second film, not even its first one, that’s a major problem).

Scream 3 has its moments of cleverness, like a Shakespearean film-within-a-film metanarrative. Scream 4 takes this postmodern technique a step further during its false starts, a device which helps make Hitchcock’s Vertigo such a fascinating experience to watch. What I love most about Scream 4 are Emma Roberts’s scene-stealing performance as Sidney’s cousin, Jill Roberts, and “old” horror literally defeating “new” horror at the climax of the film in such a way that Scream stays true to the spirit of its greatness at the same time as it adapts its relevance to the gory standards of the twenty-first century.

I agree there’s something to be said about the societal import of “torture porn” in the post-September 11 attacks zeitgeist of modern Hollywood cinema, with Saw paving the way for the likes of Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) and even Fox’s 24 (2001-2014), with Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer “interrogating” terrorist suspects so sadistically that it’s borderline sociopathic. This is the show’s hero we’re talking about here, you guys. The PATRIOT Act and the War on Terror have granted the United States government the authority to arbitrarily detain terror suspects worldwide (mainly Arabs and Muslims) in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where there are no international human rights laws to protect the prisoners, and not only does the American public know about it, but we actively support it, because that’s what freedom, justice, and equality are all about – imprisonment without due process, torturing innocent people, and ethnic profiling.

“The American Way” Is Not Under Attack From Without – It’s Under Attack From Within

The War on Terror may never end (that’s what happens when you declare war against an abstract concept, instead of against a physical state that’s capable of surrender), but Saw has already ended, with Kevin Greutert’s Saw 3D (2010) ordered by the studio, Lionsgate, specifically to bring the series to a close after Greutert’s Saw VI (2009) underperformed at the box office. Horror has since then shifted to the “supernatural,” with Ole Bornedal’s blatant Exorcist rip-off, The Possession (2012), as well as the 2013 Carrie remake that nobody asked for from Kimberly Peirce, to name just a couple. The monsters in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) and Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) gave way to the post-Psycho serial killers before morphing into the sadists in Saw and Hostel until, finally, cycling into the demons on display in Andrés Muschietti’s Mama (2013) and John Erick Dowdle’s As Above, So Below (2014).

Meanwhile, Scream 4 is getting a sequel and an MTV spin-off. Wes Craven franchised, rebooted, and remade his 1996 masterwork in a way that makes it impossible for anybody else to threaten its artistry in this hypercompetitive and over-commercialized film industry. Either because we’re desensitized to violence or because the horror genre is a rollercoaster ride for thrill junkies who want to experience simulated danger without encountering any real danger, filmgoers keep on coming back for more, and Scream is the gift that keeps on giving to people who find knife-wielding psychopaths – you know, something that can actually happen in real life – scarier than the ghosts in Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007).

Maybe the scariest thing about Scream is that it can make us laugh at serial murder. We are as obsessed with Sidney Prescott’s tragic and gruesome story as the various Ghostfaces who go in and out of her life. But, hey, at least it means good taste isn’t dead quite yet.

At what cost?

Dun Dun Dun…


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Hunter Goddard

I am a journalism graduate from Colorado State University as well as a film studies minor. Lady Gaga inspires me in everything I do.

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