Strategies to Achieve Genre Satire in Wes Craven’s Scream

Vladimir Surganov

It is odd to think of Wes Craven’s 1996 film Scream as a comedy, when it is so utterly frightening. However, upon closer inspection, it is most evident that the film is a spoof of the 1980’s “slasher” films like another Wes Craven film A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) or Friday the 13th (1981). Scream achieves a level of satire from the very beginning scene, the scene that I will be discussing throughout this paper. With strategic staging, canted camera angles, over-the-top acting/writing, low key lighting, and a plethora of movie references, the film appears to be more tongue-in-cheek than it would first appear upon the first viewing.

Canted angle frames in film generally signals psychological distress. However, when used over and over again the effect diminishes and actually appears to be more comedic that psychologically unsteadying. One of the first instances of a canted angle is when Drew Barrymore’s character Casey Becker picks up the phone the second time when Ghostface calls.

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The canted angle suggests distress on the part of Casey, who has already picked up the phone and is about to be harassed, but when the canted angle is used again and again throughout the scene, its powers of making the viewer feel uneasy begins to wane and a more comedic feel is achieved. This is exactly what Wes Craven wants: to scare us and to make us laugh at the same time. The other thing that Wes Craven does so brilliantly is that he holds the canted angle for a while and makes us linger in the psychological instability of Casey Becker as she talks to her soon-to-be killer. Another instance of the canted angle frame is when Casey’s mom attempts to call the police as Casey’s father runs up the stairs.

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This angle allows the viewer to see the melodramatic acting and gesticulating actions of Casey’s mother while also being scared by the off-kilter angles of the camera.

The staging in the film is not only satirical in nature, but is also effective in telling Casey Becker’s enticement with being murdered. When Ghostface asks Casey what her favorite horror movie is, Casey happens to be right near a knife rack in the kitchen. Like any normal knife rack, the rack holds rather large butcher knives that Casey proceeds to take out. She answers to Ghostface that her favorite scary movie is Halloween (1978) and as she replies to Ghostface she playfully toys with the butcher knife.

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It is almost as though she is being seduced by Ghostface. Furthermore, as Casey hides behind the television set she instantly finds a sharp letter opener with which to defend herself from the killer. It is humorous to see that there is always something sharp whenever a character needs a weapon with which to defend themselves, it is there at the right place at the right time, but still does little to help the victims.

Lighting is optimally used in order to produce ominous feelings. When lights are put under an object it creates shadows around the object being shined on. When Ghostface says that he would like to see who he is talking to on the phone (another very humorous way of scaring someone) Casey turns on the lights in the backyard to show nothing but vapor under the pool that ominously hovers.

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This is indeed scary. No one can deny that. But to be played with as we see nothing but the backyard, we know we are safe for at least a little bit longer. Scream is much more suspenseful than it is horrifying because it relies on relieving and scaring the audience at the same time.

One of the real humorous and satirical parts of this film is its constant references to other horror media (mostly in the form of movies). One of the mantras of this film is from the line, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” Indeed, it makes us wonder as the audience what our favorite horror film is while also making us remember some of the horror movies in the past that had scared us. The constant talk of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and other famous horror icons make us realize what in those movies frightened us when we first watched them.

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It makes the film “self-aware” so to speak. In fact, as I had mentioned before, Wes Craven even pats himself on the back when he uses Ghostface as a rave reviewer of one of his earlier films A Nightmare on Elm Street. Clearly, the movie is paying homage to the 1980’s tradition of slasher movies, but it is also making fun of some of the tropes that horror movies do. For instance, the seductive girl who gets killed first, the virgin who outlives everyone (Neve Campbell), and the stupid jock boyfriend of the seductive girl, who Casey says is her big football player boyfriend who will kick the “shit” out of you.

Genres were meant to be bent out of shape. Genres are malleable things that can be expanded upon, perhaps even perverted to speak quite frankly, but in the end the genres can be revolutionized. It is possible to make genres into newer hybrid genres, or just new genres altogether, but without  the help of filmic practices such as intense usage of mise-en-scene, the films would be much blander and genres perhaps would not be as many as they are today. We must appreciate the details in film that allow us to differentiate one horror film, for instance, from the next. Scream is able to stand alone, perhaps be the first of its kind to successfully spoof the horror film “system,” that for so long had tongue-in-cheek elements, but never fully expanded upon it. It was only until Scream and later films such as the successful Scary Movie franchise that would comment in a filmic way on the conventions of horror films and what we love about horror films and what we think is cheesy at the same time about these movies.

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