What Does 'Scream' Mean for Horror in 2020?

Scream (1996)  - Drew Barrymore (as Casey Becker) -Photofest -H 2020
Dimension Films/Photofest
With the meta film getting a new installment, it's time to ask where the slasher series could go next, and what audiences have learned about the genre since it hit theaters.

“What’s your favorite scary movie?” If it’s Scream then you’re in luck. Last week The Hollywood Reporter reported that Ready or Not directors Matthew Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, also known collectively as Radio Silence, will be directing the next Scream film for SpyGlass Media, which acquired the property from The Weinstein Company when the infamous film studio went bankrupt. It’s unknown at this time if this new film will reboot Wes Craven’s iconic slasher series or follow Scream 4 (2011), Craven’s final film before his death in 2015. With MTV having produced a Scream TV series that essentially served as a reboot and ran for three seasons, there’s reason to hope that Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett will go the sequel route and continue the stories of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), and Dewey Riley (David Arquette) in a new era, where the rules of survival aren’t so concrete.

What does a Scream movie look like in the 2020s? The success of Craven’s original film Scream (1996), written by Kevin Williamson, was based around its meta-approach to the horror genre, riffing on survival rules that resulted from a deep knowledge of horror movies, more specifically the slasher movie subgenre. The film’s sequels Scream 2 (1997), Scream 3 (2000) and Scream 4 (2011) all followed a similar template with Craven. Williamson (and Ehren Kruger for part 3) brought a similar sense of self-awareness to the topic of sequels and reboots, with new killers behind the Ghostface mask in each entry. Craven’s original film defined horror for the latter half of the '90s and beginning of the new millennium, creating the space for a wave of Gen X horror films that used the tropes of '80s slashers to their advantage.

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Urban Legend (1998), The Faculty (1998), Final Destination (2000) and Valentine (2001) shared a similar approach to Craven’s Scream, in that they relied on the exploration and subversion of genre rules, identity twists and an overall irreverent attitude that delivered on brutal kill scenes and self-aware humor. Scream, its sequels and the films it ultimately inspired launched a new era of slasher movies for the 2000s, comprising mostly remakes of '70s and '80s slashers that were then imbued with their own sense of awareness and winks at the audience that suggested a knowing realization we’ve seen this before, but perhaps we’d be enticed by the possibility there’d be a little more blood this time around. And for the most part, it was fun to see slasher movies live on, even as other horror subgenre fads rose up around them.

Presently, the slasher movie has mostly died out, a victim of its own killer overenthusiasm for remakes, a lack of audience investment and legal troubles concerning some of the subgenre’s most beloved characters, like Friday the 13th’s Jason. Halloween (2018) is one of the few slasher movies to break out in recent years, and its success led to the upcoming sequels Halloween Kills (2020) and Halloween Ends (2021). But for the most part, the subgenre was been relegated to a handful of VOD titles and underseen theatrical gems like Hell Fest (2018), Child’s Play (2019) and Black Christmas (2019). Slasher films don’t constitute for much of horror conversation today, which begs the question of whether there’s a new horror language to explore within the Scream franchise.

Scream 4 (2011), which is deserved more love at the box office than it got, and is the best entry since the first one, already tackled remakes, reboots and, with credit to Craven for always being ahead of his time, the legacy sequel before it became popularized. That fourth entry even paid tribute to aspects of found footage films and torture porn. While there was hope that the fourth film would launch a new trilogy centered on horror fangirl Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere), the box office results and Craven’s death put an end to that. Still, Scream 4 managed to succinctly cover the first decade of the 2000s and the horror that defined it. So what has defined the horror of the past decade?

The most interesting aspect of contemporary horror is how varied it is. Sure, there are classifications that have been used to group horror films together, like the empty descriptor “elevated horror” and the more precise “social thriller.” But even within those classifications there is the fact that these films are all unique and operating on their own set of rules. Films like The Witch (2015), Get Out (2017), and Midsommar (2019) have been discussed within the bracket of elevated horror, but they couldn’t be more distinct.

Yet, there is something in the air that has seen horror become slightly more prestigious thanks to studios and distributors like A24, Blumhouse, Neon, SpectreVision and IFC Midnight. Whether it’s a conscious effort to add some respectability to horror for the sake of critical reactions and awards, or a result of studios being more inclusive with directors and screenwriters, the buzzworthy horror of the past decade does feel different from that of the 2000s. Perhaps it’s this idea of prestige, an unquantifiable aspect that we all seem to be aware of, that could shape the new Scream film. With the franchise’s past sense of horror and comedy, and Radio Silence’s handle on tone and social commentary displayed in Ready or Not, maybe there’s a way to poke holes in the idea of elevated horror while using the slasher genre to celebrate horror through the critically constructed war between '80s horror sleaze and its unending cycle of sequels, and contemporary awards-worthy horror where every blood splatter is an aesthetically pleasing work of art.

The biggest trend in horror right now appears to be the genre’s ability to defy trend. There are no rules, no topics off limits and no one way in which to approach the idea of horror. Maybe that right there is the hook to this upcoming Scream film. The rules that used to ensure characters’ survival are no longer valid, and it’s less likely than ever that your favorite movie will be the same as the person sitting next to you in the theater. If Matthew Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett could use those aspects to frighten and entertain us all across our varied genre tastes, well, that would certainly be worth a scream or two.