Tremorsense

I’m not here to talk about nuScream (2022) but I’m going to have to, a little, so here we go: I hated it. First Scream-branded thing ever that I didn’t enjoy. But I also seem to be alone in that – as I am in hating the new Halloweens – so if you loved it, I am legitimately happy for you.

(Also, it didn’t have time travel, as per the gag in Scream 4, and so it is dead to me.)

Because we’re going to be talking about nuScream, January has been Scream Month at the Horror Pod Class, where we’ve covered Scream 4 (my actual favorite) and Scream 2 and, as such, there’s been a lot of talk about the franchise, including which ones are best, worst, etc.

And here’s the thing, when I say that Scream 4 is my favorite, which is absolutely true, I always feel like I need to caveat that with the acknowledgment that the original is still probably the best, for any number of obvious reasons. But there’s another layer to that. Scream (1996) is not only the original, the standard from which all the others must deviate, it is also fundamentally different from the others.

The original Scream is a number of things, and while the vast majority of the ink that gets spilled over it is about how metafictional it is, that’s only one small part of what makes it work. Ultimately, though, metafictional or not, Scream is a deconstruction of – and love letter to – slasher tropes.

The sequels pay lip service toward being the same thing, but they aren’t. Because they can’t be. Because they made a decision that other slashers didn’t, and they stuck to it in a way that few other horror franchises ever have. Scream is not, fundamentally, a franchise about Ghostface. He may be the face (no pun intended) of the series, but it’s always someone different under the mask. What stays the same, movie to movie, is Sidney and, to an only slightly lesser extent, Dewey and Gail.

Rare indeed is the horror franchise that runs this long while keeping its focus so squarely on the survivors, rather than the killer. As a result, groundbreaking or not, after the first movie, the series is no longer about what the first movie was about – both lampshading and upending the cliches of the slasher genre. Instead, it’s about these three survivors. About what this does to them, about what they do in response. About how they come together and what pulls them apart.

The metafictional elements may have been what made the first movie stand out (we can debate that; for my purposes here, though, it doesn’t matter) but after that, what makes the series unique is its dedication to those three characters. That’s why I love Scream 4 and hated Scream 5, even though they are, on paper, practically the same movie.

4 understood what this series was really about. 5 doesn’t – at least for my money.

There’s another thing that happens as a result of this focus on the survivors – another aspect of the Scream franchise that we rarely get to see play out in horror films, at least in this way. There is an organic growth to the scale of the film’s central mythology. Sidney is a celebrity, even at the end of the first picture. By the opening of the second, there is a movie-within-a-movie that parallels the events of the first film. By the third, they are in Hollywood, on the set of a movie about their lives, with actors who are playing them.

This is a franchise where the world knows what happened, and has changed as a result. In small ways, sure, but still. This isn’t supernatural evil or whatever, so the changes don’t have to be big. But they’re still there. Other franchises have often gestured in similar directions, over the years, but few have ever been as committed to the bit.

Scream wasn’t the first place I saw this kind of storytelling, though. Another of my favorite horror/comedy franchises does this too – perhaps even one better. As with Scream, the original Tremors (1990) is a self-aware horror movie that at once pays loving tribute to and lampoons a largely-defunct (at the time) subgenre of horror – in this case, the giant monster movies of the ’50s.

It’s also easily the best movie in the series. But the first of its sequels do something that, at the time, I had never seen any other horror movie do: they present a world in which the public is aware of what happened in the first movie. There’s a Graboids-themed arcade machine, and the survivors of the initial film are minor celebrities who appeared in a Nike commercial.

That sensation, of allowing the world to expand organically with the events of each prior film, is something that many franchises struggle with, and it is that, as much as anything else, that helped both Scream and Tremors remain something special into sequels that couldn’t replicate what the original had accomplished, and so chose to accomplish something else, instead – at least for a while.

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