From A Whisper To A ‘Scream’: Youth in Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s America

With 'Scream', Craven and Williamson prove that they truly care about their teenage characters and their experiences with trauma.

Scream

Welcome to Spins And Needles, a monthly column where R.C. Jara digs into a famous needle drop from the world of horror. This month, they dig into Scream, teen ennui, and the genius of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson.


Lately, I’ve been thinking about what Wes Craven would have done had he lived into the 2020s. It’s rightly observed that each of the five decades of his career spawned at least one forward-thinking, no-holds-barred horror masterpiece that defined the genre for that generation of filmmakers and audiences alike. No small feat for a man whose access to cinema was restricted well into early adulthood. One doesn’t have to parse through all the viscera to find there is a certain grace to his craft. I never had the pleasure of knowing him. Yet his kindness and incisiveness bleed through every frame of every film he’s ever made, from The Nightmare on Elm Street to Scream. He even had the balls to give dramatic cognizance to a German shepherd.

In all seriousness, it strikes me now as an adult that Craven’s films are like taking a walk with a mischievous, world-weary older man. He is disarming and gentle. But the places he walks you through and what he has to say about them are unrelentingly terrifying. He is anything but paternalistic, allowing you to experience the world through your own eyes before conferring with him. In almost all cases, the horrors of the world are abject and self-inflicted. Though not always on an individual basis.

What is consistent in Craven’s body of work is that he deals with evil at an institutional level. You are either part of a demographic that is catered to at the expense of others until you face a karmic backlash, or more typically, you are a domino. Half-aware that you’re in line to be knocked down, unsure of who set you up, and with no choice but to bear witness to those who fall before you. These dominos are often shaped like children and teenagers; the demographics that this country fails the worst, on purpose, and in every conceivable way.

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I have been thinking about what Wes Craven could have done in the 2020s but, frankly, it’s an exhausting thought. Beyond the realm of cinema, the condition of youth in the U.S. is in many ways more rotten than it was in the 1970s. Back then, the catalyst for making The Last House On The Left was anger. Craven has described the film as a primal scream meant to unload the resentment he felt towards the U.S. war machine, the myth of the nuclear family, and public desensitization to real-life violence. Forty years later, the maestro left us with a major gift in Scream 4. That film truly honors its series’ legacy. It deals a heavy blow with regards to the calculated cruelty that feeds internet stardom, as well as a set of renewed pressures facing young people in the 21st century.

Of course, any investigation into the Scream franchise demands the inclusion of its progenitor, Kevin Williamson. Williamson’s empathy for teenagers, which imbued the cynicism of ‘90s pop culture with much-needed sincerity, informs his priorities as an artist. Whether you’re watching Scream or Dawson’s Creek, his characters are fully realized people. As the man himself tells it:

“I don’t look at teens as teens…I think maybe that’s the whole trick to what I do. They’re just smart, sophisticated adult characters. And they happen to be 15.”

The first Scream film was tethered to the real-life murders committed by Gainsville, Florida killer Danny Rolling in 1990. His victims were college students and the killings sparked a panic that saw many of them leave town. By this point in time, the 24-hour news cycle was a nascent, insatiable beast. Reports of the killings being an influence on Williamson’s writing vary. But he undeniably bridged the abyss of sensational news items with consequential storytelling. In Scream, the writer examines the loss of young lives thoughtfully.

In the commentary track for the film, during the exchange between Sidney and Tatum about their slain classmate Casey Becker, Williamson says that it was “never meant to be anything but wicked”. I believe this notion is what marries the sensibilities of writer and director. Walks with Craven usually end at the defeat of the being through which evil is channeled. But the evil itself lingers amorphously. Often, we leave his protagonists in shambles. We do not get to see them pick up the pieces of their lives. This ambiguity is what makes his films endure decade after decade.

The script makes a point of making several characters self-centered, which creates an unsafe environment when there is not a killer on screen. From the students carelessly running in the hallways wearing Ghostface costumes to the manipulative gaze of Gale Weathers, even when evil has been conquered there is no escape. No one is better. Nothing is fixed. Especially not in the town that made a pariah out of one of their own, Maureen Prescott, and cannibalized the grief of her survivors.

One of my favorite shots in the entire film is the wide pan away from Gale reporting in front of Stu’s house after the final confrontation. That shot brings the story’s wickedness full circle. Gale gets her story by the end. In death, Stu and Billy get their moment in the spotlight at the expense of Sidney and her family. The sun rises over Woodsboro, indicating a new beginning.

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A sequel would premiere less than a year later, with the flashing image of Ghostface becoming an iconic easter egg signifying further entries. But that final sting is a reminder of the human shrapnel left in the wake of the original murders. As appropriately haunting and lamentable as Marco Beltrami’s score is throughout, the film’s end credits boast a standout indie-dance cover of The Icicle Works’ “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)” by UK musicians Soho. The band’s take on the material is a bit more hopeful and melodic than the original. It contrasts the eerily open-ended nature of the film while also delineating its most important themes.

Both versions of the song experiment sonically with the lyrical motif of a bird in flight. The psychedelic melodies soar whether conveyed through jangly new wave guitars or over trip-hop beats. The song is rife with tension, as the bird itself is not the protagonist. Rather, it is the projection of a child attempting to look past their own powerlessness. The chorus repeats the phrase:

“We are but your children // Finding our way around indecision.”

There is agency in this perspective. Angst can be power. But the protagonist is stuck in a world of consequences handed down to them by their elders. This theme is one that is most prevalent in Craven’s films and one which Williamson grapples with in Scream. The specifically runs a current throughout the lives of its characters.

Woodsboro is archaic and insular, an ideal conservative haven. The majority of its residents are well-off white people; perfect for Craven to dig his claws into. Despite it being relatively understated, there is an eeriness about the town that reveals itself when the killings start. Tragedy in Woodsboro, like Maureen’s killing, is an event. Similarly, Casey’s death feels sacrificial. A curfew is imposed and police are on the alert. But the behavior around town isn’t one of unity or mourning. No one feels safe and there isn’t anything anyone can do about it. If there was a kid who could relate to the protagonist of “Birds Fly,” it’s a kid from Woodsboro. While the fictionalized representation of teenagedom in Scream is informed by a satirical milieu, the social dynamics in the film are entirely plausible. Craven and Williamson exploit this for all the material it’s worth.

The narrative of Scream functions beyond homage. Williamson revives classic slasher tropes in an environment where they are routinely consumed, to the point of being dismissed. But this doesn’t temper the impact of the violence. The fact that everyone is hyper-aware of the threat and still makes mistakes is a daunting reminder of how fragile reality is for teenagers. The rules don’t cut it. And it takes a filmmaker with nerve not to shy away from any of the violence.

Craven’s visual style grounds Williamson’s script, allowing its menace room to breathe. Dressed in ‘90s glam, this film has all the piss and vinegar of an early slasher. But scenes like Casey’s death aren’t just shocking because of the gore or the weight Drew Barrymore threw behind the role. Taking the character into account as a full human being beyond the opening of the film exposes how rotten the relationships in Woodsboro really are. 

If Tatum seems at ease with Stu, it’s likely because she has the force of the entire sheriff’s department behind her (though they fail later on). Yet if Stu had it in him to kill, it isn’t difficult to draw conclusions about his behavior in his relationship with Casey. And it’s disturbing to think about how Casey’s death is trivialized. In this context, the off-handed line of there always being a “bullshit reason to kill your girlfriend” is actually emblematic of a community complicit in violence. One that regularly throws girls like Casey and Sidney under the bus. And their mistakes are all plausible because they are continuously set up to fail.

Meanwhile, guys like Billy Loomis put on the facade of a loving boyfriend and take advantage of this vulnerability to get what they want. Yet through Craven’s eye, the focus is on the truth of what is happening to each girl. Especially Sidney.

Craven’s direction in Scream focuses on the horrifying aspects of being a teenager working through damage on their own. Not lacking friends, but isolated in the sense that the pain is too unique to articulate. Like Nancy Thompson, Sidney is resourceful. Ultimately she is able to outsmart the killers by using their own tactics. Neve Campbell will never earn enough praise for how fluid and intuitive her craft is in this role.

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But the horror around her doesn’t really stem from the killings. For the most part, deaths happen out of her sight. She is instead constantly on edge because of the anniversary of her mother’s death and because she knows that her boyfriend’s behavior is predatory. But she doesn’t have the support she needs to affirm it. To others, Sidney may be missing her mother but she has everything else. Her personhood does not register. She is made to be a target. And though the killings are constructed with ample suspense, the scenes that are the most frightening on repeat viewings are the intimate ones between Sidney and Billy.

In their scenes together Billy reveals what he is: impatient, petulant, manipulative. It’s difficult to watch Sidney attempt to maneuver around him. Yet Craven’s motivations as a filmmaker are drawn from her point of view. Where a lesser director would have made a hysterical girlfriend out of Sidney, Craven lets the maliciousness of each moment linger. This is crucial to building the tension that would culminate in the big reveal. It’s also a prime example of how confusing it is being this young with people trying to steer you in different directions.

Sidney is nothing less than heroic by the end of the film, but all her problems are imposed onto her by a society that outright refuses to reconcile its corruption. In her case, as with Tatum and Casey, the men around her operate as if entitled to every inch of her body and moment of her time. Randy, the pining dork of a friend, may not be a killer but he isn’t exempt from this criticism. And what Craven and Williamson have to say about what to do when faced with this kind of danger is: shut that shit down. Hard.

If Wes Craven lived forever, there’s a chance he would have made one of these things on a regular basis, at least in the U.S. Not because we rely on our filmmakers to fix things. But because films like these, and Craven’s work specifically, have the courage to walk us through uncomfortable truths. There is no shortage of that here. Growing up, Craven’s films gave me the language to express fear and defiance at uncaring authority figures. His work made it normal to question discomfort.

To say that Scream was formative would be an understatement. In my own teenage years, full of bad partners, absent guardians, and indecision, these films were precious. The first film portrays the struggle of growing up in hostility as something that can be met with equal force and conquered. It builds gradually from the tips of Sidney’s fingers on her keyboard to those same hands doing whatever it takes to survive. “Birds Fly” wraps the film on a note that appeals to the humanity of young people facing situations beyond their control. With regards to the script, I hope Williamson knows just how many people he woke up to the possibility of overcoming a volatile situation. If only in fiction.

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