Note: I’m writing this immediately after seeing the just-released fifth Scream film. I make passing mention of it, but I do take care to not discuss crucial plot points. There are no spoilers for the new one here. I promise.
Fans of the 90s horror franchise Scream are taking a stroll down memory lane this week with the release of… Scream. It’s the fifth one, but they’ve done away with the conventional numbering of sequels which may or may not have a meta in-film explanation, no spoiler (it does, kinda). I’ll refer to it as Scream 5 throughout this post, because I’m talking about the franchise, so it’ll get confusing to talk about the individual films without distinguishing between them.
I’m on record as loving these films. Even Scream 3 entirely because Parker Posey fucking crushes it. This new one is the first without world-builder Wes Craven at the helm, as he tragically passed away in 2015. We are however getting the filmmaking team behind 2019’s Ready or Not, which I absolutely loved so I think we’re in good hands.
I don’t want to talk about Scream, though. I want to talk about Stab. The big focal points of Screams 2 through 4 were the in-universe films originally based on the events of the Woodsboro murders of the first film. In Scream 4 we find out Sidney Prescott sued the studio so they’d stop making movies about her, so the franchise went off the rails in its later iterations, including time travel in Stab 5. And Scream 5 which I of course already saw mentions further entries in the franchise in the decade since Scream 4.
Mostly I want to focus on what the early Stab trilogy, the Sidney Prescott Stab films, would have been. Would they have been the huge sensation in their universe that Scream was in ours? Is it only a big deal to the Cinema Club kids at Woodsboro High because it originated at Woodsboro? Is the Scream universe a weird horror obsessed alternate-universe I wish I lived in because I was 11 when the original movie came out and I thought hanging out talking about horror movies was what high school was going to be like and when it wasn’t that I was really disappointed and I’ve been chasing that high ever since? That’s something I’ll probably talk about with my therapist, and let’s hope me being disappointed in the lack of costumed serial killings at high school doesn’t send up any red flags and warrant a wellness check from the police. I digress…
The big draw of Scream, the movie we saw and enjoyed in our own universe, was that it was a slasher flick AND a whodunnit mystery. Who’s the killer? Why are they killing? Everybody’s a suspect, as Randy shouted across Not-Blockbuster. It’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s meta, it’s satire, it’s bloody. Damn, that’s a good movie. But that was the hook! The mystery. It’s not like other slashers where you know it’s Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger or Billy Chapman from the get-go. There’s that extra layer of mystery to draw us in. They famously kept it a secret during filming with dummy scripts and alternate endings on several of the films.
But Stab is based on an actual (in-universe) event, with lots of press coverage and a book. You even see Tori Spelling as Stab‘s Sidney Prescott giving the whole plot away in the interview playing in the background when Dewey and Randy are going over the list of suspects in Scream 2. “I play this young girl, Sidney Prescott, who discovers that her boyfriend is this crazy serial killer who also killed her mother the year before that.” That’s it, that’s the movie.
So even though Stab is the in-universe stand-in for Scream… it’s not Scream. It can’t be. Yet in Scream 5 they explicitly state the Stab franchise is a whodunnit, even though it can’t be because the audience knows right away who did it. What kind of whodunnit tells you on the press tour who did it? There are entire supercuts made of Andrew Garfield denying to the press he was in Spider-Man: No Way Home. He took that to the bitter end. He’s probably still denying it. And that wasn’t a mystery movie, hinging on the reveal of the killer.
I get that the Stab franchise’s existence is a metaphor for the media and entertainment industry’s preoccupation with violence and drama, especially if it can be based on a true story, and it does a fantastic job of holding that particular mirror up to us throughout the Scream franchise. But again… What are they to the Scream Universe?
They aren’t slasher-whodunnits like Scream. We know before Stab starts that it was Luke Wilson’s Billy Loomis. Tori Spelling told us. Gale’s book was a best-seller, she’s a national journalist. If we were in the Scream universe, we’d know. The mystery whodunnit angle is gone. These are not slasher films. The Stab films have to take a cue from a different horror sub-genre. A horror sub-genre that was wildly popular in the 90s, had recently won big at the Oscars and were ready for a fresh take from a hot, up-and-coming indie director like Robert Rodriguez (the in-universe director of Stab).
The Stab films, at least in the original Sidney Prescott trilogy, are cat-and-mouse, psychological thrillers.
The biggest ones of the era are of course The Silence of the Lambs, The Fugitive, and Se7en. Then you’ve got The Game, Cape Fear, Dead Calm, Kiss the Girls, Fallen and a whole slew of other ones coming out throughout the 90s and into the early 00s. They still crop up every now and then, and of course, they date back to the 50s and 60s, particularly with Alfred Hitchcock films. But that was kind of the sweet spot, a golden era if you will. Very much like the slasher era of the 70s and 80s where you throw a rock and you hit a random gimmicky psycho killing a random high school or college student. That is when it wasn’t the high-tech mall doing the killing, of course.
So rather than Wes Craven deconstructing the slasher flicks, you get Rodriguez deconstructing thrillers, and our thirst for crime and serial killers and motives. It’s Natural Born Killers, but less up its own ass. They could be seen as a foreshadowing of the recent obsession with true-crime podcasts, with Hulu’s Only Murders In The Building a natural descendant of Stab (and Scream in our universe). And much like Scream, Stab doesn’t exist as a parody of the sub-genre, but more of a sarcastic kid brother. It loves and respects the source material it’s examining, it’s just asking “But that’s weird, right?”
The fact that Stab is based on a true story (again, within the Scream universe) is why it couldn’t work as a slasher. Slashers as we knew them in the 80s were always metaphorical. They over-the-top fairy tales. Demonic Aesop’s fables. Stab couldn’t take that route because it was such a well known true story. We’re talking maybe two in-universe years between the Woodsboro murders and the release of the film. That is fresh on the minds. This is essentially Dirty Harry, a 1971 film loosely based on the Zodiac killings that stopped (maybe question mark) in 1969. But with the added bonus of people going to see Dirty Harry dressed as the Zodiac killer. HEY! That seems like a point that should be addressed.
Why was everybody dressed like the killer at the movie premiere? To my knowledge, we didn’t roll into The Silence of the Lambs dressed as Buffalo Bill or Hannibal Lecter. We didn’t carry bloody UPS boxes with us to the premiere of Se7en. I mean… again, the whole thing is a mirror to our societal infatuation with violence and the glorification of killers, but that was the 90s and certainly, we’ve grown as a society in the past quarter-century. Right? Right. So I get the our-universe explanation and what Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven were saying. But what’s the in-universe explanation?
I understand youths can be insensitive jerks at times. I was a youth. But an entire theatre full of college kids dressed up like an actual real-life (in-universe) serial killer as seen in Scream 2 for the small town preview showing of Stab? I was at the very first showing of Scream 5 on Thursday night, and it was half-full, some of us MAYBE wore a t-shirt, there was a baby… which, who the fuck brings a baby to- never mind, not the point. We weren’t wild maniacs dressed like the villain. The only time I’ve seen people in costume for movie premieres have been the mega huge franchises that have a big following. Marvel, DC, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings. I saw Matrix cosplayers, but they didn’t show up till part two. I wore a hockey mask to Freddy vs Jason, but I was the exception, definitely not the rule. And I certainly didn’t wear it a few years later for the Jared Padalecki reboot.
So there we have it. Or don’t. I started banging out words on my keyboard in hopes I’d have this big mind-blowing answer for us all. But the more I explored it, the more the metaphors layered one on top of the other in Williamson’s writing and Craven’s direction that it’s too hard to make any real sense of. It would make sense that because they have real-life cartoonish slashers, they don’t need the cartoonish slashers of the movies. Similar to Watchmen (the original graphic novel), since they existed in a world with superheroes, their comic books were about pirates, because they didn’t need superhero fiction. But for the events of Scream to happen, they need the slashers.
So I do think the slashers exist in their universe, and they’re just as popular as they are in our universe. But Stab isn’t part of that. Stab doesn’t QUITE play by those rules. They play by other rules. The rules of the psychological thriller, serial killer horror. Se7en. The Silence of the Lambs. Granted this has implications for how the slasher revival happened in their universe. Did it happen, or was there a moratorium on serial-killer, psychological thrillers? It definitely had an impact on the horror landscape, but it’s hard to discern what that looked like. Especially if it just got wild and weird in later incarnations. Was it responding to other landscape changes? Or was it just grasping at relevancy?
Where do we go in Scream now that they’ve expanded their net into to requel territory which includes Star Wars? I have thoughts on that, too. But I’ll take a stab at that theory later.