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Tuesday, 4 February 2014

SCREAM, For the Love of Horror: A Discussion About Participatory Spectatorship and Intertextuality

Please note: This is not a film review. This is a short critical essay about spectatorship, using the Scream franchise as a case study. Largely, it is a consideration of Constantine Verevis's complex understanding of the film remake, applied to the concept of homage.

In the introduction to a book entitled Film Remakes, Constantine Verevis opens the discussion by posing a list of questions designed to inspire critical thought about how we understand the remake. Ultimately, Verevis’s argument becomes that in order to properly understand film remakes and the concept of remaking itself, “it seems necessary  to stress the need for detailed (historical) investigation and research ... in both its legal-industrial and critical-interpretive definitions” (29). Because remakes demand such a high level of audience interaction, it does seem that such a cinema is unique in its ability to act as a cinematic study in and of itself. That is, in order to fully enjoy the film, one must either approach it with a prior knowledge of the original text, or walk away from it with a new thirst for such knowledge. 

Remaking as necessarily intertextual (another point made by Verevis) can therefore be discussed as a cinema for the fans, and a significant aspect of cinephilia. This concept can be broadened so as to define cinematic intertextuality itself, of which the remake can only be considered a part of. This essay will consider Steve Neale’s concept of verisimilitude and the genre, specifically horror, in relation to Verevis’ inclusive definition of remaking. My case study will be Wes Craven’s Scream (1996),  which exists primarily as an homage to the genre itself, and secondarily as a critical analysis of horror fandom. The problem I wish to address through this study is how to approach a film that is neither self-contained nor adherent to a rigid definition of “remake”. Thus I wonder, with the kind of contemporary spectatorship Verevis considers extensively film-literate (18), is it simply intention that decides the degree to which a film is intertextual, or does the accessibility of film history now place the responsibility of cross-referencing on the spectator to an alarming degree? Perhaps the definition of the term “remake” has less to do with story and plot, and more to do with interpretation.

According to Verevis, “remakes do no consist simply of bodies of films but, like genres, are located too in ‘expectations and audience knowledge’” (23). Although not specifically remaking any one text, the originality of Scream which led to its great (continuing) success has much to do with its ability to locate itself within a dialogue about horror as a genre; the repetitiveness or reliability of genre conventions is not only key to its narrative, but key to its extreme sense of ‘horrality’. Philip Brophy uses this term as an embodiment of the contemporary horror film as being in the parodic phase of its genre cycle by way of its recognition of itself as generic. It is defined as combining elements of horror with textuality, morality and hilarity (277). In Scream, plot conventions are not only used, but discussed. Take, for instance, the moment Sidney (Neve Campbell) is asked what her favorite scary movie is. Her response, without delay, consciously points to the overwhelming consistency of such movies: “You know I don’t watch that shit... what’s the point...they’re all the same”. This statement suggests that, what Neale describes as the regimes of verisimilitude entailing rules, norms and laws (32), are actually too rigid to be repeatedly successful. And yet, Craven plays with this idea so as to both manipulate and confront the verisimilitude, without actually abandoning it. The viewer is therefore asked to appreciate the genre conventions in a new way, recognizing but making light of more acute genre criticisms.

Neale borrows the concept of verisimilitude from Todorov, who understood it as existing in two distinct ways, generic and socio/cultural. The former deals with how a spectator understands the rules of a particular genre to which the film being viewed belongs, and expectations are derived from this. At the same time, the latter deals with what the viewer is willing to perceive as ‘realistic’ based upon the beliefs of their socio/cultural makeup. While neither equates directly to ‘reality’ or ‘truth’, they do each shape how a spectator relates to a film (32). But it is through the film’s relationship with other filmic texts that Johnathan Culler’s concept of verisimilitude can be discussed. For Culler, verisimilitude has to do with the ways in which a text  is made intelligible by its being brought into contact with and defined in relation to another text (32). In fact, Scream manages to embody, to some degree, all five of Culler’s examples: socially given text, general cultural text, conventions of a genre, explicit exposition of genre conventions, and specific intertextualities or taking another work as a basis. The last example seems to be determinately about film remaking, but I would like to extend it to the realm of homage, a space within which Scream seems suited to, albeit to many texts as opposed to one in particular. 

Not only are the characters themselves aware of (if not fans of) horror cinema, but they actually represent the contemporary audience that Verevis writes of. For him, the “virtual mobility of contemporary spectatorship” has to do with new information storage technologies (such as DVDs) which “radically extends the kind of film literacy... that was inaugurated by the age of television” (18). An overwhelming number of filmic references are made throughout their dialogues, citing films like Nightmare on Elm Street and The Exorcist. Not to mention the viewing of Halloween. Moreover, much of their conversations allude the repetitive nature of the horror genre, such as: “This is standard horror movie stuff!... There is a very simple formula!” (Randy), or “You’re starting to sound like some Wes Carpenter flick” (Tatum). The latter cleverly combines the names of two big name horror film directors, one of which is Wes Craven himself. The sense then is that the genre has become so standardized that each film blurs with the next, or even, is to some extent a remake of the prior.

Verevis notes that the remake has not had a great reputation as it has been criticized for its  ‘laziness’, that it lacks originality (4). But he also points out that “remakes (along with sequels and series) work then to satisfy the requirement that Hollywood deliver reliability (repetition) and novelty (innovation) in the same production package” (4). This is exactly what Craven’s franchise does. The success of  the 4 film franchise also suggests that this is what the fans want, to interact with all the films they love, and all the aspects of the genre they love and hate, at once (hence the many parodic gestures). Like actual film remaking, which I tend to define as having an intention to re-imagine a particular production, these films depend on audience activity. The expectation is “not only prior knowledge of previous texts and intertextual relationships, but an understanding of broader generic structures and categories” (Verevis 2). When Verevis asks “How does film remaking differ from other types of repetition, such as quotation, allusion and adaptation?”, I wonder to what extent it does differ. All of these film practices have something in common, they speak to the fans.

Arguably the most interesting aspect of Scream has to do with normalizing of horror-film literacy among its characters, and making their lives depend on it. Randy (Jamie Kennedy) relies completely on verisimilitude in order to survive. Because of his experience with the genre as a spectator, he knows what to expect from a killer whose catch phrase is “What’s your favorite scary movie?” Randy’s ability to relate to the killer as a horror fan not only gives him an upper hand, but a sense of authority; he helps others survive for the duration of three films by sharing his knowledge with them. His role in the narrative mirrors the active or participatory spectatorship Craven expects the audience to partake in, the goal is stay one step ahead of the killer. Thus, Craven essentially debunks the myth that repetition is lazy. Whereas in other horror films, being able to do this may be considered a failure, here, it is necessary to properly experience his film, which is not only following genre conventions but using them to create a unique narrative. Those most well versed in horror cinema, live the longest.

Horror fandom is constantly being critically analyzed by many theorists (Robin Wood, Isabelle Christina Pinedo, Matt Hills, to name a few), which is not surprising considering their massive popularity alongside their violent nature. Ghostface, the guise of the interchangeable killers of the Scream films, represents the fear associated with horror fandom, which is that it may be synonymous with sadism and/or masochism. Craven addresses this directly when Billy Loomis, now revealed as one of the killers, yells out “movies don’t create psychos! Movies make psychos more creative!” The humorous, but loaded, comment at once invites spectators to indulge in the pleasures of the abject, free from judgement, as well as to consider the ramifications of a desensitized society. 

Craven’s success is largely in his ability to speak to the fans. This is not so removed from Verevis’ statement that in a commercial context, “remakes are ‘pre-sold’ because viewers are assumed to have some prior experience” with the earlier text (3). Ultimately though, Scream itself does not fit into any of the categories of film remaking offered by Verevis, and yet as an intertextual work that adheres to genre conventions, it does not seem so far removed from any of the definitions either. Subsequently, its relationship with verisimilitude demands a very high level of participatory spectatorship; viewers are to be engaging and interacting with the film at all times. While it is difficult to define the type of film Scream is, when it is analyzed against these concepts, what does become clear is how significant the role of spectatorship is in defining ‘the remake’. To say that if a film has a relationship to another text it is a remake seems too broad because such relationships can be difficult to avoid, especially in relation to the genre. Neale’s chapter suggests that there is something inherently intertextual about genre filmmaking, apparent in its ability to incite verisimilitude, making Scream intertextual in both its status as a horror and in its intention to pay homage to horror films before it, to such a high degree that it manages to border on ‘remaking’.

Works Cited
Brophy, Philip. “Horrality  - The Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films”. The Horror Reader. ed. Ked Gelder. London: Routledge. 1983.
Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge. 2000.
Verevis, Constantine. Film Remakes. Palgrave Macmillan. 2005.