What if God fell into the darkness of Hell? Into the prison He had made for His own enemies, for those diametrically opposite of Him… into a realm so far from the beauty of Heaven, that in every surface which God saw His own reflection, the vision appeared as its morbid ugly converse and sent Him far beyond insanity into a sort of lobotomized lull, forgetting that paradise had ever existed? A metaphysical question like this is unanswerable in the same manner that describing a singular sensory experience, without referencing that sense, is impossible. The forever blind can never be told what it is to see, as all humanity can never stare past the veil of the natural into the supernatural. Yet there is one tool wielded by mankind that can give one a glimpse, be it from the periphery.
Art is that tool, guided by the shamanic hand of the artist. And if Scream (1996) is God in this case, then the madness-inducing Hell-reflection of God is The Clown at Midnight (1999).
It would not be the Devil’s mirror though, if it did not fill one with concern, “Perhaps this reflection is true, perhaps I am truly the monstrous one…” While The Clown at Midnight may be a thin, airless take on the themes popularized in ’90s slashers by Scream and even more so the theater school subplot of Scream 2 (1997), it is also the gentler, more friendly version. Made for the Hallmark network, this grandma-approved version gives loving nods to classic entertainment themes with a Pagliacci killer and a black & white film era-loving cool dude, seemingly lifted from Clueless‘ (1995) vintage-obsessed Christian Stovitz. The teens here are classically stupid as well, no wits about them. Nothing like the revolutionary depiction of hormonal youth in Scream. Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson are the My Two Dads (1987-90) of these teens, force-birthed by the unwilling surrogate of Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws (1992): part academia, part mall rat. Brainiac wild-childs who changed everything for the slasher by speaking eloquently while juggling their sassy attitudes and bastardized knowledge of horror theory. They forever changed the concept of a final girl from the complex and not necessarily desirable notion of Clover’s to something populist and cool for cosplayers at horror cons a couple of decades later. Perhaps the high level of craft in Scream is the sheep’s clothing hiding the wolf, allowing Craven and Williamson to pluck from both slasher history and film theory as they please, rewarded with accolades rather than accusations. From one perspective, The Clown at Midnight is just a watered-down, unnecessary imitation. From another, it is a more honest participation in an ongoing legacy of narrative, where the slasher template is meant to be retold again and again. In other words, it may be the deceptively naive reflection that reveals the monstrous hubris of Scream, trying to pass off participation as originality, thus transforming legacy into theft.
Then again, such a bold claim could be mapped onto any of the post-Scream trickle-down works past the holy trinity of I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Urban Legend (1998), and Final Destination (2000). Even, over time, reconsiderations of other failed, bigger budget attempts such as Cherry Falls (2000), Valentine (2001), and Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999) evoke sympathy thanks to assumptions of studio meddling. But this begins to lump films together by a determination of quality in craft shunning many other lower budget films into a dumpster of dismissal. The biohazard warning label of being a bad film prevents them from providing a compelling commentary on their wealthy peers. How could a worthless film have anything worthwhile to say?
The list of untouchables is extensive, but more open-hearted souls would do well to start with a few who attempted to play the game of being “like Scream” in order to say something very different. Giving audiences the entry point they all know, the posters for these films are familiar: the disembodied heads of teens, floating in a dark abyss of the threat of murder with cold dead eyes hovering like a demon above them, and a single sharp blade ready to fall down on their young flesh. The faces of the bodiless heads look strong, with piercing looks in their eyes that are possibly murderous or just emanating fierce sexuality. They are Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1939) reborn. All so similar, reflections of each other, yet with nuanced differences because some are victims and some are killers, even though it is possible that all may die.
Soul Survivors (2001), from the producers of I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend, most likely had aspirations to truly be in the game, but barely was released in theaters and ultimately shuffled off as primarily a DVD rental. The characters feel from the same mature-ish universe as Scream but the story subverts expectations for being a slasher. The opening mean-spirited stalk-and-kill scene is essentially all that is offered squarely in the sub-genre while the rest plays with the world of dream logic. It is a contemplation of the sort of thoughts and reality one experiences when near death, not unlike in Jacob’s Ladder (1990). As the female protagonist chases down clues in a dream dimension, unable to understand that she isn’t trying to find a killer, unknown forces are leading her towards making a choice between two lovers: one who symbolizes life and the other who symbolizes death. The film shifts the question from “Who is the real killer?” to “Who is really dead?” The reflection here is inverted, asking of this era, is the opposite of sub-genre tropes still the genre at all?
Wishcraft (2002) isn’t quite as far off the map but adds a supernatural element that jumps so far from the grounded elements of Scream that it feels silly. But silly is still fun and in the end the goal was never more than entertainment for any of these films. It is hardly profane to let the audience laugh, which is an understandable reaction to discovering that the masked killer got his inhuman strength by wishing on a monkey’s paw. The laughter may grow even harder when the final boy makes the same wish for superpowers in order to defeat the killer. All this on the tail end of a story primarily about the protagonist learning that his wishes for a girl to be in love with him not only have nothing to do with real love but are the behavior of a toxic creep. Those requiring a film to reflect one’s own ethics will struggle with this, but others who don’t need the choir preached to are rewarded with a movie that is so wrong it is juicy. Not unlike, say, Disney’s Freaky Friday (1976) and its kid-friendly incest themes. Then again, do any of the characters in I Know What You Did Last Summer deserve to live, or at least go unpunished, for covering up a murder? If anything, Wishcraft is the brutal reflection showing the protagonists of these films are not always deserving of final girl “yes girl, slay!” yassification and admiration.
Pushing this creep factor even deeper is the truly muddled Bleed (2002). Here, a group of nearly always naked friends casually inform a new female friend that they started something called Murder Club. Sociopaths through and through, they kill for fun and now expect her to keep this a secret. The friend, apparently also without morals, kills a stranger in a parking garage in order to join the club, only to find out that these new friends were just messing with her. A little joking around while they were all in the hot tub. From there, the fake Murder Club members start getting picked off, returning things to a Ten Little Indians/Scream style who-done-it? Less interesting though are the depths of moral depravity than just how much interest the film has in being near softcore-level erotic. Both men and women are primarily naked throughout, with even a brief glimpse of full frontal male nudity ~ that oh-so-rare symbol of egalitarian titillation. A decade later, co-director Devin Hamilton would make the gay dating comedy Shut Up and Kiss Me (2010), an indicator that under the guise of “Scream-like,” there was also room to share homoerotic thrills in horror which otherwise might not have been marketed to a mainstream audience. The same approach is taken in Final Stab (2001) by director David DeCoteau, best known today for his extensive filmography of lavish, indulgent DTV films featuring ensemble casts of shirtless young himbos. Other than the title and poster art, Final Stab hardly has much slashing in the run time at all, but most definitely is a feast for the eyes, much like all DeCoteau’s movies in the past two decades. It would be too easy to call Bleed and Final Stab a cheapening of the sub-genre; Scream always relied upon the bright sexual glow of youth. Essentially all slashers have. That is why the biggest core trope of slashers is “the slut dies first.” There is an ethical question in this form of entertainment, no matter how classy or trashy, “Is it okay that teens are sexual?” In Scream, the teens are smart and know about this trope, allowing them to scoff and be above it. Yet, here is a reflection, found in glistening, sweaty flesh, reminding all that even Scream knew audiences would respond well to young hotties and hunks.
Those who want a fragment of this broken mirror to slice even deeper can look to Do You Wanna Know a Secret (2001), the vapidest of the descendants, or to Lovers Lane (1999) which takes the ’90s slasher approach of multiple killers and a love for sins-of-the-father and returns them back to an ’80s aesthetic sensibility. If hitting an artery isn’t enough, and one needs that piece of mirror lodged deep in the heart, there is always Cut (2000) or American Nightmare (2002), or dozens more. Despite the self-wounding metaphor though, the time spent isn’t entirely masochistic. Even the most desolate reflections of Scream are fascinating as deconstructions of a culture-changing film. Some shine as rare gems even.
Excluded from Frozen (2013), Disney’s take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen (1844), is a vital introduction to his tale. Demons took a mirror that reflected the opposite of everything up from Hell towards the Heavens. The closer it got to God, the more it shook under the vile absurdity of its inverse image, till ultimately it shattered and millions of pieces fell to the Earth. Sadly for some, pieces pierced their hearts making them experience kindness as cruelty, making them experience love as hate. Perhaps clones of Scream are just bastardizations. Perhaps they reveal something not commonly seen. Perhaps they are like the infamous poster art for Urban Legend which depicts the disembodied heads in fractions of a shattered mirror, all reflections of each other: a symbol that not only do killers and victims resemble each other, but are both ways of seeing the same thing. Opposites embrace each other as much as they critique. Hopefully though, what’s revealed is that these supposed Scream clones are not just cash grabs, devoid of creative value. They are a part of a movement in art; a part of a moment in the legacy of the slasher narrative. They push forward with that unlikely balance contained in all art: to show audiences what they already know and love in a new way that makes it feel fresh and reveals new truths. Everything is a reflection of everything else, the same object now seen from a new angle.
“…the artist must employ the symbols in use in his day and nation, to convey his enlarged sense to his fellow-men. Thus the new in art is always formed out of the old.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson ‘Essays, First Series: Art’ (1841)