Wes Craven and the Metanarrative Slasher Film

By Joseph Emery

Wes Craven’s films often pay homage to horror. The conventions and themes utilized in a Craven film are playfully aware of the confines of both their genre and the medium of film at large. Looking at three of his most reflective films, this metanarrative commentary can be broken down and understood as both horrifying and creatively boundary breaking. I will examine, in order of release, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), Scream (1996), and Scream 3 (2000), looking at both the evolution of Craven’s metanarrative commentary and the function it serves in adding to the fright in each film, and how this narrative reflection has affected horror as a whole.

New Nightmare truly starts Craven’s look at the metahorror film, and continues audience’s fascination with the slasher. Many viewers may assume Scream is Craven’s first foray into metahorror but it is simply the most well-known example. Being the seventh film in the Nightmare on Elm Street film series, expectations might not be high for New Nightmare’s ability to add anything refreshing to the series, and especially the horror genre. There are only so many times audiences can watch Freddy invading the dream of some hapless teen and still be frightened. Horror especially has the inclination of repetition. A main draw for horror sequels is the slasher film. These films use standard horror tropes to explore the thrill of the kill over and over in the hopes of entrancing audiences into spending their next couple dollars to see the silver of a blade caught shining in the moonlit darkness. Craven truly delivers something “new” with this first metahorror. New Nightmare delivers a surrealist metahorror experience, being completely self-referential, down to the actors portraying their real life personas as characters in the film. In other words, Heather Lagenkamp appears as Heather Langenkamp in the film, but is also known as the actress who played Nancy Thompson in the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. New Nightmare makes use of the medium of filmmaking and storytelling in a way that goes beyond metareference. In her dissertation, Savanna R. Teague contends:

“He [Craven] used three anchoring points within his script to make New Nightmare’s metanarrative so successful that he would later repeat in his work on the Scream franchise: 1) criticism of the toil actors experience from being involved in horror, 2) Craven’s own criticism of the Hollywood structure, and 3) public criticism against horror films. These metaanchors help to ground the narrative with social commentary while also furthering the plot of the film so that that audience remains connected to the story and the real-world events surrounding the making of horror films”

(Teague 32).

Teague is effectively saying that the thing that makes New Nightmare function so well and provide, in my opinion, effective scares, is that the film is firmly rooted in reality. In my favorite sequence from the film, Heather Lagenkamp and her son Dylan are pulled into a deep sleep in an ancient Parthenon like structure where Krueger resides for a final showdown, just like in a classic Nightmare film. Right before this however, the new darker Freddy that is referenced throughout the film is brought fully from the dream world into the world of not just the film, like in previous entries, but into the real world. This, of course, is a world where movies exist, and actors such as Robert Englund and Heather Lagenkamp exist, separate from their on screen characters. When Heather says goodbye to John Saxon outside her house before the final showdown however, she doesn’t refer to him as John anymore, she refers to him as “daddy.” With that line, Freddy leaves his cocoon of the bed sheet and enters from dreams into reality. Not only has Heather’s reality become a distorted, blur of media and personas, but Freddy is quick to let viewers know that he is in their reality as well. He walks just out of view and then, in almost superhero fashion, similar to Englund as Kreuger on the fictional talkshow earlier in the film, his claws flash before the camera dramatically. Krueger is putting on a horrifying show for his audience. The audience is invited to take part in the media while the media takes part of them. No one is safe at home until Kruger suffers defeat by being contextualized and trapped within a story, so as to remove the scare. This sets the scene for Craven to take his metahorror to the next, exciting, and financially viable film frontier, Scream in 1996, a mere two years later.

Scream is metahorror contextualized in pop culture. I have to admit, some viewers might come away from New Nightmare feeling that its dramatic self-reference creates corny, overplayed moments. The film takes itself quite seriously and the scares are less metacontextual than the script, following more or less the same format of the original, so as to continue the metareference, I’m sure. Freddy’s hand still slinks around like a shark and a babysitter is lifted and dragged along the walls and the ceiling until she’s turned into a bloody pulp. Scream however invites viewers into the metahorror madness right from the onset. As Davinia Thornley states in her article “The ‘Scream’ Reflex”, “The Scream series is perhaps the granddaddy of contemporary reflexive horror, leading the way for films such as The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, 1999) and forcing the audience to question their own pleasures and assumptions even as they watch” (Thornley 140). Starting in Scream and continuing through the rest of the Scream film series, the audience is invited to engage directly with the media, learning rules, and later, knowing when they are going to be broken. Often, as in the case of Scream and Scream 3, a highly knowledgeable film buff will exposit informational dialogue about the killer’s motives, rules of horror films, or characters will call viewers’ attention to specific tropes. Here is where the distinction between New Nightmare and Scream becomes readily apparent. While New Nightmare relies on audiences to follow along based on metacontext from other Nightmare films, Scream relies on metahorror as a whole, making direct reference to other films, especially John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). As Nicholas de Villers notes in “Metahorror Sequels, ‘The Rules’, and the Metareferential Turn in Contemporary Horror Cinema,” in the finale of Scream, “Even more heavily ironic mirroring occurs as Randy watches the end of Halloween alone and warns Jamie Lee Curtis on television “watch out, I told you, he’s right around the corner, look behind you” (Craven, dir. 1996) while the masked killer comes up behind him on the couch (for a moment, Jamie Lee Curtis’s character and Jamie Kennedy’s reflection are superimposed on the television screen,” (Villers 355-356). This signals to the audiences that the media of reality and the reality within the media are now crossing over and collapsing upon one another with abandon. Randy knows all about horror films and the tropes that run through the metanarrative of the genre, but in this scene, he is also the exemplar of those tropes. This is the meta-reference that the Scream series operates upon moving forwards. This style of reference, unlike New Nightmare’s use of meta is purposefully witty, as killer quips and one-liners zing past audience ears, while they engage with smart context-based clues and rules that serve as hints to a grand murder mystery. Scream makes being an informed viewer of the horror film, and specifically the slasher film, fun and engaging.

Scream 3 bridges the gap in understanding of metahorror between New Nightmare and Scream. Scream 3 features the same types of reflections on slasher horror as the original, but utilizes the construct of the film making process itself, such as a fully rendered set on a studio lot, much like New Nightmare. Craven comments on the creation of horror stories and the film industry specifically in New Nightmare with his use of his own script being read in the movie as a direct foreshadow of coming events. In the film’s final scene, Lagenkamp reads the beginning of the script of New Nightmare to her son Dylan. The story ends where the story began and goes no further and with this ending, besides a crossover and a remake, Freddy has never been able to return to the big screen in another nightmare. Scream 3 centers around the cast of the Stab 3 film, based on the events of the original Scream, being murdered by Ghostface, the knife wielding mystery slasher. Throughout the film, Craven plays with the concepts of slasher horror, media and audience interaction. While never exactly breaking the forth wall, Scream 3 does everything in its power to point out the things that make up horror and sometimes, even laugh at them. This is in quite similar effect to the original and, in fact, Craven realizes even this and finds ways to make comment on it. Despite its continued and increased use of metacommentary, Scream 3 seems to fall much into the rut of the previous Slasher films, as there is usually less and less return on invest in enjoyment. The metacommentary can be quite enjoyable, especially in film form. I would not be making a comment about metacommentary if I did not enjoy the interactivity and mental stimulation of the form. However, in repeated instances, even after extended periods of time in between viewings, my experience and the overall impact of the metacommentary was lessened in this film from the original, and even from New Nightmare. I feel that I have seen, even this trick, one too many times. However, there are moments that stand apart as furthering the metacommentary, making me eat my own words. These moments involve the ideas of Scream, Scream 3, Stab 3, and the audience’s understanding of film all looping into one another, creating an uncanny feeling in the viewer. This is a heightened version of the effect of fear created with Freddy being released from the confines of the story and into the “real” world of the actors and the viewers in New Nightmare. During a pivotal scene in Scream 3, Sidney Prescott is investigating the newest killings, and trying to uncover the truth about her late mother’s past. She stumbles onto the set of Stab 3 and walks right into a recreation of her past trauma. As Valerie Wee states in her article, “The Scream Trilogy, “Hyperpostmodemism,” and the Late-Nineties Teen Slasher Film,” by having the sequence play out on the set of a film about the events of Scream:

“This sequence effectively collapses the spatial, temporal, and textual boundaries separating Scream and Scream 3, leaving the audience momentarily confused and adrift. In addition, the actual characters from the first two films are joined by the “actors” who have been hired to reenact the original characters’ roles in Stab 3, a development that further collapses the limits that divide this film’s characters from the characters from the film-within-the-film” (Wee 48-49).

This is, in a film from 2000, the most effective sequence at creating this displaced in time feeling in myself as a viewer that I have come across. I had to rewind my copy multiple times to make sure I was hearing, as the audio also loops from the original film, and seeing things correctly.

Scream 3 covers a lot of the same ground as the first film in the series, but there are moments of complete self reflection that work to elicit a strong confused displacement in the audiences understanding, making up for an already staling use of metacommentary in a middling Slasher film.

Wes Craven used metacommentary to redefine the horror slasher film through the reflective and interactive images of New Nightmare, Scream, and Scream 3. This type of filmmaking and storytelling is certainly utilized throughout many post-modern works, many influenced by Craven’s work itself. Craven brings not only intense reflection like some of the more art-house oriented films, but also a wittiness and a style of audience interactivity that seems to have been exacerbated in films such as Deadpool (2016) directed by Tim Miller. Craven and his work in metacommentary through the horror slasher film will provide a touchstone for further studies, not only into the horror genre, but into the societal fascination with self-reflection and meta-textual understanding.

Works Cited:

Deadpool. Directed by Tim Miller, 20th Century Fox, 2016.

de Villiers, Nicholas. “Metahorror Sequels, ’The Rules’, and the Metareferential Turn in Contemporary Horror Cinema.” Studies in Intermediality, no. 5, Jan. 2011, pp. 357–377. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=ufh&AN=102205526&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Scream. Directed by Wes Craven, Dimension Films, 1996.
Scream 3. Directed by Wes Craven, Dimension Films, 2000.

METACINEMA. 2020. Middle Tennessee State University, Phd dissertation. JEWLscholar, https://jewlscholar.mtsu.edu/handle/mtsu/6214. Thornley, Davinia. “THE ‘SCREAM’ REFLEX: Meta Horror AND POPULAR CULTURE.”

Metro, no. 150, Spring 2006, pp. 140–147. EBSCOhost,

search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=ufh&AN=24388624&site=ehost- live&scope=site.

Wee, Valerie. “The Scream Trilogy, ‘Hyperpostmodernism,’ and the Late-Nineties Teen Slasher Film.” Journal of Film & Video, vol. 57, no. 3, Fall 2005, pp. 44–61. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=ufh&AN=20708423&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Directed by Wes Craven, New Line Cinema, 1994.

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