As it turns out, a mask isn’t the only thing that can conceal the killer’s identity in a horror film.
In screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s game-changing Scream, viewers’ ability to unearth the truth of who’s behind the film’s grisly murders requires much more than putting a face to the scene of the crime. This video essay by Cristobal Olguin, entitled “Scream—Manipulating Expectations,” reminds moviemakers that you can’t really mess with your audiences’ heads unless you can skillfully place overt and hidden details and characters’ true motivations as the inner-workings of your story. How do you do that? In this case study, the answer lies with red herrings and foreshadowing.
In the video, side-by-side comparisons between shots from Scream and other slasher films that preceded it, as well as parallel shots from Scream that seem to offer audiences clues about the identity of the film’s killer, illustrate how Williamson’s script distracts seasoned filmgoers by appearing to give them a plot they can predict, but which ultimately leads them toward multiple dead ends. Formal elements like non-diegetic sound, music, lighting, dialogue and props are also revealed to be a part of the film’s grand scheme of misdirection. All of these ingredients can lead viewers to falsely conclude that they have gathered valuable information, when in fact, as is the case in Scream, what’s actually going on amidst all the noise is a much subtler series of events.
With films like The Last House on the Left, The People Under the Stairs, A Nightmare On Elm Street and others, Scream‘s director, the late, great Wes Craven, developed the rather peculiar reputation of being a moviemaker who favored deadly booby traps over the course of his career. What’s neat about how Scream fits into this pattern is that the film’s booby traps, here, are not physical, but instead are built into Williamson’s narrative design.
Even Williamson’s device of the red herring sometimes acts as a mask for another device—foreshadowing—, which further escalates tension during a scene in which the film’s Ghostface killer jumps out at Sidney (Neve Campbell) from inside a closet. “That moment was disguised as a red herring when it wasn’t. It was foreshadowing,” Olguin explains. “Just like that, Billy’s [(Skeet Ulrich)] involvement in the murders was disguised as a red herring, when in fact it wasn’t. There’s plenty of foreshadowing to show that his character was one of the killers from the very beginning. In our first encounter with Sidney and her boyfriend, Billy, they talk about their relationship. Billy turns on the radio and a song starts playing in the background. The camera angle shifts to a much lower angle as Billy is persuading her. But pay attention to the lyrics: ‘The sun or the rain/So come on baby/Don’t fear the reaper/Take my hand/Don’t fear the reaper.'”
Saw may have been the first horror film to become synonymous with the catchphrase “I want to play a game,” but Scream‘s plethora of decoys and narrative diversions set a transformative precedent for gaming audiences who already anticipate that the film they’re about to see will contain some degree of suspense. Just how much confusion and nail-biting they’ll do, though, depends not on your killer’s shyness, but on your story’s slyness. MM