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…Home of the red, black, and blue; where there’s a darkness not just on the edge of town, but all along Main Street; and where the heartland lies deep within October Country.

This site is an outgrowth of the blog Macabre Republic (constituted in 2010), which was devoted to the celebration and appreciation of the Gothic in American literature and culture. My goal here is not merely to construct a platform for my own written work, but to build a community of fellow aficionados–all those who feel right at home on the nightside.

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Candy Scorn

I’m always in a dark-carnival-loving frame of mind, but especially so in recent weeks with the release of Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley remake and the debut of Aaron Mahnke’s new podcast Sideshow. So when I saw that the 2019 horror film Candy Corn was streaming on Amazon, I was primed to check it out.

The film’s plot is basic: after the annual Halloween-night hazing of gawky, developmentally-challenged local Jacob Atkins (who has hired on as a carny with the traveling show currently in town) goes homicidally awry, the carnival leader Dr. Death performs an occult revivification of the victim’s corpse. Grim carnival justice ensues, as Jacob (now masked in Michael Myers-esque fashion) stalks and mows down down his bullies. This standard revenge element leads to some brutal but well-orchestrated kill scenes, which include the creatively destructive use of the titular treat (a Jacob favorite prior to his death).

The mute (and one-note) Jacob doesn’t make for a terribly interesting character. He’s easily overshadowed by the diminutive but forceful showman Dr. Death, a role embodied by Rob Zombie regular Pancho Moler. Candy Corn in many ways feels like a no-budget version of a Zombie film, right down to the grungy aesthetic and questionable perspective. It seems unsure of the horror it wants to convey, and the viewer struggles to find a character to identify with and invest in emotionally. Jacob proves more monstrous than sympathetic, and the film’s obvious final girl falls short of that role. Most confusingly, Dr. Death vacillates between a staunch defender of his carnival workers and a sinister oppressor of them.

The cast includes some notable horror actors of yesteryear (Courtney Gains, P.J. Soles, and Tony Todd–who is sorely underutilized here); seeing how much they have aged since the days of their prime is apt to make the viewer feel old, too. But the bigger issue is that Candy Corn, with its methodical pacing, moody tone, and murky morality, just leaves the viewer feeling cold.

I’d recommend this one only to the most indiscriminating Halloween horror film aficionado. All others aren’t likely to find it to their taste.

 

Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#19, #18, #17

January 19th is the 213th birthday of one of the 19th Century’s literary lions. In honor of the occasion, I am kicking off a new countdown today, of Edgar Allan Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales…

 

19. “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845)

What at first appears to be an essay (on mankind’s perverse penchant “to do wrong for wrong’s sake”) turns midway through into the dramatic monologue of a condemned killer. The now-imprisoned narrator originally got away with a fiendish murder via poisoned candle (and thereby inheriting the victim’s estate), but is undone by his own inexplicable, uncontrollable urge to make an open confession. He suffers a “nightmare of the soul” in which he feels haunted by “some invisible fiend” or “the very ghost of him whom I had murdered,” and ends up blurting out the words that consign him “to the hangman and to hell.” The theme of a criminal psyche self-imploded by underlying guilt is a recurrent one in Poe’s work, but “The Imp of the Perverse” distinguishes itself with its overt theorizing and consistently diabolic rhetoric.

 

18. “The Oval Portrait” (1842)

This brief tale (which references the fiction of Ann Radcliffe) reads like a Gothic novel in miniature. The “desperately wounded” narrator and his valet pass the night in a gloomy, abandoned, mountaintop chateau. Restless during the “deep midnight,” the narrator peruses a book that discusses the paintings hung in his bedchamber. A chance shifting of the candelabrum throws light on a hitherto unnoticed portrait, of a Lenore-like “maiden of rarest beauty” who arrests the viewer with “the absolute life-likeness of [her] expression.” Reading up on the artwork, the narrator learns that the young bride was forced to sit by her painter husband (“a passionate, and wild, and moody man”) for her portrait in a “dark high turret-chamber.” Obsessed with the endeavor, the husband failed to recognize that his painting was uncannily vamping the very vitality of his wife. The tale ends with one of Poe’s patented shocking clinchers: as the painter turned from the completed portrait toward his wife, proclaiming “This is indeed life itself,” he belatedly realized that “She was dead!

 

17. “Thou Art the Man!” (1844)

Here’ a variation on the detective story (a genre Poe pioneered) that sneakily turns toward the macabre. It becomes quite obvious early on that gold ol’ Charley Goodfellow is the epitome of duplicity and has elaborately framed his wealthy neighbor’s nephew for the man’s murder. The narrator seems to be the only person in Rattleborough to see through the ruse, and his unusual method for forcing a confession is what lands “Thou Art the Man!” on this countdown. In the climax, the opening of a newly-arrived wine crate delivers quite a surprise: “there sprang open into a sitting position, directly facing the host [Charley], the bruised, bloody, and nearly putrid corpse of the murdered Mr. Shuttleworthy himself.” Before toppling over, the corpse fixes its gaze on Charley and croaks the titular accusation. Only after the horrified Charley confesses (and then promptly drops dead), does the narrator explain that he rigged the corpse with “a stiff piece of whalebone” stuffed down the throat so the doubled-up body would spring up when the crate was opened (the revenant’s seeming voicing of “Thou art the Man!” was a bit of ventriloquism by the narrator). At the start of the tale, the narrator asserts that he is about to “play the Oedipus to the Rattleborough enigma,” but plays more like Edward Lee in his resort to such eye-popping grotesquerie.

 

 

Lore Report: “All That Glitters” (Episode 190)

In the end, veneer is all about appearances. It represents the unusual, the expensive, and often the unattainable, without letting us see what’s really beneath it all. And it’s just as true for people as it is for bookshelves; even places have a veneer. But few locations have such a dark past hidden beneath its glittering surface than [sic] the place that pumps out visions of our wildest dreams. It might seem like everything there is picture perfect, but if you look close enough the truth is more than a little frightening. So pack your bags, grab your coat, and put on your walking shoes, because I want to take you on a trip into the shadows behind the sunshine.  We’re going to Hollywood.

Beneath the glitz of America’s movie capital lies the Gothic, the ghoulish, and the ghostly, as host Aaron Mahnke endeavors to demonstrate in the latest episode of the Lore podcast. He shares a series of quick, Tinseltown-related stories, starting with the gloomy background of the iconic Hollywood(land) sign. Hauntings at landmark clubs, theaters, and hotels are addressed, as is one of the area’s grisliest bits of history: the “Black Dahlia” murder, a horrific crime that appears to have left behind a ghostly legacy. Mahnke wraps the episode up nicely by tracing the movements of a cursed ring that allegedly brought tragic misfortune to anyone who wore it, including screen legend Rudolph Valentino. All told, “All That Glitters” is a shining example of the dark lore that Mahnke mines better than anyone else in the world.

 

…And Scream Again

The Scream reboot/sequel (“requel” sounds like something you’d mix into your morning coffee) hearkens back to the original film in more than just name. This fifth installment in the slasher franchise is quite self-conscious of the dark legacy left behind by Billy Loomis and Stu Macher. The film invokes the first one in its very plot, as the latest iteration of Ghostface appears to be targeting relatives of classic Woodsboro characters. This is all extremely apropos, because the new Scream also proves the best entry in the series since the 1996 original.

2022’s Scream is the darkest in tone to date. Ghostface’s kills here are the most savage ones screened in the franchise’s twenty-five-year history (the repeated, rapid-fire knife-strikes reminded me of the stabbings often dramatized on American Horror Story). At the same time, the film is the series’ least comedic entry. This is not to say that it is devoid of laughs, only that the humor is dialed down and naturally integrated. There are no over-the-top gags or obtrusive appearances (like Jay and Silent Bob stumbling onto the scene in Scream 3).

Scream transformed the genre in the late 20th Century with its knowing appropriation and skewering of horror film conventions, and the new release continues the “meta” tradition. There is a lot of discussion of so-called “elevated” horror, including some clever reference to The Babadook. The film seems more concerned, though, with bouncing off of the in-universe Stab franchise than actual horror cinema. At least in a first viewing, the new Scream offers few of the Easter eggs (e.g. the suggestively-sweatered janitor “Fred” in the original) that supply especial visual treat for genre fans.

Of course, the film brings back its three “legacy” characters (another prominent figure from the original makes more surprising return, but this appearance might have benefited from the de-aging technology employed in The Irishman). Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott is now married with children, and serves as a motherly mentor to Woodsboro’s current most obvious candidate for final girl status. Gale Weathers is still a popular media personality, but her brash character gets toned down considerably here (the smartass in me wants to say this was because the filmmakers were worried Courtney Cox wouldn’t be able to emote through such plasticized mask). And David Arquette’s Dewey Riley has shed the fresh-faced doofiness at last and now sports the look of a grizzled ex-sheriff (dubbed a “shitty Sam Elliott” in one of the film’s best throwaway lines). These older characters come across as genuinely world-weary, not merely unenthused by the prospect of being involved in yet another town stab-a-thon. Their past run-ins with Ghostface have left them both physically scarred and emotionally exhausted.

To the film’s credit, Sidney, Gale, and Dewey are drawn back into the mix in an organic way (i.e. not immediately–Sidney herself doesn’t show up onto the scene until midway through the movie). This gives directors Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin the time to establish the new characters, and the investment in the younger cast definitely pays off. Anyone who has seen the previous work of Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega won’t be surprised that the actresses shine here as estranged half-sisters Sam and Tara Carpenter. Jack Quaid also gives a strong performance as Sam’s boyfriend Richie, as does Jasmin Savoy Brown as Randy Meeks’s genre-savvy niece Mindy.

Via the characters’ discussion of the Stab franchise, the film rightfully points out the real secret of the successful Scream formula: not all the dash and slash but rather the time-honored whodunit element, the mystery of the killer’s identity hidden behind mask and robe. When it comes to possible suspects, the new Scream casts a wide net; the new cast members are also quick to point the finger at one another. Personally, my biggest disappointment  is that I pegged the killer (or killers–don’t want to spoil anything here!) early on. Perhaps I’ve watched too many of these films too many times, or maybe I was just clued in because the film utilizes a plot point that echoes a certain standout slasher novel from 2021. I also regret to write that the film suffers from the same Suddenly Psycho syndrome that plagues the entire franchise, where the killer(s?) finally drop the facade and turn to manic ranting about their motivations. Just once I wish the unmasked Ghostface would take the laconic approach and simply state, “I did it because I enjoy killing.”

The film’s extended climax brings the franchise full circle in an overt and spectacularly violent manner, making loud callback to the original. This makes for a very satisfying ending, in terms of the plot of this individual effort and the series overall, as the emotional arcs of the legacy characters are brought to a moving conclusion. Like ex-boxing champs, big box-office horror franchises tend to make a few too many comebacks, but here’s hoping this is it for this particular series. 2022’s Scream does a fine job of honoring the late Wes Craven’s vision while also furnishing fresh thrills, so I can think of no better moment to leave Woodsboro be and let Ghostface fade away into slasher lore.

 

Beyond Sleepy Hollow: “The Devil and Tom Walker”

“The Devil and Tom Walker” is next up in the table of contents of American Gothic Short Stories, but rather than include it in my most recent “A.G. Exemplary?” post, I have made it the next installment of a newer feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. “Beyond Sleepy Hollow” (a blogging follow-up to my eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition) explores further Washington Irving works of ghosts, goblins, and the Gothic.

Included in Part IV (“The Money Diggers”) of Irving’s 1824 volume Tales of a Traveller, “The Devil and Tom Walker” is listed–much like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”–as having been “Found Among the Papers of the Late Diedrich Knickerbocker.” Also like “The Legend,” the tale has multiply frames: it’s presented as a yarn told by a Cape Cod whaler (who learned it from a neighbor) to Knickerbocker while they were out fishing off the Eastern shore of Manhattan one morning. Despite such narratorial displacement, “The Devil and Tom Walker” is marked by the typical humor of Knickerbocker himself. Irving’s Dutch scribe familiarly blurs the historical and the fictional, the factual and fantastic, with references to “the most authentic old story” and “the authentic old legend,” and comments such as “It is one of those facts which have become confounded by a variety of historians.”

Tom Walker’s journey home through a “thickly wooded swamp” outside Boston recalls Ichabod Crane’s travel through Sleepy Hollow after leaving the Van Tassel quilting frolic. Just as Ichabod is unnerved by natural sounds such as bullfrog croaks and the rubbing of tree boughs, Tom is “startled now and then by the sudden screaming of the bittern, or the quacking of a wild duck, rising on the wing from some solitary pool.” Sleepy Hollow is steeped in superstition by local villagers, and the wooded area Tom traverses likewise proves rich in lore: “the common people had a bad opinion of [the lonely melancholy place] from the stories handed down from the time of the Indian wars; when it was asserted that the savages held incantations here and made sacrifices to the evil spirit.” Sure enough, Tom soon encounters the axe-carrying “Black Woodsman” (a.k.a. “Old Scratch”), but his reaction to the sinister figure is the opposite of the cravenly Ichabod’s to the Headless Horseman. Evoking the comic misogyny of “Rip Van Winkle,” Knickerbocker records that “Tom was a hard minded fellow, not easily daunted, and he had lived so long with a termagant wife, that he did not even fear the devil.”

As is his wont, the devil tries to strike a deal with Tom, who will be shown the location of the pirate Captain Kidd’s buried treasure in exchange for his forfeited soul. Tom balks at the offer, but his miserly wife, upon learning of the diabolical dialogue when Tom gets home, is determined to strike the deal with the Black Woodsman herself. Laden with household valuables, she ventures out into the swamp, and is “never heard of more.” Her absence might be due to a devilish dispatch: some locals “assert that the tempter had decoyed her into a dismal quagmire on top of which her hat was found lying.” A mysterious disappearance, a hat left behind as evidence of foul play–Mrs. Walker’s fate appears to match Ichabod’s at the end of “The Legend.”

Searching for his wife (or more accurately, for the “household booty” she stole off with), Tom makes a grisly discovery of a “heart and liver” tied up in the woman’s check apron. Tom is hardly distraught, though, over the implied slaughter of Mrs. Walker; he feels “something like gratitude toward the black woodsman, who he considered had done him a kindness.” Looking more favorably upon the devil, Tom agrees to the original bargain. He is instantly rewarded and leads a wealthy life, but when death approaches begins to regret his decision and dread damnation. Desperate, he sets “his wits to work to cheat [the devil] out of the conditions. He became, therefore, all of a sudden, a violent church goer.” Tom is also said to have “had his horse new shod, saddled and bridled, and buried with his feet uppermost; because he supposed that at the last day the world would be turned upside down; in which case he should find his horse standing ready for mounting; and he was determined at the worst to give his old friend a run for it.” This envisioned equine escapade suggests the racing with the ghostly Hessian in “The Legend”–a parallel that grows even clearer after Tom unwittingly dooms himself. Responding to a borrower’s grouse (“You have made so much money off me”), Tom (who turned usurer as part of the infernal pact) impatiently blurts, “The devil take me if I have made a farthing!” Tom’s denial serves as an immediate summons, as the devil shows up at the door holding a black horse by the rein: “The black man whisked [Tom] like a child into a saddle, gave the horse a lash, and away he galloped with Tom on his back, in the midst of a thunderstorm.” This abduction and mad gallop off into the swamp is reminiscent of old Brouwer’s story of meeting the mischievous Horseman in “The Legend.” And just as Ichabod Crane becomes a ghostly legend after allegedly having been spirited away from Sleepy Hollow, Tom Walker achieves spook status at tale’s end: “the neighboring swamp and old Indian fort are often haunted in stormy nights by a figure on horseback, in a morning gown and white cap, which is doubtless the troubled spirit of the usurer.”

Besides reflecting back upon “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” this Knickerbocker tale anticipates a long literary tradition of deals/duels with the devil (cf. Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster”; Robert Bloch’s “That Hellbound Train”). In its detailing of an infernal encounter in a sylvan Massachusetts setting, “The Devil and Tom Walker” also points toward Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Irving’s Black Woodsman (who identifies himself as “the grand master of the Salem witches”) sounds a note of religious hypocrisy that Hawthorne would later echo. Responding to Tom’s insistence that the grounds belonged to Deacon Peabody, Old Scratch seethes: “Deacon Peabody be d—–d, as I fancy he will be, if he does not look more to his own sins and less to those of his neighbors.” The devil directs Tom’s attention to a great tree, “fair and flourishing without, but rotten at the core”: “On the bark of the tree was scored the name of Deacon Peabody, an eminent man, who had waxed wealthy by driving shrewd bargains with the Indians. [Tom] now looked around and found most of the tall trees marked with the name of some great man of the colony, and all more or less scored by the [Black Woodsman’s] axe.” Exposing secret sin in a cutting woodland scene, “The Devil and Tom Walker” establishes itself as a quintessential American Gothic short story.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Joshua Hiles’s “Old Homeplace”

In this blog feature, I explore the contents of anthologies of American Gothic literature (as explicitly identified by book title), considering the extent to which the selections exemplify the genre. Tonight, I continue to work my way through the contents of Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.

“Old Homeplace” by Joshua Hiles (2019)

Hiles’s Faulknerian story (first published in this anthology) presents many recognizable elements of the American Gothic. There’s a decayed setting: a backwoods Missouri town reduced to “a ramshackle ruin” by flood and mud. There are primitive, clannish characters who seem out of step with the modern world. The sins of the fathers (and grandfathers and great-grandfathers…) loom large, thanks to an unending blood feud between two interrelated families. A sense of hereditary guilt reaches supernatural proportions, in the forms of strange ghosts (such as a beckoning, frog-head-chomping young girl) and a sinister black panther (believed by main character Elijah to be “our secrets and hates made flesh. I think it stalks us as retribution for those [past] crimes, and to punish anyone who sheds blood here in town.”). The climax feels a bit rushed, and all those family connections/transgressions can be confusing, but Hiles clearly knows how to create a strong sense of place and bathe it in creepy atmosphere.

 

Lore Report: “Fragments” (Episode 189)

Today, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is considered the father of microbiology, but at a more basic level, his hobby demonstrated a universal truth: there is so much left to explore, and if we dig deep enough, we might uncover something truly groundbreaking. And, sometimes, that discovery might lead to something else: fear.

Episode 189 of the Lore podcast grows positively abominable in its approach, as host Aaron Mahnke tracks the legendary woolly monster of mountainous locale in various world cultures from the Far East to the Canadian northwest. Besides uncovering the origin of the phrase “abominable snowman,” Mahnke discusses the “Yeti-mania” that ran rampant in the mid-20th Century. Yet in taking the public fascination with (reported sightings of) such creature as a subject, the episode could have devoted more than just passing mention of the figure’s prevalence in pop culture. Offering only eighteen minutes of content (the final third of the under-thirty-minute runtime constitutes a preview of Mahnke’s new podcast Grim & Mild Presents: Sideshow), the episode lives up to its title, alas, and ends up feeling somewhat fragmentary.

 

Horror on the Horizon: 22 Anticipated Book Releases in 2022

2021 was an incredible year for horror fiction (one of the strongest in recent memory). The coming year looks very promising as well. Here is a quick list of 22 books whose release I eagerly await in 2022:

The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud

Clown in a Cornfield 2: Frendo Lives by Adam Cesare

Devil House by John Darnielle

Just Like Home by Sarah Gailey

The Book of the Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran

How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

The Devil Takes You Home by Gabino Iglesias

Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones

The Dead Take the A Train by Richard Kadrey and Cassandra Khaw

Gwendy’s Final Task by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

Reluctant Immortals by Gwendolyn Kiste

Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies by John Langan

Black Mouth by Ronald Malfi

Boys, Beasts & Men by Sam J. Miller

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Path of Thorns by A.G. Slatter

Dark Stars edited by John D. Taff

The Pallbearers’ Club by Paul Tremblay

We Will Rise by Tim Waggoner

Sundial by Catriona Ward

The Doloriad by Missouri Williams

 

Countdown: The Top Ten in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Thirteen

Ellen Datlow’s latest addition to her superlative anthology series features twenty-four stories and one poem. There is a certain disproportion to the contents: as Datlow herself admits in her introductory “Summation 2020,” “For some reason, the overwhelming number [of contributors] this year are from the United Kingdom” (which makes this feel more like one of Stephen Jones’s annual Best New Horror compilations). A quarter of the selections come from just two anthologies: After Sundown and Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles (the latter edited by Datlow). Repetition of tropes (e.g. haunted houses) and settings (e.g. harsh winter landscapes) is also noticeable here. But while the contents lack somewhat in diversity, they evince consistent high quality; overall, The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Thirteen is a very impressive collection of genre talent.

So just before the ball drops in Times Square, here’s my countdown of the ten best selections in this 2021 anthology:

10. “A Treat for Your Last Day” by Simon Bestwick. This one presents a simple yet chillingly plausible premise: a family outing devolves into tragedy. As the narrator hauntingly reminds us at tale’s end: “Life is basically a field full of hidden landmines, and nothing you can do protects you against treading on one.”

9. “In the English Rain” by Steve Duffy. A coming-of-age tale that features a compelling setting. History and horrific imagining are blurred, as a home once briefly owned by John Lennon turns out to be the haunt of a terrifying child-murderer.

8. “Come Closer” by Gemma Files. A surreal and supremely creepy narrative concerning an itinerant haunted house that appears to slide through the neighborhood and displace the existing residences.

7. “The Whisper of Stars” by Thana Niveau. A harrowing cosmic horror tale set in the frozen wilds of the Arctic Circle. Reminiscent of the best outdoors horror of Algernon Blackwood.

6. “Lords of the Matinee” by Stephen Graham Jones. A fine variation on the haunted-theater story, and yet another instance of Jones’s uncanny ability to wring horror from the most quotidian elements (in this case, a kitchen can opener).

5. “Sicko” by Stephen Volk. Think “Psycho meets Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Volk crafts a moving alternative narrative of the horror genre’s most famous shower victim.

4. “A Deed Without a Name” by Jack Lothian. Speaking of riffs on classic works.,.This richly detailed story takes a different perspective onto Shakespeare’s Macbeth, turning the Weird Sisters into sympathetic protagonists.

3. “A Hotel in Germany” by Catriona Ward. A tale that proves (in exquisite prose, to boot) that there are still fresh vampire stories to tell. This was my first encounter with Ward’s work, whose much-ballyhooed The Last House on Needless Street has now shot to the top of my must-read list.

2. “Scream Queen” by Nathan Ballingrud. A writer who always seems to produce excellent short fiction, and this piece is no exception. A documentary delving into a cult-favorite horror film from 1970 transforms into a harrowing descent into the occult.

1. “Cleaver, Meat, and Block” by Maria Haskins. This impactful post-apocalyptic (and revenge) narrative about a cannibalism-inducing plague reads like an engrossing mini-movie. Much more terrifying than typical zombie fare, as the antagonists here are too recognizably human in their savage inhumanity.

 

Scream: A 25-Year Retrospective

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of a film that launched a franchise and revitalized the slasher subgenre. In honor of the occasion, I recently re-watched Scream (a film so impactful that I can still recall the experience of first seeing it in theaters back in 1996). Some thoughts from the perspective of late-2021:

While never allowing the pacing to lag, Scream is an incredibly patient film. That extended opening scene takes its time, toying with the audience the same way the killer toys with Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) on the phone. Suspense is built, but the added effect is that viewers are led to believe they are watching the film’s protagonist– only to have her killed off shockingly.

After the murders of Casey and Steve in the opening, the film then waits quite a while to kill off another character (Principal Himbry). Rather than stacking up bodies, Scream devotes time to introducing the characters and interweaving their backstories (Sidney’s ongoing trauma a year after her mother’s rape/murder). The first half of the film brings the town of Woodsboro to life, giving viewers a sense of the suburban Californian community and its constituents before narrowing down to a single setting (Stu Macher’s house) in the second half.

For a late-20th Century slasher directed by Wes Craven, Scream is, remarkably, not very gory. Yes, there’s an early shot of the eviscerated Steve, and there’s a lot of stabbing, but the knife strikes are never lingered on in graphic detail (Deputy Dewey’s wounding even happens offscreen). Akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and John Carpenter’s Halloween, Craven’s film implies more violence (thanks to judicious editing) than is actually depicted. Perhaps this is the result of being forced to tone down the bloodshed by the MPAA, but Scream does seem willing to allow viewers to fill in the space between the “cuts” with their imagination.

All this is not to say that the movie is devoid of the set-piece kills slasher fans have come to expect. One need only point to the demise of chesty besty Tatum (Rose McGowan), a scene that earns the award for Most Fiendish Use of a Pet Door/Garage Door. Something that did strike me upon this most recent viewing, though, was how silly it was for Tatum’s body to have been left there hanging afterward for anyone to see. For all of Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu’s precise planning, their failure to keep the corpse out of plain sight was fairly careless, and appeared to serve little plot purpose other than have a horrified Sidney (Neve Campbell) stumble across her friend’s murder later.

I’ve seen this film umpteen times, but it wasn’t until this last screening that I noticed that the Halloween-store costume the killer dons is actually labeled “Father Death” on the package. It’s Tatum who puts the name to what would become a pop culture icon, when she teasingly (believing one of her friends is playing a prank on her) refers to the masked/shrouded knife-wielder as “Mr. Ghostface.” Interestingly, the name is not used in the closing credits; much like “Pinhead” (who is identified only as the “Lead Cenobite” at the end of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser), “Ghostface” becomes the unforgettable moniker for the horror villain following the success of the first film in the eventual series.

Scream is renowned (justly) for its postmodern self-awareness and its thrilling action sequences, but arguably its most engrossing element is the mystery of the killer’s (or as it turns out, killers’) identity. As the slasher-savvy Randy (Jamie Kennedy) proclaims, “Everybody’s a suspect,” and the film masterfully casts suspicion upon its various characters. Sometimes this is overt, as in the case of Billy (a seeming red herring), but Craven also makes crafted use of subtlety. When the killer contacts Sidney at the Riley home, Dewey doesn’t rush out of his bedroom until just after the call is disconnected–leaving open the possibility that he was the one calling. Likewise, in another scene the camera offers a quick shot of Sheriff Burke’s boots–eerily reminiscent of the killer’s footwear when glimpsed by Sidney beneath the door of the bathroom stall. As a well-done whodunit, Scream keeps audience members on the alert and primes them to take note of the smallest detail.

The film is replete with witty repartee and wonderful sight gags (after a quarter century, my favorite remains the janitor decked out like Freddy Krueger), but never lets the meta reduce to mere satire or settles for genre-hybrid status. This is first and foremost, a horror movie. That is why my biggest critique to this day is Matthew Lillard’s performance as Stu. The character is spectacularly manic and delivers a slew of memorable lines, but is too over the top for my liking. On the one hand, Stu’s antics are revealing (this clowning kid–unlike the truly sinister and manipulative Billy–doesn’t appear to realize the seriousness of his actions); on the other, they can be jarring, taking the viewer out of the film. A 20% tone-down here might have been perfect, because too much comic relief threatens to undermine the tension.

One ostensibly under-appreciated aspect of the film is the employment of its soundtrack. The musical choices are always spot on, most notably the blaring of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” after Principal Himbry cancels classes. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ominous “Red Right Hand” heightens the mood of anxiety. There’s also a slow, understated (dare I say “ghostly”?) use of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in a scene when Billy climbs into Sidney’s window–in retrospect, a verbal cue that clues us into Billy’s guilt.

Inevitably, certain cultural elements (e.g. the existence of video stores) in the film now feel dated, but otherwise Scream holds up very well twenty-five years after its release. Rather than prop up cardboard standees as photogenic slasher-fodder, the film first establishes characters that the audience cares about and then places them in mortal peril. That is the formula for success in 1996, 2021, or at any other point throughout horror genre history.