There are some movie scenes which force us to involuntarily exclaim “I LOVE That Scene!” when they are brought up in conversation. The following is one such scene:
THE FILM: Scream (1996)
THE PLOT: It’s a relatively simple plot. A series of murders occur in a small, California town. The killer(s) know their horror film trivia and use it against pop-culturally aware teenagers. The film’s “final girl” is Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell), a traumatized teen who’s mother was murdered nearly a year before. It’s a slasher film, a murder mystery, a black comedy, and a teen melodrama, and it balances all of those genres with deceptive simplicity.
Nothing says, “Merry Christmas” quite like a post-modern slasher film. At least that was the mindset when Scream hit multiplexes on December 20, 1996. It was a gamble, as Christmas is the time of more family-centered fare, but it paid off. Scream started with a minimal box office dent, but strong word of mouth and a strong critical response turned it into a surprise hit.
In 1996, the slasher was all but dead. Box office guarantees Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers had both had films that flopped and horror appeared to be on its way out. Enter screenwriter Kevin Williamson, with a script that both examined and manipulated the clichés of the genre in a way that made for a film that was fresh and scary. Scream is a film that was so of its time, its impact may not be felt quite as much as it once did. Diminishing returns sequels that became increasingly parodic haven’t helped. But, at the time, it felt like a revelation. It took place in a world in which horror films existed and characters knew what not to do (although they usually did it anyway). It was fun without being funny and always made certain scares were its top priority.
THE CONTEXT OF THE SCENE:
It’s the film’s opening. The phone rings, and terror ensues. Since the opening features Drew Barrymore, a big star, we assume she’s safe. We are very, very wrong.
THE SCENE (Or at least most of it):
WHY I LOVE IT: It has been said Craven reinvented the horror genre three times in three separate decades: the gritty, grungy realism of the 1970s with Last House on the Left, the fantasy horror of the 1980s with Nightmare on Elm Street, and the subversive, postmodern era of the 1990s with Scream. His death earlier this year feels cruel, and one can’t help but wonder what he could have done if his health permitted. Perhaps he may never have made another classic, but it’s hard not to feel regret at which twisted ideas lurking in his imagination never were exorcised. He influenced the way I looked at film and was one of the directors I truly admired. As a result, I am immensely sad that he’s no longer here.
One aspect of this opening that never gets as much attention is the presence of the parents. They see the ransacking of their house, hear the murder of their daughter over the phone, and discover her body hanging in their tree. Their addition to the scene adds an emotional component usually lacking in horror films.
Traditionally, parents are often absent during a horror film’s mayhem. Slashers usually feature kids on their own, having to confront boogiemen without any familial support, and in Scream, that largely hold true. Most of the characters drift through the film’s’ narrative without parents putting in much of an appearance. These films don’t really want there to be an emotional component to the death of a teenager. After all, the core audience is going to these films for the death scenes. Scream, however, just for this one moment, does provide some gravitas to the situation at hand. Someone’s child has been brutally murdered, and these parents have to face that.
Even though Kevin Williamson’s dialogue is a major component to the effectiveness of this scene, it’s Craven’s direction that gives the film its power. Craven spends a fair amount of time on establishing shots of Barrymore’s location, emphasizing her isolation from the rest of civilization. She seems completely alone (and as the killer himself points out, help reaching her in time seems unlikely), and her yard seems both completely deserted and as though anyone could be hiding there.
Initially, when Barrymore’s character playfully flirts with the unknown caller, discussing horror films while she delicately strokes a knife in her kitchen, Craven keep the camera in medium distance shots.
It’s following her, not really intruding upon her personal space, but it still gives the viewer an uneasy feeling. One reason is, the viewer knows they’re watching a horror film, so it seems like a pretty safe bet to assume unknown callers never lead to good outcomes. Second, though, has to do with Craven’s technique. The camera feels like a voyeuristic eye, and even though it’s not the killer’s point-of-view, it feels like it could be. When that sinister voice on the end of the line says, “I want to know who I’m looking at,” it’s chilling, because it pretty much comes as confirmation for what the camera has been implying since the film began.
Once the caller tips his hand and the terror escalates, Craven keeps the camera close on Barrymore’s face. Her terror becomes more and more pronounced, increasing the audience’s emotional connection to the character.
Only when the chase begins does the camera pull back, reinforcing how alone Drew Barrymore is and how unlikely her escape. Her attempt to call out to her parents when she is too weak to do so is grim and horrifying. It’s not an impersonal slashing, a comment that could be said about so many of Craven’s horror film victims. Even in his most brutal films, his humanism comes through. Unlike Friday the 13th, for instance (a franchise I like, so I’m not knocking it), Craven presents violence as brutal and horrifying, because it is. There’s no reveling in his films. He sees violence as something cruel and terrible, and he portrays it as such. He wants the impact of violence felt, and it always is.
Scream‘s ironic tone could have made an audience feel detached from the events unfolding in screen, but he keeps the camera close to his characters, presenting their horror and terror in an undiluted way, and the film’s power remains undiminished.
Do you have a favorite scene from Scream, similar or different from the one I highlighted? Is there another scene/ film you think we should cover? Let us know in the comments.