Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Scream

This October we’re chall…well, if we’ve been with us this long you know the spiel by now.

If there’s an issue that plagues the majority of slasher films, it’s that their characters appear to have never actually seen a horror film. The poor, unfortunate teenagers that populate the Haddonfields, Crystal Lakes, and Elm Streets of the cinematic world never realize they shouldn’t have sex or drink when there’s a masked maniac prowling your neighborhood or that a front door provides far more means of escape than an upstairs bedroom. If they’d rented a few horror films from their local video stores, they might have survived. Alas, their cultural ignorance leads to their undoing, or more accurately their dismembering. That all changed with 1996’s Scream, a film that played just enough with the genre’s clichés to make them feel fresh and exciting.

Remembering Scream in all its gory, witty glory feels harder than it once did. The “Father Death” costume donned by the killers became so quickly iconic that endless parody and increased familiarity has dulled its impact. In addition, its sequels, exercises in repetition of a joke Scream told more effectively, has blunted its innovations. However, if you just look at Scream, separate from the parodies, sequels, and pale imitations that followed in its wake, the reasons the film struck a cinematic nerve remain apparent. It manages to be both funny and scary, features a cast of likable, known leads, and manages to keep one foot in its 80s roots and another in horror’s future. It was released on Christmas day in the hopes of capturing a market in search of a reprieve from family and inspirational holiday fare. It initially underperformed but became a word of mouth hit, because it had a sense of competency that few slashers before it attained.

Scream begins with one of the most effective slasher openings ever committed to celluloid, which I’ve written about before in more detail than I’ll go into here. The setup toys with familiarity. A young girl, alone in a big empty house, engages with an unknown voice on the phone, only to realize far too late that she’s a target for something horrific. What distinguishes the opening, apart from Kevin Williamson’s sharp, knowing dialogue and Wes Craven’s merciless direction, involves the casting of Drew Barrymore. Placing her there creates a feeling of safety, much like Janet Leigh’s presence did in Psycho decades earlier. She’s a known star, so she must be a major presence in the film. Instead, both she and her boyfriend are murdered in the most brutal of ways. The film never features another death quite as savage as that opening until the film’s climax, but it doesn’t matter. From that point forward, all bets are off and no one’s safety is guaranteed.

Listening to Williamson’s dialogue felt like a revelation in 1996. His characters were jaded and spikey, full of the ironic detachment and massive amounts of pop culture knowledge. When news of Drew Barrymore’s murders hits the school, it’s described as “splatter movie killed.” If a principal’s hanged from the goal post, these teenagers will drive over there to see it before he’s pulled down. They’re cynical in a way slasher teens had never been before, their presences more than just cannon fodder. They exist within the film to do something few teenage slasher characters were before: have actual personalities.

Once the primary teenage cast–played by twenty-somethings, but that’s par for the slasher course—come together to discuss what’s happened, the pop culture references and jaded humor flies fast and loose. There’s vaguely creepy boyfriend, Billie (Skeet Ulrich), destined to be final girl, Sidney (Neve Campbell), her friend Tatum (Rose McGowan), her boyfriend Stu (Matthew Lilliard), and movie-obsessed, video store employee, Randy (Jamie Kennedy). Before it’s over, they’ll reference Prom Night, Hannibal Lecter, Richard Gere, Jamie Lee Curtis, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, and worry they’re in some kind of “Wes Carpenter flick.” Add to that an endearingly nerdy deputy (David Arquette) and a comically soulless tabloid reporter (Courtney Cox) and Scream emerges as one of the most well-cast slasher films committed to celluloid.

These characters have seen enough horror films to recognize which actions lead to evisceration and which actions lead to salvation. That they choose to ignore those rules is part of Scream’s charms. It mocks the genre’s clichés but still utilizes them.

Take the moment in which Sidney derides the slasher’s predictability, claiming it’s insulting that “some big-breasted girl who can’t act” chooses to “run up the stairs when she should be running out the front door.” Later, Sidney finds herself cornered by the killer. She attempts to escape through her front door but struggles to unlock the chain. Once the killer corners her, she’s forced to abandon the front door and retreat to her upstairs bedroom. The acknowledgment and use of the cliché allows Scream to milk the suspense of a teenager in peril while infusing the setup with an underlying self-aware humor. It’s hard to mock a film that mocks itself before you get the chance.

Sidney emerges as the film’s most well-rounded character. Struggling to accept her mother’s murder a year prior, she becomes the catalyst for all the surrounding mayhem. Campbell, imbuing her character with a survivor’s strength and a balletic sense of movement, became the film’s most likable lead. As a result, the franchise cast its lot with Sidney, tracking her repeated stalking and survival across three subsequent films. Ultimately, Scream functions as Sidney’s journey from an individual haunted by her past to a survivor with the strength and resourcefulness to endure some truly horrific ordeals.

Scream ultimately succeeds because of Kevin Williamson’s screenplay and Wes Craven’s direction, even considering its central cast of likable leads. Williamson manages to merge several genres within his horror screenplay, pulling elements from teen melodrama, black comedy, and murder mystery whodunits to provide some variations to the slasher formula. The killers’ motivations even bridge the divide between 80s slashers and post-modern horror. One killer indicates, in keeping with more modern horror fare that motives are “incidental” and not particularly important, while the other, in keeping with slasher films like Friday the 13th, Prom Night, and Graduation Day, indicates a more revenge-based motive.  Williamson’s dialogue and plotting allowed the slasher genre to finally step into the modern horror world, breathing new life into a genre believed to be as dead as the teenagers that once populated it.

Director Wes Craven, bringing his willingness to make violence as unpleasant and upsetting as it should be, takes care to wring every ounce of suspense from each moment of tension, using the audience’s knowledge of the genre to tease and toy with expectations. He’d tried his hand at post-modern horror before, with 1994’s fascinating if flawed Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which examined the effect of horror films and took place in a world in which everyone knew Freddy Krueger as an icon of horror, but Scream’s inherent humor gives it the edge. Like Nancy, the Nightmare on Elm Street protagonist that preceded her, Wes Craven allows Sidney a strength and resilience that distinguishes her from the “final girl” crowd.

Craven and Williamson’s ground Sidney, her believability gives the film a verisimilitude that allows the scares to land harder. She even loses her virginity but doesn’t pay the ultimate price for the act. Loss of virginity doesn’t equal loss of final girl status.  His willingness to hold off on titillating nudity and scantily clad victims also gives the film a respectability that other, more exploitative slashers lack. Despite the film’s now uncomfortable association with Miramax and Harvey Weinstein, Scream feels remarkably, refreshingly free of sleaze.

Yet, none of that would matter if Scream wasn’t scary, and it is. It builds tension, uses its violence effectively, and builds to an appropriately exciting, gruesome climax.  And that’s ultimately the point. I love Scream. I saw it home alone, on a VHS tape, when I was fourteen. I oscillated between laughter & horror, and when it wrapped, I knew I’d seen a film that would stick with me. Despite the lackluster sequels (for which I have a soft spot) and the self-aware trend that no one besides Kevin Williamson was ever quite as adept as pulling off, Scream still works. Meaning, when someone asks me, “What’s your favorite scary movie,” I have my answer at the ready.

Here’s What Else We Watched This Month

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