Someone has taken their love for scary movies one step too far.
In 1972 horror maestro Wes Craven created one of the great slasher films Last House on the Left. In 1984 Craven turned his hand to one of the most successful horror films of the decade, A Nightmare on Elm Street which set the tone for dozens of teen horror films for years to come. In the mid-1990s, he was offered a script by Kevin Williamson tentatively titled “Scary Movie,” which would end up as the film known as Scream in 1996. Williamson’s script had been shopped around to several directors, including Sam Raimi, but eventually landed with Craven, and the pairing would create a genre reinvigorating metatextual horror that spawned several knock-offs such as 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer and 1998’s Urban Legend. Although those films find a beloved place in the pantheon of teen horror, none of them quite managed to top the wit and cleverness of Scream.
In typical American town Woodsboro, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is a high school student grieving the loss of her mother, Maureen, who was viciously raped and murdered almost a year prior. Sidney’s life is dominated by the death of her mother that was heavily reported on by tabloid journalist Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox). Sidney’s father is generally absent, leaving his daughter to rely on her best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) and her mostly sympathetic boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) for emotional support. When a fellow student Casey (Drew Barrymore), is violently murdered, Woodsboro is once again in the news, and Gale is back on the scene, needling Sidney. Gale believes that the killer indicted for Maureen’s murder was framed and questions Sidney’s eye-witness testimony regarding the incident leading her to land a heavy punch on Gale.
Rounding out Sidney’s social circle are Billy’s best friend and Tatum’s boyfriend Stuart (Matthew Lillard), and video store employee/film nerd Randy (Jamie Kennedy). Stuart especially seems to lack any empathy for Casey’s murder playing the whole scenario as a chance to make jokey puns. In fact, the general student population seems to find the death of Casey as a chance for gossip, some even suggesting that Sidney could be the killer who will later be known in the franchise as Ghostface. The investigation leads to the hopelessly inexperienced Officer Dwight “Dewey” Riley (David Arquette), who is Tatum’s brother, to essentially take the reins in trying to find Ghostface.
Ghostface’s modus operandi is to call his victims and taunt them wanting to play games that involve trivia about classic horror films. Casey’s murder is essentially set up to mirror a scenario in A Stranger Calls (1979), and the killer quizzes her about horror standards such as Friday the 13th. Williamson’s script works on a meta level by not only name-checking slasher pics but also by re-enacting many of the tropes that are slasher genre standards. In a cheeky wink to the viewer, Williamson uses Randy’s character to set out the rules of the teen slasher — such as never have sex, never drink or take drugs, and never say “Be right back.”
Suspicion falls on Billy after he is found at Sidney’s house with a cell phone just after Ghostface calls her and then tries to attack her. Insufficient evidence leads to Billy being released and Sidney feeling guilt that she suspected her boyfriend in the first place. After the deaths of two more students and Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler), the scene is set for the teens to get together at a party in a remote house. Of course, this space provides the perfect setup for Ghostface to appear and start racking up the body count. The final showdown between Sidney and Ghostface happens whilst John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) plays on the television set at the party. This flourish not only reinforces what Williamson and Craven are doing in mirroring classic slashers, it also provides a meta-diegetic soundtrack for the action in the house.
In lesser directorial hands, Scream could have been a farce that didn’t quite meet the mark of post-modern commentary meets actual slasher. Craven has a lot of fun with Williamson’s script, with a brief appearance by Linda Blair from The Exorcist (1973) — the movie is mentioned early on by Billy — and even a cameo by himself as school janitor Fred, basically in costume to represent Freddy Krueger, the antagonist of his film A Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven doesn’t just play with the genre; he creates a suspenseful whodunnit alongside the in-jokes. The kills are gory enough (not too gory to get its rating outside the intended teen audience), and there are twists and turns aplenty.
Neve Campbell as final girl Sidney displays a mixture of vulnerability and steel. She’s suffering from PTSD after her mother’s death, but she also isn’t just a pushover. Sidney hates horror films; in fact, she’d much rather her life be a Meg Ryan romantic comedy. Neve was picked up for the part after Drew Barrymore had to turn down the lead due to scheduling issues. Campbell at the time was mostly known for her work on the television show Party of Five (1994-2000) but had a supporting role in the witch-themed horror The Craft a year previous.
Skeet Ulrich’s Billy pretty much encapsulates the brooding teen idol of his era. Ulrich isn’t gifted with a huge amount of range, but he’s perfect for the role in this film. It’s believable that he’s a bit damaged by being abandoned by his mother and is getting frustrated that Sidney has somewhat pulled away from their relationship. The best work done in the film falls to Matthew Lillard as Stuart; he’s a joker and vaguely contemptible, but when he’s on-screen, it’s hard not to almost like him. Courtney Cox and David Arquette both bring humor to their roles. Arquette is a little cheesy, but Officer Dewey isn’t set up to be the savior of the hour — in effect, he has to be a bit slow on the uptake for the narrative to work.
What makes Scream so successful is that it balances fun with horror in a way that had the audience looking back to the genre films that they loved with fondness. Not only did the film spawn three sequels (and an upcoming 2022 release which is touted to be a reboot and stars Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox as Sidney Prescott and Gale Weathers again), but it also made it to cinema parody territory in 2000 with the ironically titled Scary Movie (and the inevitable sequels of that franchise). A new era of teen horror/slasher films opened up, and Craven was mostly responsible for that renaissance.
Considering its immense popularity, it is expected that Scream is already something that many people have seen. It’s a perennial favorite for a reason because it knows exactly what it’s doing. Considering the world lost Wes Craven in 2015, and there will never be another like him, stepping back in time with Scream (or the whole series if you really want) is time well spent.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney