Starring Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Skeet Ulrich, Rose McGowan, Jamie Kennedy, Matthew Lillard, and Drew Barrymore
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Complex and intelligent film that revitalized the teen horror genre.
When it came out in 1996, Scream single-handedly reinvigorated the teen horror genre, which had languished with pathetic, bottom-of-the-barrel attempts to capitalize on franchises that had stopped being successful years earlier. For example, there was Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994), the latter of which being notable only for starring future Oscar winners Renée Zellweger and Matthew McCounaghey.
Unlike movies such as these, Scream featured cleverness and, at the time, a refreshing self-awareness and reflexive understanding of the genre. Instead of mindless duplication or simple parody, it provided a revisionist take on the slasher film while embracing the qualities that made it successful. To that end, Wes Craven, the auteur behind The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, was hired to direct, which he did with plenty of style and energy.
The film launched the career of writer Kevin Williamson. He penned two of the more creatively successful movies that were made in the wake of Scream—I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Faculty—and more importantly, created successful teen television dramas Dawson’s Creek and The Vampire Diaries.
While Craven brought style and technique to Scream, Williamson brought its intelligence. He’s responsible for the movie’s reflexive sensibility, witty dialogue, and savvy characters. The characters in Scream show initiative and ability to avoid the slasher or, at least, make a valiant attempt to do so. These are well-rounded people, not generic pretty teenagers to be slaughtered. We care whether they live or die.
Even in the pre-credits set-piece, the movie introduces Casey (Drew Barrymore), a character whose sole purpose is to die but, yet, through a combination of writing and performance, Casey appears to be a fully realized human being. The filmmakers sagely got a strong, distinctive performer like Barrymore for this small, but pivotal role.
The deaths of Casey and her boyfriend lead off a series of grisly murders in a small California town called Woodsboro. For protagonist Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the murders recall the brutal murder of her mother exactly a year earlier. Although her mother’s lover was convicted of the crime, largely due to Sidney’s testimony, doubts still remain as to his guilt. One of the overriding questions of the film is whether this earlier crime is related to the present ones.
The most important question, however, the one that drives the film, is who the killer is. Scream shares a lot in common with whodunits, particularly Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, in which, like Scream, a dwindling suspect pool is trapped in a house with a psychotic killer. (Most of the second half of Scream takes place in an isolated farmhouse.) The suspects here include Sidney’s boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich); her best friend, Tatum (Rose McGowan); Tatum’s boyfriend, Stu (Matthew Lillard); a goofy classmate, Randy (Jamie Kennedy); sheriff’s deputy and Tatum’s older brother, Dewey (David Arquette); an opportunistic tabloid TV reporter, Gale (Courteney Cox); and Sidney’s own father (Lawrence Hecht). That most of these actors have gone on to have careers, if not major success, after Scream shows the care the producers took in casting the film, filling it with competent performers, unlike many of the slasher films that preceded it.
One notable divergence from previous slasher films is the refreshing lack of misogyny. The film understands that the murders in slasher films are rape substitutes. The threat to the young women in these films is largely sexual. While males are dispatched in early slasher films, the sequences of peril and death for the young female characters are longer and more fully exploited. That is true in Scream as well. The males are attacked either quickly or off-screen while longer scenes are given over to the violence against the female characters. Unlike their predecessors, these young women fight back. The film thrills the audience less with the violence inflicted on the women than on the damage they inflict on their attacker. (While most of the killings in Scream employ phallic knives, one breaks away from that staple and instead involves the yonic image of a young woman trapped while emerging head first from a small aperture.) Without giving away too much about the film, the symbolic use of violence continues throughout.
Scream works on two levels. First, it remains an exciting and engrossing horror film almost 20 years later even though all its surprises are known. It also functions as a commentary about movies and about the inundation of pop culture in our lives. While Scream is critical of the level of pop cultural immersion of its characters, later films that imitated it would include the use of pop culture references without, unfortunately, embracing Scream’s criticism of this saturation.
The ubiquity of pop culture is a significant idea in Scream. More importantly, however, Scream depicts the idea of the seductive quality of viewing and the pressing need of the watcher to control what he or she is viewing. As with Rear Window, the most frustrating scenes for the characters in the film are those where they cannot control the view before them, and the most frustrating scenes for the audience are the ones where we cannot influence the events as they unfold.
In one key scene in Scream, an unsuspecting victim reclines on a couch oblivious to the fact that the killer looms behind him. This scene recreates numerous earlier examples from slasher films where the viewers are aware of a direct threat but the character is not, which often leads to viewers shouting out impotently at the screen, “Look behind you!” In Scream, the act of viewing in this scene is multiplied threefold. Not only is the audience watching the film, but the character in the film is a watching a similar scene in a slasher film playing on the TV and distracting him from his own peril. Furthermore, due to a hidden camera placed in the house by the tabloid TV news crew, the cameraman watches the scene unfold in his van, shouting the ineffectual “look behind you” line within the movie itself.
The killer in Scream, whose Ghostface mask has become iconic, seeks to overcome that impotence and control that which is in his view. It’s clear from the opening sequence with Casey that the killer enjoys watching his victims, knowing that he’s manipulating the actions as he’s viewing them.
Not being a fan of slasher films (at all), I didn’t expect to like Scream back when I first saw it in the late 1990s, but, as many have recognized, it is more than a slasher film. Its delicious complexity allows viewers to continue to appreciate it even after all the secrets and thrills have been exhausted.