The town of Woodsboro is left shaken following the murder of high school student Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) by a mysterious masked killer. No one is affected more than Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) who’s struggling to deal with the upcoming one-year anniversary of her mother’s murder. It only gets worse for her as Casey’s murder turns out to be only the beginning for the crazed murderous stalker whose next targeted victims are none other than Sidney and her friends.
Scream was a film that, for the longest time, I had no interest in seeing. See, I made the mistake of seeing I Know What You Did Last Summer, one of the many Scream-inspired turds that was also written by Kevin Williamson, before Wes Craven’s film. I then followed that mistake with an even bigger mistake of catching I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, a sequel that managed to out-crap its horrible predecessor, before it as well. Same screenwriter, same era, one inspired by the other, I wasn’t particularly drawn to the cast – I had my reasons, however unfair they were to this film.
But it was a couple years after high school that I became a Wes Craven fan, thanks mainly to A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Last House on the Left, and eventually I decided to give Scream its fair shot. Two things came to mind following the surprising enjoyment I got from this film. One, no matter how similar you think two films are, never judge one based on how bad the other is. Two, how the hell does Williamson go from writing something as clever as Scream to writing something as generic as I Know What You Did Last Summer?
By the mid ’90s, many studios had little faith in the horror genre, and for good reason. The films were horrible and their box office returns proved I’m not the only one who feels that way. Leave it to the master of the genre, Wes Craven, to breathe new life into it. Two years prior to Scream, in 1994, Craven gave us the similarly-meta New Nightmare which revitalized a Freddy Krueger franchise that hadn’t been good since the first film and had turned into a terrible joke by the time Rosanne and Tom Arnold popped up in the series. Come 1996, Scream hit the screens and gave slashers a refreshing jolt of thrills.
Scream, which believe it or not was originally titled Scary Movie (yes, the 2000 spoof that parodied both Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer), at face value functions as a slasher film. It’s plotted like a slasher film, commits the cliches of a slasher film and features the usual suspects of slasher villain victims: Neve Campbell’s the virgin, Skeet Ulrich’s her troublemaker boyfriend, Matthew Lillard’s the loudmouth and David Arquette’s the simpleton cop. But no one knows the slasher genre, their conventions and how to handle them better than Wes Craven. The man was the master of it (yes, I know, John Carpenter has Halloween, but Carpenter’s career varied from horror to action to sci-fi, whereas Craven lived and breathed horror), and Scream is a fine example of such mastery, opening with a seemingly innocent and flirtatious phone conversation between Drew Barrymore and a horror film-loving mysterious caller that, with just one line, turns immediately tense at the snap of a finger.
What distinguishes Scream from the many other slasher movies is that it’s so in on the joke without turning into full-blown parody. Yes, it abides by the “rules” of the genre, but it pokes fun at them as well. In my “What the Hell Were They Thinking?!” review of Sleepaway Camp, I mentioned that if any of the campers saw Friday the 13th, many lives could’ve been saved. The same could be said of the God knows how many other horror films that treated their characters like easy bullseye targets for the killer to knock around like rag dolls. While it’s not the first meta-fictional film, even for the horror genre (the aforementioned New Nightmare), it does finally present us with a scenario that not only acknowledges movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street (in a nice touch, Williamson throws a dig at the series when Casey says “the first was good, but the rest sucked”), the characters also know them, refer to them and point out the ridiculous cliches of the genre.
“Do you like scary movies?”
“What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.”
With the exception of Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox, who were both in the midst of their hit shows Party of Five and Friends (though the latter wasn’t quite as big a hit as it’d eventually become), respectively, most of the cast – Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy, Matthew Lillard and Rose McGowan – owe their careers to this film. Reminiscent of Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy Thompson from A Nightmare on Elm Street, Campbell makes for an effective Scream Queen heroine. She’s strong-willed and vulnerable, while her struggle over her mother’s murder makes her equally sympathetic. Cox, while ruthless as the tabloid reporter desperate for a hit story on the tragic ongoing murders, occasionally shows signs of humanity.
Supporting players also provide solid work. Skeet Ulrich has a little bit of a Johnny Depp-like presence as Sidney’s boyfriend Billy Loomis (a nice nod to Carpenter’s Halloween). Rose McGowan provides her turn to die at the hands of Ghostface with a touch of humor before falling prey to a very memorable death and Drew Barrymore, the biggest star attached to this at the time, is just as memorable in an extended cameo appearance.
Craven has reaped most of the credit for this film’s success, and deservedly so to an extent. His immense skill at creating suspense is responsible for why this film is able to work as a straight-up serious horror flick, and like his best films, it’s injected with a sly intelligence that elevates it above the rest of the pack. But writer Kevin Williamson doesn’t get enough credit here. As bad as those I Know What You Did Last Summer films are, credit where credit is due, his self-aware script complements Craven’s direction so well. It’s not only clear that Williamson has a great love and knowledge of horror films, he also shows an awareness of the genre trappings. Even when the characters here are breaking the rules – not turning around to see the killer who’s behind them (ingeniously while yelling at a character on TV to turn around to see the killer), going up the stairs when they should be running out the door, etc. – it’s refreshing to get a film that’s able to subtly wink back at the viewers, as if understands exactly what they’re thinking.
If there’s any downside here, it’s what followed Scream. Like any other great, genre-reinvigorating film others can’t resist capitalizing on, it led to a number of crappy copycats – the I Know What You Did Last Summer films, Urban Legend and the resurrected Halloween franchise (H2O and Resurrection). Those failures aside, Scream is a slick, witty and delightfully self-aware horror flick that works as both a straightforward slasher film and a deconstruction of the genre thanks to an attractive cast, Kevin Williamson’s clever script and director Wes Craven reminding us once again why he was the master of modern horror.