Scream. 1996. Directed by Wes Craven. Screenplay by Kevin Williamson.
Starring Drew Barrymore, Roger Jackson, Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Courteney Cox, W. Earl Brown, Rose McGowan, David Arquette, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Liev Schrieber, & Henry Winkler.
Dimension Films/Woods Entertainment.
Rated R. 111 minutes.
Spoilers: It’s been 20 years. I guess if you’re young, you wouldn’t have seen it, or just haven’t yet gotten around to watching. For the rest of you: expect the spoilers, you’ve had two decades to see this movie. I’m going to spoil the shit out of it.
What can I possibly say about Scream that hasn’t already been said? Not much, probably. But it’s a slasher flick I enjoy endlessly. I still remember the first time I saw it – myself and my best friend, author Josh Goudie, nearly shit ourselves in unison when the phone rang as we watched the movie’s killer torment Drew Barrymore during the opening sequence. One of the undeniable kings of horror, Wes Craven worked at doing something different, fun, and still made it nasty.
There are lots of good ways to look at Scream, in terms of its metafictional moments and the self-referential screenplay. Beneath all that it’s simply a damn good horror. First-time screenwriter Kevin Williamson blew the doors wide open on his career with a sly script. And as grim as the plot gets, there’s always a funny yet never cheesy streak running through the dialogue, which constantly keeps you aware of the fact that neither Craven nor Williamson take themselves too seriously; in an excellent way.
Atmosphere, mood, tone. Combine these elements with the top notch screenplay out of Williamson, and Craven made a slasher that will continue to stand the test of time. It doesn’t feel dated 20 years on. Better yet, the screenplay is almost more relevant in this day and age when slut shaming is, tragically, all too common.
Scream is the story of when innocent women come up against angry men. It’s also a comment on the effects horror has in its viewers, how the sins of a parent (in this case the mother) are often held against the children, as well as how the media – including film – exploit the tragedies of victims.
Let’s talk about the opening, okay? I mean, it was a stroke of genius for Barrymore to get axed early in the first reel. Spectacular move to throw people off, making clear: nobody is safe. This is one of the single most memorable slasher movie openers in the history of cinema, both for its snappy post-modern dialogue referencing everything from Freddy Krueger to Michael Myers to the Friday the 13th franchise, and also for the ghastly level of brutality heaped upon poor, helpless Drew. There’s a sense of menace building with every redial of the phone, the tension in the young woman’s voice getting thicker. Suspense is perfectly illustrated via the exploding Jiffy Pop on the stove top, acting as a timer, until all that tension is stretched razor thin, tight over the scene. Afterwards, Craven brings it all crashing down with the violent, tragic moments just before the film’s title slashes across the screen, and the plot begins unfolding.
Honestly, annoying as she is Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) is one of the best characters out of the cast. She is the singular embodiment of Williamson’s thematic exploration on exploitation of tragedy. Her reporting style like somebody you’d now see on TMZ, the way she used Sidney Prescott’s (Neve Campbell) mother and her vicious murder to write a book, it’s rife with ideas about how the media wrings dry a tragedy to get ratings. Gale is a microcosm of the phenomenon where death, killers – especially serial killers – are all treated like a payday. More often than not, the victims’ families are barely considered, their feelings irrelevant in the face of money and ratings. Now, there’s also the fact that Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber) is clearly innocent, as we discover after also finding out the real killers are Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu (Matthew Lillard). This is a small reminder that even some of the sleaziest media types can be useful, every once and awhile. Nevertheless, Gale is an excellently written character, played to perfect annoyance by Cox.
Craven is a master of suspense, and this film is no exception. Perhaps some of his best work in terms of suspense and the tension he draws out. He’s king at turning familiar places like the high school bathroom and a garage during a house party – supposedly safe places – into spaces of full-blown terror. Particularly the house party I find interesting. He takes the safety of a crowded house and renders it precarious as the archetypal empty house from so many other movies in the genre. Yes, it empties later. But even before that the packed party is eerily filled to the brim with danger, evidenced first and quite savagely by Tatum’s (Rose McGowan) death while grabbing a few beers in the garage.
With A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven took the sense of safety out of sleep and dreams; no longer was it that dreams couldn’t hurt you, not when Freddy was kicking around. With Scream, he and Williamson make even your closest circle of friends fiendish and subject to suspicion. Not only friends, your teachers, your principal, the local cops. Anybody: the killer could be the one closest to you, and certainly with the revelation of the Ghostface killer(s), this proves might true. As if teenage years aren’t tough enough in terms of trust, Sidney experiences a violation of her most basic trust, infiltrated in an intensely emotional, personal way. Also, the fact the mask of the killer is a blank ghost sort of represents that anonymity even further than the physical mask itself: the blank, unknown face can be anyone, the black costume hiding body shape and size, the anonymous quality of a costume getting even deeper. The nightmare for Sidney is that the one she struggles to trust the most is one of the two killers trying to tear her life to bloody shreds.
So many things to love about Craven’s movie. Scream has lots of fun bits in terms of references – Billy talks about The Exorcist and then Linda Blair shows up as a reporter later on; the “In your dreams” exchange between Sidney and Stu is an homage to A Nightmare on Elm Street; Billy Loomis’ name itself is an homage to Dr. Samuel Loomis from Halloween; Craven actually shows up as a dishevelled janitor named Fred, in the same Krueger costume from the original film. In terms of metafiction, this has all kinds.
I can honestly say Craven made a near perfect slasher. His game is on point and the ’90s would never have been the same if he and Williamson hadn’t shattered our perceptions of what a slasher movie had to say. Instead of solely relying on gore and a hidden killer, Scream involves the horror fan by playing to the tropes, even talking about them through motor mouth Randy (Jamie Kennedy in the only role he was born to play), as well as subverting the expectations we have concerning the slasher film sub-genre. Although, that isn’t to say Craven doesn’t get bloody. He does, and the whole effort is all the better for it. Because what’s any proper slasher without the right blood? No fucking slasher at all.