It’s difficult to talk about “Scream” outside of a historical context. For the first half of the nineties, the horror genre had wound down. Whether horror had burnt itself out with the flood of the 1980s or the public had grown tired of endless sequels and similar product is still a topic of debate. Either way, by 1996, horror wasn’t hot and the slasher film, especially, was ice cold. That is until “Scream” came along. Though it didn’t invent the concept of the self-aware horror film, it did bring that concept to wide-spread audiences. Horror fans who were sick of characters making the same mistakes in every movie suddenly saw characters who were sick of the same thing. “Scream” resuscitated the slasher sub-genre, birthing a new, short-lived cycle of slick, studio slasher flicks, full of pretty television friendly actors, jokes about clichés, and low on the gore. All of this is true and “Scream’s” place in genre history is secure because of it. Seventeen years later we can ask the question: Is the movie actually any good?
If nothing else, it has the best horror opening this side of “When a Stranger Calls.” Like that film, “Scream” intentionally recalls an urban legend about a teenage girl alone in a house. The gentle focus on Drew Berrymore’s face subtly suggests a peering voyeur. Long shots of the house emphasize her isolation. The crackling of cooking popcorn builds tension. When Berrymore realizes she’s being watched, there’s a slow zoom on her wide, expressive eyes, revealing Drew as an ideal scream queen. She plays her growing stress well. As the killer quizzes her about horror trivia, the girl is cornered against a TV, visually illustrating her current situation. We get a brief glimpse of the killer before a shocking reveal shows Ghostface as the latest in the line of horror villains with dark bodies and white, expressionless faces. The tension concludes in bloody violence, with a gut-ripping and multiple stabbings, wrapping up with parents discovering their dead child. It’s a stellar moment, the film’s best, and immediately became a classic.
“Scream” brought self-aware horror to the mainstream. The cast openly talk about horror films. The conventions of the slasher genre, as well as all of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequels, are widely mocked. Wes and John Carpenter both get named-dropped, along with “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” “Evil Dead,” “Hellraiser,” “Prom Night,” and Jaime Lee Curtis. Aside from the widely parodied opening, the second-most famous moment in “Scream” is when Randy, “Halloween” playing in the background, explains the rules of the horror genre. Something that tends to be overlook is the next following scene, when a character watches the monologue and declares it to be “boring,” mirroring the general public’s boredom with the conventions of the genre. The hyper-referral tone is summed up with Henry Winkler playing a hard-ass principal, the opposite of the Fonz, and Wes himself cameoing, dressed in a Freddy sweater.
Sydney Campbell is introduced as a prototype good girl, with a bed full of stuffed animals. However, the recent murder of her mother casts a long shadow over her life. The script never lets you forget this. Sometimes her grief and lost are played for real emotions. A moment when she overhears two classmates gossiping about her is maybe the most painful moment in the film. Usually, the story is just spinning its wheel with the constant references. Neve Campbell conveys a proper sense of vulnerability, even if she is overall a little flat. Her evolution into a strong woman by film’s end feels artificial. The final shot of the sun rising mirrors an earlier, darker moment of the sun setting, suggesting she is moving past her grief, something I can't quite believe considering the sequels continued to mine Sydney’s mom for drama.
My biggest problem with “Scream” lies in its supporting cast. Sydney’s friends are all flatly introduced in a moment around the school fountain. Each one can be reduced to a single characteristic. Unlike many things in “Scream,” I don’t think this is a deliberate reference. Matthew Lillard is incredibly annoying and Jaime Kennedy isn’t much better. Kennedy’s Randy seems like a character I should like, in theory, but the loudness of his performance turns me off. Rose McGowen, at the peak of her hotness, provides blatant eye candy, always dressed in tight sweaters, tiny skirts, or midriff bearing tops. I’m not sure if Gale Weathers, as played by Courtney Cox, is supposed to be likable or not. She frequently says awful things. Her romance with Dewey humanizes the character. David Arquette has never been more likable then he is here. The two have a genuine chemistry, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the actors eventually married in real life.
The self-referential elements come off as slightly hypocritical since “Scream” itself isn’t much more then an above-average slasher film. However, the film does engineer some effectively intense moments. Any body who has ever spent a creepy night alone in a big, empty house will probably appreciate the moment when Sydney is first attacked by Ghostface. His sudden appearance makes for a great jump-scare. An attack in the school bathroom builds nicely, by slowly looking under the stalls or focusing on a jittering air vent. While it’s not scary, I do appreciate a moment towards the end that recalls another urban legend. Sydney rushes back and forth to lock doors in a van, not noticing the hatch at the back opening over her shoulder.
While the films that followed were low on the gore, the original “Scream” didn’t exactly skimp on it. The garage scene is another stand-out set piece. Tension is built with flicking lights, an empty hallway, a peer from inside a fridge, and even a not-quite spring-loaded cat. McGowen’s conversation with the killer is both funny and builds anticipation for the violence. As far as deaths go, head crushed by garage door isn’t the most plausible but it is nasty and memorable. Randy watching “Halloween,” complaining about a character on-screen not looking behind him as the killer walks into the room, is a clever moment. The use of spy cams and a delay leads to a satisfying throat-slashing.
Marco Beltrami’s abrasive score or the heavy use of pop music but the montage set to Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” is excellent. My biggest problem with “Scream” is that it’s a surprisingly hollow screenplay. The commentary on the horror genre is, in the end, fairly superficial. You see little of Wes Craven in the film. Sydney’s guilt about her dead mom seems to be more of Kevin Williamson’s hang-up and doesn’t fit Wes’ usual theme of family. A lingering shot of an empty seat in a class room suggests interest in the effect death has on young people but the rest of the film doesn’t pick that up. There are a few comments on the relationship between violence and the media but, again, it doesn’t build to any sort of actual insight. As for the meaning a film-obsessed murderer being killed with a TV might have… I honestly don’t know if Kevin Williamson is that smart.
“Scream” made Wes Craven relevant again. Its style dominated the direction horror would take for the next half-decade and largely made the genre popular again, for better or worse. The film endures too and still has a strong fan-following. I’m not a huge fan and think it hardly represents Craven’s career. Still, “Scream” is an effective pulp thriller. (Oh, and by the way, Norman Bates totally had a motive.) [Grade: B]