For horror fans, Scream should not require an introduction. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho introduced the slasher genre in 1960 before John Carpenter reinvented it with 1978’s Halloween, and then, 18 years later, Wes Craven’s Scream revitalised the genre once again. Craven’s tour de force arrived at the perfect moment. By the mid-late 1990s, studio executives had begun writing off the horror/slasher genre and no longer deemed it to be commercially viable. Not to mention, creativity within the genre was at an all-time low. A postmodern horror film, Scream permanently changed the horror landscape; taking film-goers (and Hollywood) by surprise in a way that’s rarely seen. Simultaneously an incisive, frequently funny satire which deconstructs slasher clichés with self-aware glee, and a nail-biting, intense horror picture, Scream benefits from an intelligence not often present in the genre. Fortunately, the film was a hit; generating a box office gross of $170 million from a $10 million budget.
In the sleepy town of Woodsboro, a masked killer (armed with a knife, a generic Ghostface mask, and extensive knowledge of scary movies) begins murdering the teenage population. Virginal teen Sidney Prescott (Campbell) appears to be the next target of the Ghostface killer, whose killing spree may be linked to the murder of Sidney’s mother a year prior. Meanwhile, Sidney’s film-literate friends – boyfriend Billy (Ulrich), cinephile Randy (Kennedy), as well as Stu (Lillard) and Tatum (McGowan) – spend their time at school hypothesizing about who the killer could be.
On the surface, Scream‘s plot is not overly interesting. However it’s the implementation of the plot that allowed Wes Craven to change the face of the genre yet again. Kevin Williamson’s script is imbued with wit, humour and cunning references to other horror movies, not to mention a handful of plot twists and plenty of leeway for Craven to craft thrilling set-pieces. Scream never stops making fun of itself, as the characters often make disparaging remarks about the eye-rolling horror movie clichés which they are living (and dying) through. The references to all things scary movie-related are mostly delivered by hilarious film geek Randy, who firmly believes that the authorities would be able to solve the crime if only they watched the slasher films filling the shelves of the video store he works at. Timeworn slasher traditions (sex and drugs equalling death, saying “I’ll be right back” is a death sentence, and victims running up the stairs rather than fleeing out the front door) are openly mocked and turned on their heads. By boldly placing the characters in the very situations the film satirises, Craven and Williamson prove that ancient film tricks can still be effective if fresh ideas are behind them. Snappy and intelligent, Williamson’s writing also allows the central characters to be identifiable; existing as fully-realised humans rather than knife fodder.
If Scream were a winking nod to horror’s past with a slapstick tone, it would be half the film that it is (or it’d just be Scary Movie). The key to its success is the way that the humour is blended with legitimate scares. Both the story and the characters’ fates are taken dead seriously. Tension levels seldom relent, and the graphic violence is sobering and dark. Scream also opens with a bang; a riveting opening sequence that stands as one of the best beginnings in the genre’s history. Though it runs a full 12 minutes, not a single frame is wasted, and high levels of skin-crawling tension are sustained until the terrifying end. To this day it stands as one of the defining horror sequences alongside the shower scene in Psycho or the initial shark attack in Jaws. While Scream‘s prologue has been spoofed numerous times since the film’s release (most notably in Scary Movie) it has lost none of its relentless power. Craven’s efforts behind the camera were also amplified by Patrick Lussier’s expert editing, and Marco Beltrami’s top-flight musical score which alternates between intense and eerie.
A mix of established actors and relative newcomers (of the time), the ensemble cast of Scream is faultless from top to bottom. In the role of Sidney Prescott, Neve Campbell (at the time known for TV’s Party of Five) is outstanding. Campbell’s performance exhibits vulnerability and the capacity to be strong-willed – two characteristics which are essential in essaying an endangered slasher heroine who has what it takes to overcome the antagonist but whose mortality is at stake. Courtney Cox (star of TV’s Friends) is also superb as tabloid reporter Gale Weathers, while David Arquette is effortlessly amiable as Deputy Dewey. Cox and Arquette share sizzling chemistry, and their scenes together are sublime (in real life, Cox and Arquette eventually got married). Also worth mentioning is Jamie Kennedy as Randy the film geek – his charming, energetic line readings are among this film’s myriad of pleasures. Rounding out the main players is Matthew Lillard and Johnny Depp lookalike Skeet Ulrich, both of whom carried out their duties to a high standard. Drew Barrymore cameos briefly as well, and she did a sublime job of conveying fear. From a very early point in the film, it becomes clear that star-power does not mean a particular character will survive the film’s events.
In some ways, Scream represents an extension of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (the last film in the original Nightmare on Elm Street series) which also blurred the line between motion pictures and real life. Scream is a horror picture which was designed with movie-lovers in mind. Buried beneath all the violence and gore lies a keen sense of wit and intelligence which sophisticated viewers are likely to appreciate. The film is also supremely entertaining throughout its entirety to boot. And this is why Scream is much more than a run-of-the-mill slasher.