Scream (1996)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2011-04-07 13:17

Written by: Kevin Williamson
Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette

Reviewed by: Brett G.

ďDo you like scary movies?Ē

To answer the above: of course we do. Though that query is aimed at Drew Barrymore in the filmís iconic opening sequence, it might as well serve as Screamís opening volley to its horror-loving crowd. This is the moment it announces its intentions to wink, nod, and, of course, slash its way through the fourth wall and into a captive audienceís consciousness. In the fifteen years since its release, Wes Cravenís slasher opus has become synonymous with the 90sí propensity towards such postmodernity, and it is rightfully the filmís calling card. A natural extension of the thread started by his own New Nightmare, Scream is quite possibly the best celebration of ďscary moviesĒ to ever hit the screen; itís a flawless effort that manages to both satirize and embrace the genre, all while genuinely serving as one of the best films of its type.

The normally quiet community of Woodsboro is shaken by the murder of two high school students. It soon become obvious that someone has taken their love of scary movies one step too far, as the brutal killing continue. At the center of it all is Sidney Prescott, whose mother was savagely murdered a year earlier. The killer sets her in his sights, subjecting her to harassing phone calls and terrorizing her friends. Many suspects emerge as the bizarre murder mystery unfolds in a series of surprising twists that engulf the entire town populace (including a local deputy, Dewey) and even garners national attention from tabloid reporter Gale Weathers.

Scream is every bit as sharp as the knife that the Ghostface killer wields throughout the film; though genre legend Craven is understandably associated with the filmís success, itís Kevin Williamsonís brilliant script that gives the film its legs. Itís armed with genuine wit, humor, cleverness, and an assortment of characters that move the film far beyond the body count movies that inspired it. Instead of constantly exhibiting all of the clichťs of those films, it hacks them up them by having the characters often mock them outright. This is no dumb teen slasher film, but rather, an honest attempt to craft an intricate murder mystery that preys on an audienceís expectations by constantly thrusting them right back into their face.

This meta-fictional approach provides multiple layers of depth; it often is used in a sort of cute manner that allows the film to wink at the audience. However, Craven and Williamson also use it to satirize serious issues, such as violence and exploitation in the media, and the tendency of the press to scapegoat horror films themselves for real violence. Itís all the winking and nodding that ultimately make Scream memorable for most, though, and for good reason: itís practically a love letter to the genre, as it references everything from Prom Night to A Nightmare on Elm Street (at one point, Craven himself cameos as a janitor named Fred and sports a familiar get-up). Jamie Kennedyís Randy is essentially the ideal horror nerd committed to celluloid; here is a guy who has seen every horror film and has even established the ďrulesĒ for surviving a horror film.

Those of us who have been around a horror block or two know these rules too: no drinking, no drugs, no sex, etc. As the film progresses, these rules are poked, prodded, and tested, leaving us to question the formulaic nature of horror itself; we often see these types of films (namely slashers) despite the fact that we know whatís going to happen. In fact, Scream itself sometimes telegraphs its plot with such rules; at other moments, it subverts them and toys with the audience. Once Craven and Williamson are done deconstructing it, the slasher mold has been gutted and stitched back together like some sort of Frankenstein monster; what's left is a crazy quilt pastiche that both resists and embraces its predecessors. In fact, it's arguable the filmís most brilliant moment is when it embraces one of horrorís finest tropes: the moment where the audience is privy of a killer, poised to strike, while the would-be victim remains oblivious. The characters, of course, have a conversation about this at some point before it actually happens in the film proper. As an audience, we are appropriately yelling at the screen during this moment, imploring the character to simply turn around in a moment of great dramatic irony.

This moment is also emblematic of the fact that Scream is just a damn fine horror movie even if you strip it of all its postmodern playfulness. Itís often referred to as a slasher, but such a label doesnít quite do the film justice. In many ways, itís a perfect blend of an American body count film and an Italian giallo; the former is a template for the filmís tone, while it borrows narrative elements of the latter. Though it misses the overly stylish Italian flair (particularly during murder sequences), the filmís plot sprawls and unfolds as well as any giallo--thereís red herrings, a couple of elaborate murder sequences, and a third-act reveal that complicates and illuminates the plot (later sequels would take this to more extreme heights). The riveting climax is among the best seen in any slasher, and it wryly unfolds as the king of the genre (Halloween) plays on TV in the background. After all of the genre-mashing, youíre left with a unique film thatís certainly among the best of anything that informed it. As far as pure slashers go, it's better than 99% of the films that it pokes fun at, which is exactly why it works.

After all, itíd be pretty silly if it couldnít pull off such a trick; however, Craven pulls it off with relative ease. His direction is assured, slick, and he breaks out the horror chops to bring an appropriate nastiness to the proceedings; he also channels an inner Hitchcock here by wringing every possible ounce of suspense out of many scenes, whether it be the filmís signature phone call sequences or the stalk and slash moments. Heís blessed with a talented cast as well, all of whom handle Williamsonís rapid-fire dialogue well. Neve Campbellís Sidney is an updated, smarter version of the virginal Laurie Strode. Many of her companions fall into the typical slasher categories at first glance: Tatum (Rose McGowan) is the more outgoing and promiscuous best friend, Billy is a brooding boyfriend, Dewey and Randy serve as the geeks, etc. However, the script allows each character to develop beyond these cliches, and the actors make them even more fully-realized. Over the years, many have lamented the use of high profile actors in these roles, bemoaning the ďWB castĒ syndrome of it all; itís a complaint Iíve always found to be petty, as it stands to reason that using professional actors will usually yield professional acting, and thatís precisely what happened here. We're left with an indelible portrait of 90s youth--despite their social statuses, they're all are somewhat hip, always prepared with some canned psychoanalyst/media jargon or a movie quote--whichever fits best. These are kids who consider their lives to be parcelled out to the beat of a movie or television plot, perhaps not unlike the protagonists in another great satire, Network.

There have been some other complaints levied at Scream from the horror crowd over the years that I find baffling. Many seem to dislike it for apparently looking down upon the genre, when itís doing anything but; in fact, the film would have to answer in the affirmative to its own famous question, as it obviously loves horror itself. Others bemoan the wave of hip, 90s horror that was left in its wake, which is a ludicrous argument on several levels. It seems absurd to me to blame a film for the inferior films it inspired; after all, if we do this for Scream, surely we have to dislike Halloween for the hordes of crappy body count movies that populated video store shelves for a decade. By comparison, Screamís influence is overstated, as the slick, studio-produced slasher cycle was limited to a relative handful of films (many of which featured Williamsonís involvement) and petered out shortly after the new millennium. Thus, while the film should rightfully be credited with reigniting interest in the genre and shaking it from its 90s doldrums, it would be a shame if it were only remembered for that. Instead, we need to remember that the film was so good that it couldnít help but do it, as it stands as one of the slasher genreís few true masterpieces.

Despite this, the filmís treatment on DVD has been less than stellar, as it hasnít seen a new standard-def edition since 1998. This was when the film was issued a ďCollectorís SeriesĒ release from Dimension, which sounds more robust than it is. The most glaring issue is the non-anamorphic transfer, which is far below current standards; the audio is 5.1 and fares much better, and the disc does provide a fair amount of special features. Thereís an audio commentary with Craven and Williamson, a production featurette, some theatrical trailers, TV spots , behind-the-scenes footage, a Q&A with the cast and crew, some still galleries, cast and crew profiles, and film facts. Fans should also be alerted to the fact that this disc features an edited cut of the film thatís missing a few extra seconds of gore from a couple of death scenes. The trilogy was recently released to Blu-ray, which should provide an especially nice upgrade for the original film. Though its digital presentation has been lackluster so far, the film itself hasnít lost its luster; if anything, it cuts deeper than ever and has carved itself out a spot in our Hall of Fame. Before Scream 4 hits theaters, revisit this one--itís Essential!

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