Scream (1996)

7 Apr

Drew Barrymore in Wes Craven's "Scream"

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When asked why she doesn’t like “scary movies,” teenage Sidney Prescott’s answer is blatant: “What’s the point? They’re all the same—it’s always some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who’s always running up the stairs when she could be going out the front door.” And surely enough, she herself is attacked by a serial killer and does attempt the front door to escape, but whoops! The door chain is difficult to get rid of in a hurry! So what does she do in desperation? Run up the stairs, of course.

That’s only one of many clever moments in “Scream,” a horror movie in which the characters have actually seen other horror movies. It’s a satire of the genre that does what all great satires do to succeed—it contains self-referential humor to gain the comic aspect it’s going for, but it also actually becomes what it’s supposed to be satirizing so that it balances out. As a result, there are as many scares in “Scream” as there are laughs, thanks to a clever, witty screenplay by Kevin Williamson, and nifty direction by Wes Craven who clearly has a true affection for the horror genre.

The film begins with a 12-minute prologue featuring teenage blonde Casey (Drew Barrymore) alone in a big house, preparing to watch a horror movie on TV when her boyfriend arrives. But she gets a mysterious phone call, asking what her favorite scary movie is; Casey plays along, thinking it’s a prank, and they talk for a while. What’s her favorite scary movie? “Halloween—you know, the one with the guy in the white mask who walks around and stalks babysitters.” But then things turn dark when Casey realizes that the person he’s talking to can see her, and as she tries to get him to quit calling her, he realizes that his intentions are deadly. He tells her to play his movie-trivia game in order to live—“Name the killer in ‘Friday the 13th.’” Of course, she gets it wrong (“Jason didn’t show up until the sequel,” the phone voice reminds her), and she and her boyfriend are murdered by someone sporting a Grim Reaper costume (white mask and black rope) and a knife.

Right there, you see how all out “Scream” goes. This prologue is all characterization, dark wit, suspense and ultimately a double-murder, so that we’re on edge for the rest of the film while sticking around to see what else is going to be thrown at us.

It turns out that was just the beginning, as our focus switches to the killer’s real target, a troubled high school girl named Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) whose mother was raped and killed exactly one year earlier. Now it seems like the killer is still out there, assuming the accused man was framed in the first place, and is out to kill Sidney just one year since that tragic incident. And if this is sounding at all like the plot for a horror film, it is the plot for a horror film, as the killer who menacingly stalks and calls his victims is seemingly creating a real-life horror movie of his own.

There are many refreshing aspects of “Scream,” and one of them is the whodunit element. The characters are all developed in a way that A) you actually care for who lives and who dies, and B) it really is hard to tell who the killer is. It could be this person; it could be that. The movie keeps you guessing. When the ultimate resolution comes, it’s actually pretty satisfying.

Among these characters are aggressive news reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) who is covering the story and will do anything to get what she wants; Sidney’s boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich), who is the first person accused of being the killer; police deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette), who isn’t taken seriously because of his young age; Stu (Matthew Lillard), the high school’s goofball; and Sidney’s friend Tatum (Rose McGowan), the one character you want to see get slaughtered fast (she’s too cold to be likeable; even Gale manages to gain more sympathy than her). My favorite was video-clerk Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), the resident teenage movie buff who describes everything occurring as standard horror-movie stuff. He’s the one who knows the score on this horror film within a horror film (if you will). Some of the best scenes are ones in which he tries to explain the “very simple formula” of it all, and also there’s the scene in which he explains the basic rules of surviving a horror movie—don’t have sex, don’t drink or do drugs, don’t say “who’s there,” don’t investigate a strange noise outside, and never, ever say “I’ll be right back.” One of the most inventive moments of parody comes when Randy, alone in a house watching “Halloween,” is yelling at the screen, “Look behind you!” As he’s saying this, what he doesn’t realize is that the killer is sneaking up on him from behind.

I love the numerous movie references that are scattered throughout; particularly, fans of the horror genre would love to hear these characters talk about their favorite films. We have “Halloween” (of which footage is shown in similarity with what happens in the actual story), “Psycho” (“Did Norman Bates have a motive?”), “Prom Night,” and even director Craven’s own “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (“The first one was scary, but the rest sucked,” one character notes), among many others. Craven even manages to take a shot at his own status, having one of the characters call him “Wes Carpenter” (it’s said that some people confuse him with John Carpenter of “Halloween”).

What makes “Scream” an entertaining horror movie is that the characters themselves have seen horror movies. They know better than to make the same stupid mistakes that the standard stereotypes in the genre make; instead, they make new stupid mistakes so that the plot can keep going, and the killer can be satisfied with the way his sick, demented plan comes into place. Everything comes together in the final act, in which everything is revealed and there is still a good deal of clever moments; I won’t give it away, but the notions the revealed killer bring up are effectively creepy and clever in the way that he knows that they too belong in a horror movie.

“Scream” is a treasure in the horror-film genre. I liked the setup, I liked the self-aware characters, I love the clever wit that is scattered throughout with horror-film in-jokes and self-parody, and while it may be violent, it needed to be in order to make itself known as a legit horror movie and not just a spoof that seems “fake.” Thanks to Craven’s apparent love for the genre, and a crafty script by Kevin Williamson, this is a neat horror movie that even those who aren’t as fond of the genre might have a good time watching.

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