CINEMA CLASSICS: Scream (1996)

Wes Craven’s slasher reinvention deserves to be remembered as a classic according to Cal. 

Who made it?: Wis Craven (Director), Kevin Williamson (Writer), Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Cathy Conrad, Cary Woods (Producers), Dimension Films.

Who’s in it?: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Drew Barrymore.

Tagline: “Don’t Answer The Phone. Don’t Open The Door. Don’t Try To Escape.”

IMDb rating: 7.2/10.

For horror fans, Scream should need no introduction. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho introduced the slasher genre in 1960 before John Carpenter reinvented it with 1978′s Halloween, and then, eighteen 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 post-modern 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.

The set-up is simplicity itself. 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 (Neve Campbell) appears to be the next target of the Ghostface killer, whose slasher spree may be linked to the murder of Sidney’s mother a year prior. Meanwhile, Sidney’s film-literate friends – boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich), cinephile Randy (Jamie Kennedy), as well as Stu (Matthew Lillard) and Tatum (Rose 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 for the third time, following The Last House on the Left (1972) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). 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. Time-worn slasher traditions (sex and drugs equalling death, saying “I’ll be right back,” 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 twelve minutes, not a single frame is wasted, and high levels of skin-crawling tension are sustained until the terrifying end. It also features a courageous performance from the one and only Drew Barrymore, who was the original choice for Sidney. Her decision to play victim turned the opening sequence into a classic, and like Psycho, delighted in offing an actress the audience expects to survive. 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 the aforementioned 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, Campbell (at the time known for TV’s Party of Five) is outstanding. Her 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, they eventually got married before divorcing around the time of 2011′s Scream 4). Also worth mentioning is 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 Lillard and Johnny Depp look-alike Ulrich, both of whom carried out their duties to a high standard.

In some ways, Scream represents an extension of 1994′s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (the last film in the original Elm Street series), which also blurred the line between motion pictures and reality. 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, making it more than a run-of-the-mill slasher and a severely underrated entry in a long-trodden genre.

Best Scene

What else would it be? Potentially the most masterful sequence in Craven’s body of work.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Wes Craven discovered the Ghost Face mask while scouting for filming locations in California. Craven was walking throughout a possible filming house, and inside one of the rooms he saw the mask hung on a wall. He sent a photo to Dimension Films and they told him to have the prop department make a mask similar to the mask in the bedroom, as they did not own the rights to the mask.
  • When Bob Weinstein watched parts of the first scenes filmed (rough cuts), he said that the mask used was “idiotic”. He asked the producers to film one scene with seven different masks and let him choose the one he liked the most. Producers didn’t agree and threatened to shut down production. They told him to wait until the first sequence (Drew Barrymore’s) was completed and then he could decide. After watching it, he happily agreed to the mask used and didn’t make another complaint for the rest of the filming.
  • Tatum’s house is right across the street from the house in Santa Rosa, California used in Pollyanna. It is also across the street from the house used in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. The house in the opening scene was next door to the house used in Cujo.
  • Casey claims that all of the sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street ”sucked.” Craven sold the rights to sequels before the film was released and became a success, and disliked many of the follow-ups. He was going to take the dialogue out of the film when Williamson reminded him that New Nightmare was also a sequel, and decided to leave it in.
  • William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying (1930) features a character named Skeet McGowan (Scream features actors Skeet Ulrich and Rose McGowan), and a character named Dewey just as Scream does.
  • To keep Barrymore looking scared and crying, Craven kept telling her real life stories about animal cruelty. She is a keen animal lover.

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