It’s hard to believe that it is almost two decades since Drew Barrymore answered that fatal phone call in Scream, Wes Craven’s subversive love letter to the slasher genre that he helped define twelve years earlier with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson latched onto one simple truth of horror movies – the characters always behave as if they’ve never seen a horror movie before. In Scream, everyone is fully conversant in the classics and are aware of the rules, although that doesn’t necessarily help them survive.
In a nod to Hitchcock’s Psycho, Craven kills off his most bankable star in a smart and scary opening scene. A pretty young girl is making some popcorn and getting ready to watch a scary movie. The phone rings, and after some light flirtation, the stranger calling threatens to murder her if she can’t answer some trivia about classic horror films. She gets a question wrong, and is slaughtered by the scampering Ghostface killer.
After the murder, the sleepy town of Woodsboro is on red alert, especially since the slaying occurs almost exactly a year since the mother of fresh-faced Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) was brutally raped and killed. When Sidney is also attacked, her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) becomes the prime suspect, because he was on the scene and – gasp! – had a cellular phone on him at the time.
Scream gets a lot of mileage from its likeable cast, who feel like real characters compared to the knife-fodder usually inhabiting the movies it references. Rose McGowan plays Tatum, Sidney’s slutty best friend; David Arquette is the town’s bumbling Deputy Sheriff, Dewey; Courtney Cox is a reporter who cashed in on the death of Sidney’s mother with a sensationalist book, and smells more money with the developing story; Jamie Kennedy and Matthew Lillard are the comic relief, a video store nerd and class joker respectively, who spend much of their time discussing the rules of horror movies.
Williamson’s screenplay is fast and funny, jammed with in-jokes, references and one-liners nodding to other horror movies – “What’s that werewolf movie with ET’s mom?” In the sharpest scene, at the party where Randy outlines his rules for surviving a horror movie, a bunch of drunk teens are watching Halloween while Sidney and Billy are getting it on upstairs. Cutting between the action on the bed and scenes from Carpenter’s classic, Randy cries – “here comes the obligatory tit shot!” – and Scream is crafty enough to avoid showing tits in either scene.
While Williamson’s input makes Scream hip, Wes Craven handles the scares and the set pieces with the aplomb that makes his finest work so legendary. Craven is a director responsible for more dross than classics, but Scream is among his best work. He keeps multiple plot threads rattling along at a breakneck pace in the action-packed finale, keeping the audience guessing until the end.
Almost twenty years later, Scream is still fresh, funny and scary, although now seems dated and prosaic in comparison to the more recent meta-horror The Cabin in the Woods. Its success sparked a revival in the slasher genre, followed by a spate of semi-ironic movies of quickly diminishing quality, as well as spawning its own franchise in which it became the movies it so effectively spoofed in the first place. As with most horror franchises, it is better to pretend the substandard sequels ever existed and enjoy it as a one-off experience.