Rating: R (strong graphic horror violence and gore, and language)
Length: 111 minutes
Release Date: December 20, 1996
Directed by: Wes Craven
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
“Scream” opens with a teenage girl, Casey (Drew Barrymore), gearing up for a night of scary movies and popcorn when the telephone suddenly rings. She picks it up, and a mysterious voice answers, asking Casey her random questions about horror films before the conversation slowly turns threatening. On paper, this may seem like a normal scene, playing out like hundreds of slasher films before it. However, in “Scream”, the characters, like the audience, have seen “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th.” Casey even namedrops Michael Meyers, the ubiquitous killer from the “Halloween” series. Thus, there’s an air of familiarity as the film begins, not just because it’s a horror movie, but because these people feel somewhat real. So, when Casey is suddenly attacked and murdered horrifically, it’s not so much the act that frightens but the idea that the murderer is someone who has seen the same movies as the audience and knows the tricks of the trade.
Wes Craven’s “Scream” was originally released in 1996, at a time when the horror genre was seemingly played out. However, after the film’s frightening opening, the genre was back and in full force. Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson created a film that turned the slasher genre on its ear, adding a tongue-in-cheek quality while upping the stakes considerably. The people in the film, both the killers and their victims, know the horror clichés, and part of the fun is seeing them break these standards. There’s often a winking quality from the actors, making the film a fun experience where everyone knows that the next person to say “I’ll be right back” may not be coming back.
Following the death of Casey, a media frenzy ensues, and a slew of reporters and gossip hounds descend on the town of Woodsboro. One of those reporters, Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), is trying to break the story and connect it to the murder of Sidney Prescott’s (Neve Campbell) mother the year before. Meanwhile, Sidney is taking solace in the presence of her her boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), despite receiving creepy phone calls from Casey’s assailant. Then there’s Deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette), a hapless officer of the law with a heart of gold and a crush on Gale.
The plot of “Scream” isn’t necessarily a labyrinth of story. After the initial media frenzy, the high school is shut down, and Billy and his friend Stu (Matthew Lillard) have a party to celebrate the occasion. It’s the mystery of who Ghostface is that propels the story. There’s a connection to Sidney, but what is it exactly? Everyone has a theory, but will they figure it out in time to stop the murderer, who’s picking off victims at an increasing rate?
By making Ghostface a costume rather than a personality, Craven and Williamson created a villain who could literally be anyone. Instead of the usual monsters like Freddy or Jason, Ghostface is just a nameless murderer, whose kills start out as random, adding an element of fear unseen in some of the more popular slasher films. Craven brings a whodunit feel to the film, creating an unnerving atmosphere counterbalanced by the humor injected into the dialogue.
Of course, none of this would matter if the cast wasn’t first rate. The actors in “Scream,” especially the primary trio of Campbell, Arquette, and Cox, are all outstanding, reading their lines without a hint of irony and creating a believable world where a person would dress up as Ghostface and act out their favorite kills from slasher films. Jamie Kennedy is also excellent as the nerdy movie fan Randy Meeks, bringing some much-needed humor that goes beyond the clever references to other movies.
That said, if “Scream” was just clever dialogue and subtle winking, it wouldn’t be much of a movie. There’s a genuine mystery going on here, and it helps that Craven and Williamson create a world with a successful mythology. The audience hears about Cotton Weary (who shows up in later installments), the man put in jail for murdering Sidney’s mom, adding another element of dread as the killings continue. Then there are Sidney’s issues with Gale, bringing a fun rivalry to the film that only increases the tension. Despite having the sheen of a typical high school movie, the film delivers a lived-in feel to the world of Woodsboro that goes beyond the type of drama seen in Craven or Williamson’s other works.
Since the Ghostface is essentially just a costume, the producers were able to bring the killer back in three different sequels without resorting to such hackneyed plot devices as a resurrection. While the others aren’t quite as good, they still manage to maintain some respectabilityand even further mythology as Sidney, Gale, and Dewey deal with the aftermath of the Woodsboro murders. The first “Scream,” however, is still the best, bringing a groundbreaking vision to the horror genre that is still felt to this day.