During my formative years (the 80s), I watched a lot of Slasher movies. There were many good ones that are still allocated to my personal Top Ten list of Favorite Horror Movies. However, during the latter part of the 80s, the horror genre became largely derivative franchises that followed established tropes and hackneyed storylines with interchangeable, underdeveloped characters largely set up as fodder for a masked killer. As the decade ended, or more accurately limped to a conclusion, the ennui of the genre seemed to continue into the 90s, where to put it in the most pedantic terms possible “Horror sucked!”
Someone has taken their love of scary movies one step too far. Solving this mystery is going to be murder.
A horror movie-obsessed serial killer terrorizes a traumatized teen and her friends in the quiet community of Woodsboro.
In 1996, the movie Scream was released with widespread critical acclaim and box-office success. When people say that something works on so many levels, I’m tempted to ask them to enumerate the levels, not just to be a smart-ass, but to see if they really know what they’re talking about. I realize that might seem smarmy, but I’m okay with that. Scream works on so many levels that even the least knowledgeable person can list some of them.
The movie Scream is a self-referential, Post-Modernist, cultural commentary, and a critique of horror movies in general, slasher movies in particular. It painstakingly references other horror films to inform and verbalize normative rules or tropes in the genre. This had never been done before. Here you have 90s teens communicating their ideas about the movies they watch, and in verbose exposition sharing a worldview that is exceedingly self-aware. It works as straight horror, and satire of the genre. It works as a whodunnit. It works as social commentary and critique of Next-gen pop culture. It works on every level.
Here I would say that if you have not seen the Scream movies, “Stop! Right. Here.” I think that even if you have never watched a horror movie before, you should watch this movie. Up ahead will be spoilers, and even the small reveals of this movie are best sampled first-hand. You have been warned!
Kevin Williamson, the writer, and Wes Craven, the director, decided to make a slasher movie in which the actors are keenly aware of the horror conventions, and then with keen wit and insight, either follow the horror conventions or break them. For example, Neve Campbell, who plays Sidney Prescott, is talking on the phone with her best friend. Her best friend is coming over, and offers to rent a horror movie. Sidney says, “I don’t watch horror movies. They’re insulting. A no-name, big-breasted bimbo who can’t act is chased by a killer and she runs up the stairs instead of out the front door. . . ” Three minutes later while she’s being chased by the killer, she is forced to run up the stairs instead of out the front door.
Another example is in the opening scene with Drew Barrymore who plays Casey Becker. The phone rings and it’s a wrong number. (I remember feeling a sense of foreshadowing, shades of A Stranger who Calls. Later, talking to my friends, many communicated feeling the same way, referencing the same movie.) The phone rings and the caller says he called back to apologize. He politely flirts with Casey and she flirts back saying she’s just about to watch a scary movie. They banter back and forth referencing Nightmare on Elm Street (one of Wes Craven’s movies) and she says that the first one was good but the others sucked.
Very self-referential, but it also operates as an iconic, suspense-filled build toward a horrific conclusion. There’s a slasher in the house. She tries to run, just as her parents are driving up, popcorn burning in the house. The killer stabs her before she can call out to them. She’s still holding the phone she tried to use to call for help. Her parents call out for Casey as they find the popcorn burning on the stove. Mom reaches the other phone and can hear Casey’s death rattle, as the killer drags Casey’s body and hangs it on the tree. Her mother finds her daughter’s body hanging from the tree as she tries to drive to the neighbors’ house to call the police.
It’s a simple scene, but significant in many ways. Here you have a headlining actress killed before the Title screen rolls. It shows that this movie has an anything-goes attitude. The parents, who are usually a non-factor in horror movies, are there just minutes away from rescuing their daughter. Their failure is heart-breaking in its execution and haunting in its long-lasting effect.
Sidney Prescott is the main character. This is her story, but she is not a delicate flower needing rescue, although, in the end, it takes several heroic characters to conquer Ghostface. During the course of the movie, Sidney confronts Ghostface three times, and she bests him every time. These fight scenes aren’t what you would call highly choreographed fight scenes, like you would find in Arrow or any action movie. These are the life and death struggles you would have in real-life with a killer pursuing you. They involve a lot of running, screaming, and highly visceral punching, kicking, and even biting. She is a legitimate badass.
All the characters are fleshed out in a way that makes you care about them. Tatum, who is expected to be the shallowest because she’s the big-breasted, blonde, is likable because she’s Sidney’s best friend and protector. She’s also the sister of Deputy Dewey, who is warmly portrayed by David Arquette. Gale Weathers starts out as the driven sleaze reporter chasing the yellow journalism slant to the story, who attempts to distract Deputy Dewey with her feminine wiles, but finds herself part of the story. Randy is a favored character who works at the video store and preaches about the rules horror movies operate on. In one of the most self-referential scenes, Jaime Kennedy’s character, Randy is watching Halloween, and he tells Jaime Lee Curtis to look behind her, just as Ghostface is behind him about to stab him in the back. “Jaime, look behind you!”
Then you have the killers, Billy Loomis and Stu Macher. In the climactic scene, we get the reveal, and there’s a very homoerotic sequence in which the two killers take turns stabbing each other. Make of that what you will, but in high school we had a debate about the death penalty and Leopold and Loeb were discussed. They were gay serial killers that killed just for the sake of killing. They subscribed to the Nietsche school of thought regarding Supermen and believed themselves to be Supermen. Just like Billy and Stu. Ultimately, it’s scarier if the killers don’t have a motive. You should re-watch this movie during the course of this month. “It’s gonna be a Scream.”