Synopsis: A teenage girl (Neve Campbell) becomes the target of a killer who has stalked and killed one of her classmates. A tabloid news reporter (Courtney Cox) is determined to uncover the truth, insisting that the man who raped and killed Campbell’s mother one year earlier is the same man who is terrorizing her now. Campbell’s boyfriend (Skeet Ulrich) becomes the prime suspect.
eyelights: the smart script. the fantastic cast. its stunning twists. its pop culture references.
eyesores: the mild over-acting.
“Do you like scary movies?”
I still remember seeing ‘Scream’ at the big screen back in 1996. I don’t remember if it was opening night, but the cinema was full, so it must have been the next day, if not the day of. I had no idea what to expect as I had heard absolutely nothing about it beforehand; one of my best friends wanted to see it and she dragged me out with her.
Am I ever glad that she did: ‘Scream’ was a transformational experience for me. Before it, to me horror films were usually shlocky with poor scripts, actors and production budgets; you just couldn’t take them seriously. Sure, there were a few exceptions to the rule, such as the first two ‘Psycho’ films, ‘The Shining‘ and ‘Candyman’.
But most were crap.
So I wasn’t particularly a fan of horror films; until then, I looked down upon them as a subpar subgenre that was fun to explore from time to time, but which was, ultimately, quite unsatisfying. It would still be a few years before I discovered ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ and other smarter horror pictures. ‘Scream’ was one of the first for me.
It was not only constructed extremely well, but it was rather clever: it stunned the audience with a jaw-dropping opening sequence that probably only Hitchcock had outdone, provided countless red herrings, made its characters self-aware of the genre they were in, and even teased us with a stream of references to previous horror films.
And it blended all of that with a biting humour that played in tandem with the tension.
‘Scream’ was the first of its kind and alone resuscitated the horror genre – which had died a quick death at the end of the ’80s, with the growing impotence of Michael, Jason and Freddy. It was a modern horror film for modern audiences, and they lapped it up, becoming a worldwide hit and producing two back-to-back sequels. And more.
There are three distinct parts to ‘Scream’: the 13-minute opening salvo that sets the stage, the introduction of our main characters and the first attacks by Ghostface, and then the house party in the large isolated country home. In that sense, ‘Scream’ is structured in a very similar way as ‘Halloween’, from which it takes its inspiration.
The film is set in Woodsboro, CA, and it follows Sidney Prescott and her friends after she becomes the target of a costumed serial killer’s attacks. As the police and the media scour the town for the killer, everyone around Sidney becomes a suspect, complicating the situation and allowing the killer to strike again – while closing in on Sidney.
It seems conventional at first glance but the picture really was ingenious in the way it melded its homage to genre classics and subverted its conventions, starting with the self-awareness of the characters (which made them discuss the differences between fiction and “reality”) all the way to the killer being vulnerable and fallible.
That was one of the things I dug right away in Scream: I love that the killer trips, takes shots in the groin, face, …etc. It makes him human. It’s also played for laughs, in a slapsticky fashion, but it’s tapered by the fact that the scenes are so vicious that you chuckle all the while clutching your armrests or the person next to you.
The counterpoint to this is the fact that the female characters aren’t just victims: they’re smart and they fight back. Some make mistakes and get caught, but still. And Sid is feisty; she’s certainly no easy victim. Although we worry about her safety, we believe that she can hold her own when she’s confronted by the masked killer.
That’s a huge change from most horror films (one might point to Laurie Strode, but she was an incidental survivor – she didn’t quite have the same fighting spirit) but what’s interesting is that the male characters are usually dispatched without much of a fight; the killer usually sneaks up on them, not giving them much of a chance.
In any event, it wouldn’t work if someone other than Neve Campbell had been cast as the lead. She is intelligent, and you can always see reflection beneath the surface as she considers what’s going on around her. She is pretty, but not the prototypical Hollywood babe, which makes her credible both contextually and as an audience surrogate.
She also has enough depth to express the emotional palette required of her: Sid is a trauma victim, having not only experienced the vicious murder of her mother a year prior but also living with the guilt of possibly having fingered the wrong suspect in the process. Campbell can express all of this as well as all the more traditional stuff.
The rest of the cast is also excellent; they work quite as a whole:
- Skeet Ulrich plays Billy Loomis, Sid’s boyfriend. Right from his introduction, there are shadows behind his eyes, making him one of the many suspects; he’s smooth, but mysterious and he seems manipulative, slightly off. It’s no great performance by any means, but Ulrich brought exactly the types of nuance that was needed for the part, something not everyone could have done.
- Rose McGowan plays Tatum, Sid’s best friend, who is by her side through and through. I’d say she’s the weakest of the lot, but she fills the shoes of the sexy, but otherwise conventional girl relatively well. And when she sarcastically rebukes the killer, telling him not to kill her because she wants to be in the sequel, you totally buy it.
- Matthew Lillard is Stu, Billy’s best friend and Tatum’s boyfriend. He’s a loudmouth goofball with foot-in-mouth disease who lands most of the best one-liners in the picture. While he’s over-the-top, his energy is key to off-setting the heaviness of the rest. It also suggests that he’s mad enough to do and say the dumb things he does.
- Jamie Kennedy plays Randy, their geeky videostore clerk friend, an obsessed horror junkie. He’s dorky, with a crazed look in his eyes, which also makes him suspect. He’s also useful because he coaches the other characters (and the audience) on horror tropes. Kennedy isn’t subtle, but that turns Randy into a perfectly arrogant and cynical teen.
- David Arquette plays Dewey, Tatum’s brother and the town’s Deputy sheriff. I’ve never seen Arquette anywhere else, so it’s hard to say if he’s a good actor playing a character who’s lame, or if it’s just him who is. Either way, his Deway is a real joke and it’s not hard to understand why he gets no respect from anyone. He’s nice, but a dork.
- Courtney Cox plays Gale Weathers, an ambitious tabloid telejournalist who wrote a book on the murder of Sid’s mom, claiming that Sid has fingered the wrong person. It creates tension between them, as they keep bumping into each other. Cox makes Gale smart and capable, but lacking moral fiber and class. It’s a standout secondary character.
There are also cool cameo appearances. Henry Winkler plays the principal who’s a bit too touchy-feely, making him creepy. I love his small nod to the ‘Happy Days’ The Fonz in one scene. There’s also Linda Blair as a competing reporter and then there’s Wes Craven mopping the school floors after hours in Freddy Kruger get-up. Hilarious.
It’s one of the many in-jokes that horror fans devoured in “Scream’, such as the reference to “Wes Carpenter”; it gave them an extra layer to savour, a few winks in their direction. You can immediately sense that Kevin Williamson is a horror buff and that he and Wes Craven were having fun – with the latter frequently poking fun at his own works.
The film is full of pop culture references, too, which helps situate it in the real world instead of this artificial world horror films once were in. Granted most of the nods are to horror films (Psycho, Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Nightmare on Elm Street, I Spit on your Grave, …etc.), but also they also refer to Tom Cruise, Ricki Lake, amongst others.
What’s interesting is that, not only does ‘Scream’ pay tribute to ‘Halloween’ in many ways, including character names and so on, but the end re-uses footage from the original film to spice things up. Its iconic music also adds a layer to Marco Beltrami’s already quite superb score; he managed to make even the innocuous eerie – without doing jump scares.
I really love that ‘Scream’ leaves enough open-ended that almost any of the characters could be a suspect – and they’re frequently set-up to appear that way, blurring the lines. Complicating matters is that, even after getting a character off the hook, they make them suspicious again. It forces the audience to stay on their toes the whole way through.
‘Scream’ is a horror film, which leads to the question of violence. What’s interesting about it is that most of the brutality comes from the kinetic chases, which have people stumbling, being hit, crashing into things. It feels real, all the way down to the kills, which are vicious and bloody but not designed to be gratuitous and grotesque.
In the end, ‘Scream’ is a fine example of the genre, even as it pokes a stick at its corpse. I still think it’s one of the better ones, even though its cleverness doesn’t rest in the setting and basic concept but in the way that it was spun and performed. It gave it legitimacy and made it fun, something that was much needed at the time.
‘Scream’ is a hoot and a must-see.
Date of viewing: August 3, 2015