Thursday, December 26, 2013

Terror on the Landline

Year: 1996
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette
Run Time: 1 hour 51 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As a Christmas present to myself, I picked up the BluRay box set of the first three Scream movies and two documentaries at Target. It was only ten bucks, how could I not? (I promise I'm not a corporate shill for Target - although I wish I was. I'd be making more money on this blog, that's for sure.)

The purchase afforded me a great opportunity to review one of my absolute favorite horror films of all time. In fact, without Scream, this blog wouldn't exist. At least, not in the form it takes today.

It all started way back when in early 2011. I was looking for a good movie to watch, and the only one coming out that looked interesting at all was Wes Craven's Scream 4. I wasn't really a fan of horror films at the time, although I loved reading horror fiction. 

Goodness knows why I hadn't made the leap to watching films yet - I think I thought I was too scared of them despite having already seen The Sixth Sense, The Exorcist, Poltergeist, and Drag Me To Hell. Whatever. I was a fool. The fact remains that I was intrigued by the trailer for Scream 4 and made the momentous decision to rent the first three films from Netflix to catch up.

I devoured those movies with the voracity a kid who just discovered ice cream sandwiches. I thought they were scary, hilarious, and well-crafted. The only thing was, I hadn't seen any of the films they were referencing. Scream 4 had long since came and went in the time it took to receive and view the entire trilogy so to feed my new hunger, I turned to the films mentioned by the Screams to provide some important background.

That's how I spent summer watching every single Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street film, Halloween, The Blair Witch Project, both Paranormal Activities (at the time), Sleepaway Camp, and a whole canoe load of other shockers. 

I fell in love with the genre. Head over heels. I became a black hole, sucking in terrible three-dollar DVDs like they were candy. I never did watch Scream 4 until the DVD release in October, but by that time I was a committed disciple.

Scream began the chain reaction that led me to Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Jamie Lee Curtis. And later [REC] and Dario Argento and Prom Night. Pinhead. Gingerdead. Mario Bava and  Barbara Crampton. It's what led me to pursue a career in film and to start this blog.

So what the hell impressed me so much about this little slasher from 1996 that it shaped my entire life for two years and infinitely more to come?


I kid, I kid. But much like Rose McGowan's nipples, Scream is visually stimulating and rock solid. 

Let's begin at the beginning, shall we? The 12 minute opening scene to Scream is, hands down, one of the most important and terrifying scenes in horror history. I could write an essay about this scene. In fact, I have

Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) is home alone preparing to watch a video when she gets a call from a mysterious stranger. What at first seems to be an innocuous wrong number turns sour when the man on the other end threatens to gut her like a fish. Chastising her for shouting "Who's there?" when she hears a strange noise and challenging her to a deadly game of horror trivia, the stalker (Ghostface) reveals that Scream is no ordinary slasher flick.

Not only are the victims in Scream unusually crafty and clever, they're big horror fans. They've seen enough slasher movies to know what not to do when confronted with a masked serial killer, so they're well-equipped to fight back.

Rife with movie references both obvious (the kids watch Halloween at a party) and subtle (a line in the opening scene, "Drive down to the MacKenzies," is a direct reference to Halloween's final scene), Scream is the first widely successful "meta" horror film (although Wes Craven's New Nightmare, a meta masterpiece, came out two years earlier, it didn't find much of an audience until long after its release). 

The cinematic postmodern movement was just beginning and Scream's genre-savvy protagonists who are well aware that they are, in fact, characters in a movie pushed it over the edge. It spawned dozens of copycats and brought postmodernism to the mainstream. 

She must have just watched I Know What You Did Last Summer. Copycats, man.

So here we are with Drew Barrymore, the film's biggest star, fighting Ghostface in the very first scene. Audiences must have been surprised but nothing could have prepared them for her gruesome murder five minutes later. That's right, Scream pulled a Psycho. By killing off the major star early on, it made the audience feel like anything could happen.

No character is safe.

And that's just the first of Scream's masterstrokes.

The film shifts focus to Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), a spunky brunette whose mother was brutally raped and murdered one year earlier. This has left her with some real intimacy issues much to the dismay of her horny boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich). Although characters in the film keep insisting that he's hot and the perfect guy, I have a hard time believing them considering that he looks like this.

I dunno. Maybe it's a 90's thing. But I'm pretty sure the name for this look is "raccoon bassist."

And although this isn't your typical slasher, so every character is more important than just being considered Meat, it's time to Meet them anyway. There's Sidney's best friend Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan), the feisty hot blonde; her boyfriend Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard), an obnoxious bumbling oaf; and Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), a sarcastic video store employee who's obsessed with horror.

There's also Tatum's brother Dewey (David Arquette), her older brother who is a newly minted police deputy and Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), a trashy TV journalist who would be willing to stab her own grandmother in the back for a great scoop.

Just within the confines of this list, two of the most important elements of the Scream franchise are displayed. First is that the adult storylines are given just as much weight as those of the teenagers (Dewey and Gale's interactions are a major plot thread), which is highly unusual for a slasher film. Usually they prefer to focus on the young pretty starlets as they line up for the slaughter.

Second is that no death in the film is tossed off. Every character has an important influence on the plot and a rapport with the audience. Whenever Ghostface knocks off another victim, we know their personality, backstory, and regret their passing. This is the key to making effective horror and Craven has long since learned his stuff.

All of this is indicated in the fact that each character has a specific last name. I bring this up in my Wes Craven essay, but most slasher films prefer to have their characters listed as "Billy" or "Stu" or "Randy." This way they're just meat and their deaths have no consequence. But Craven wants you to feel it hard when he slices and dices.

Also the last names are a handy way to link them to their families, family being a key theme of this suburban slasher. Throughout the plot Sidney learns the secrets that her mother has been hiding from her - secrets that have been bringing danger down on her daughter's head. Craven has made a career off of the dark corners of idyllic suburbia and Scream is no different. By displaying a "perfect" nuclear family life ripped at the seams, the film has much more thematic resonance than the typical slice and dice flick.

Also there's a brunette protagonist. Don't scoff, this is a big deal.

Although Scream is by no means a perfect film, it stands tall on the backs of a cavalcade of masters of the field. Craven is a consistently intelligent and creative director and imbues the film with his personal stamp of elegant visual compositions. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson expertly balances the comedy and horror elements in a never-before-seen style that brings the movie a lively spark. 

His tradition of writing overly eloquent dialogue for high school students as they deconstruct genre clich├ęs (also seen in Dawson's Creek and Halloween: H20) works at its absolute best here in the hands of a capable cast. And composer Marco Beltrami's score takes Western influences to give an unexpected jolt to the typical horror score.

And the acting is unusually solid across the board - you can tell they're having fun and a lot of the best comic moments are tiny improvised details that arose naturally from the script as interpreted by a talented and dedicated troupe of young actors. Cox and Arquette have great chemistry (although the amount of acting in that regard is suspect), with her reveling in a delightfully bitchy character and him turning in a career-best performance as a young officer of the law trying to prove himself.

And all the kids are game, although Matthew Lillard displays the best comic aptitude with pitch perfect line deliveries peppered throughout the film.

He's literally the most obnoxious character put to celluloid but you can't not love him.

Although I have long posited that there is no good story that can't be told in 90 minutes, I welcome Scream's nearly two hour run time with open arms. There are very few slashers that deserve this distinction, but Scream isn't your typical film. Not only is it an excellent horror comedy, it's also a whodunit.

As the cast is picked off one by one, the central mystery of the film is that of who is behind the mask (which would quickly become a Halloween icon). I won't spoil it here, but that mystery is given one of the most unique and unexpected solutions in a manner that is totally supported by the previous events of the film and completely satisfying.

Usually the end of a slasher film with an unknown antagonist is anticlimactic. Either it's some character who hasn't been onscreen once until the big reveal (Friday the 13th) or the killer is someone we could never possibly have guessed because the script never gave them any possible motive (Memorial Day). It's no fun when the big reveal isn't one of our possible suspects (or at least a character that we know well).

Ghostface in the garage with a candlestick!

Scream manages to avoid all of those pitfalls yet still be a fresh and enticing mystery movie that plays on our knowledge of genre conventions to keep us guessing until the very end. And that infinitely compelling framework is why I will allow it to exceed the typical approved slasher length.

And it does this all without having a single actress take her top off. And the gore scenes are pretty great but couldn't quite make it through the MPAA filters intact. So this is a slasher with no boobs and a medium amount of gore that is still great because the people making it knew that storytelling is what will keep an audience interested.

This is why we should keep hiring geniuses. A slasher could have buckets of blood but still be a piece of boring cardboard without a strong story. Craven knows this and I thank him for being a genius.

On the strength of its incredible story, Scream overcomes all of its obstacles, of which there are few. I mean, there's a couple dubbing issues here and there. Maybe the later deaths could have included more genre satire. There's some weird unscary daylight moments in the middle ten minutes. And there is one joke that falls entirely flat (A "Wes Carpenter" reference that makes no sense in a movie that acknowledges the existence of other horror films. Wes Carpenter is not a real person. Yeah, I get the joke but it makes no sense considering that every other director or actor mentioned in the film is 100% nonfiction).

But one joke isn't enough to kill a solid comedy and one silly moment isn't enough to kill a classic horror film.

Scream created an icon in Ghostface, led the postmodern revolution, and revitalized the entire suffering slasher genre, which still carries on in spurts and starts to this day. It's entirely original and works within the tropes of the genre to create a new entity that is entirely alive and beautiful.

Scream is one of those few smart movies that hit it big and we have Wes Craven to thank for that. This film is just another brick in my argument that the horror genre has weight in cinema. It's often looked down upon, but under the guiding hand of a talented auteur, horror can be just as important and game changing as any other genre.

So keep screaming. I know I will.

Killer: Ghostface (voiced by Roger Jackson)
Final Girl: Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell)
Best Kill: Tatum gets stuck in the doggy door as the garage opens, crushing her nipples neck.

But really though.

Sign of the Times: Sidney has an Indigo Girls poster in her bedroom; People are shocked that Billy has a "cellular phone."
Scariest Moment: The opening scene.
Weirdest Moment: Ghostface stalks Sidney and Tatum in a grocery store.
Champion Dialogue: "I'm the one who's been selfish and self absorbed with all this post-traumatic stress."
Body Count: 7
  1. Steve is gutted with a hunting knife.
  2. Casey is gutted and hung from a tree.
  3. Principal Himbry is stabbed, gutted, and hung from a goal post. 
  4. Tatum is crushed in a garage door cat flap.
  5. Kenny's throat is slit.
  6. [Stu has a TV dropped on his head.]
  7. [Billy is impaled with an umbrella and shot twice.
TL;DR: Scream is a witty and scary horror comedy that changed the game forever.
Rating: 10/10
Word Count: 2342
Reviews In This Series
Scream (Craven, 1996)
Scream 2 (Craven, 1997)
Scream 3 (Craven, 2000)
Scream 4 (Craven, 2011)


  1. Scream was my modern introduction to the horror genre too! It definitely reignited the genre. Great summary and synopsis. Did you ever watch Scream 4? If so, thoughts?

  2. I'm far too devoted to Wes Craven and the Scream franchise to have any ill feelings toward Scream 4. I love it like I do all the others, although I think it's closer to the charming loopiness of Scream 3 than the sharp satire of the first two.

  3. Just watched this for the first time Brennan and thought it was really good. It made me realize how few masterful horror films came from the 90s too, as scream is first rate stuff. Great score and an exciting finale too. The opening scene is the stuff of legends as well.

  4. This review is almost 10 years old so I'm not so much responding to it as I am just posting this for posterity: the reference to a "Wes Carpenter" is not establishing that there's a cutesy fictional director in the Scream universe, Tatum has just mistakenly conflated John Carpenter and Wes Craven in her head.

    Wes Craven had said that people confuse him and Carpenter all the time and that's what inspired the gag.