Movie Review – Scream (1996)/ Wes Craven In Memoriam

Yesterday, horror lost a legend. Wes Craven passed away at the age of 76 after a quiet battle with brain cancer. When I read the article heading last night while lying in bed, scrolling through my newsfeed, it hit me like a gut punch. Wes Craven’s career was certainly a varied one. For every hit there was a miss, but when he got things right he redefined the medium and made his colleagues up their game. The Last House on the Left (1972), though not a great film, is still a visceral experience and a post-Vietnam genre touchstone. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is an undeniable classic, arguably giving modern culture its most iconic monster in Freddy Kruger. The dream-dwelling killer pierced every facet of pop culture. As a kid I had a plastic Freddy glove and rubber mask (and I now have a beer koozie bearing his scarred face). However, Craven’s strongest directorial effort was yet to come.

Wes Craven
Wes Craven

It was tough being a young horror fan in the early and mid-nineties. Most of the offerings were mediocre and formulaic save for a few gems like The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Candyman (1992), or Se7en (1995). Then 1996 came and a wave of imaginative horror flowed in, including From Dusk Till Dawn, The Frighteners and The Craft. Though all were strong entries, none had the impact on the genre, and certainly not on Hollywood’s hunger for profit, like Wes Craven’s Scream.

Note: While I will avoid outright spoilers, even a casual reading of the following paragraphs will likely suggest important plot points better experienced by a watching of the film.

I saw Scream when it was first released. Though it did not invent the self-referential “meta” subgenre, as we had prior entries like Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) and of course Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), it quickly became the subgenre’s standard. As a fifteen-year-old I had not seen many of the movies that Scream references. Though I loved horror movies, my knowledge of slashers was limited, so while I knew there were jokes and nods being made, I failed to appreciate many of them. My impression of the film was that it was decent, but I felt that its blockbuster status was overblown and unwarranted. The next two sequels were of diminishing quality and the dull teen slashers that the movie spawned as Hollywood hopped on the blood-red gravy train only reaffirmed and deepened my view that the movie was overrated.

Fourteen years later I’ve matured as both a general film viewer and as a horror fan. I’ve seen many more slashers, particularly the pioneering films of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and I’ve come to respect them much more than I did in the past. It’s still not my favorite subgenre, but they’ve grown on me. I felt it was time to go back to Scream and give it another chance.

Scream was penned by Kevin Williamson, who would later go on to create Dawson’s Creek, and was inspired by the real life Gainsville Ripper who killed five teenagers in Florida back in the late 1980s. Wes Craven, of course, was already a horror legend who had twice before revolutionized the genre and this film would once again be credited with the same, revitalizing horror marketability and giving us thus far the last true slasher icon in Ghostface, who unlike his predecessors was klutzy and seemed to get his victims more by perseverance than by skill or craft. Some give Scream too much credit in putting horror films back on track, when really it was the terrible events of 9/11 and the fears which followed that inspired the latest creative renaissance of movie horror. But Scream made money, and for Hollywood, that counts for everything.

Drew Barrymore in Scream (1996)

The film pays homage to horror’s history in sometimes subtle, and sometimes obvious, ways. It opens with a move inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), supposedly at Drew Barrymore’s suggestion, and then follows teen Sydney Prescott, played by Neve Campbell. We find her dealing with the repercussions of her mother’s murder and the prospect that she accidentally falsely accused a man now on death row. And now a serial killer who may be connected with her mother’s death is loose on the town. He’s harassing his next victims with phone calls and seemingly taking cues from slasher movies. Everyone around Sydney is the possible killer – her boyfriend Billy, his friend Stu, the film-geek Randy, the dorky Deputy Dewey, the tabloid reporter Gale Weathers, and even her own missing father.

The script is tight and witty and first time viewers are expertly enticed down forking trails of suspicion, constantly second-guessing themselves. As Randy explains of horror movies to Stu, “There’s a formula to it. A very simple formula. Everybody’s a suspect!” Wes Craven exploits that formula with his visuals. The twist at the end was ingenious for its time and one I recall not seeing coming when watching it in 1996. Watching a second time is still entertaining as comments and looks between characters take on different meanings. One can appreciate just how fine a line needed to be walked to keep the mystery alive and its success makes it highly rewatchable.

In Scream the teenage victims know they are in a horror film without breaking the fourth wall. They know the rules and either willfully obey or disregard them at their own peril. They deconstruct the film for the audience as it moves along in a manner that perfectly encapsulates late mid-nineties cynicism. Movies make up the characters’ language, relationships, and understanding of the world. As Sydney says to Billy, “But this is life. This isn’t a movie.” To which Billy responds, “Sure it is, Sid. It’s all, it’s all a movie. It’s all one great big movie. But you can’t pick your genre.” The movie acknowledges and eviscerates the previous decade of sub-par slashers that had been fed to fans. It works to twist our expectations and bring the subgenre to another level with smarter victims, both potential and actual. It serves as both a criticism of horror’s state and a celebration of its tropes. It fulfills this promise with Sydney, who as a final girl turns the tables and deals out punishment to those who would harm her with a hefty dose of their own medicine. She doesn’t merely survive – armed with her horror knowledge, she triumphs. Even with all its self-analysis Scream still manages to be an effective slasher in its own right.

The acting is relatively strong throughout, though sometimes overacting creeps in. This is the case with Matthew Lillard’s Stu, however, his performance in the last act becomes the movie’s highlight as he steals the scenes with a delivery that is both humorous and perfectly pathetic. Jamie Kennedy is memorable as Randy, and I can’t help but love the scene where he’s watching Halloween (1978) while Ghostface is behind him and he’s saying to the screen, as if to himself, “Jamie, turn around. Turn around, Jamie!”

Scream poignantly captures the youth of the era. The nineties were a time of teen angst, not derived from hardship, but from cynicism and boredom and a reaction to the frivolous popular culture of the 1980s. There were no wars in which to be swept up. Clinton was in power and our only oval office anxieties revolved around cigar placement. The internet bubble was expanding and the economy was strong. Yet grunge and industrial music were popular, music that was disillusioned with and questioning of society, which then gave way to bratty pop punk, the purposefully obnoxious style of which began to dominate airwaves. It was a period of transition as Gen X gave way to Gen Y. There was an arrogance and entitlement that emerged in the youth. Combined with anger, the villains of Scream embody this spirit entirely. They’ve got it all figured out, or so they think.

Obviously, I appreciated Scream far more this time around. It has aged surprisingly well. I recognized and understood more references, laughed at the cameos, and I found respect in Craven’s direction of the material. Truly, there are many, many allusions to, references to, and scenes inspired by horror film history. And it’s genuinely funny, but the laughs never come at the cost of the horror.

It’s not without its shortcomings, certainly. The film begins strong and ends strong, but the middle is a bit uneven. Also, Ghostface tends to pop up in odd locations without regard to logic, such as the girls’ restroom or a grocery store, and I’m uncertain if this is meant to be yet another jab at slasher tropes or simply the film failing to learn from its own lessons.

Regardless, Scream is filled with scenes, both gory and funny, that become emblazoned into the consciousness, such as Casey’s opening sequence, the blood-red windshield, or Stu’s “Ow! You fuckin’ hit me with the phone, dick!” (which was apparently just one of Lillard’s many adlibs that Craven found hilarious and kept in).

When I first began making a list of the horror films I’ve seen and grading them, I gave Scream a “C+” because I thought it was only slightly above average but, as I said before, ultimately overrated. Unlike many other nineties horror films that I originally disliked and have since revisited, I am now convinced that Scream’s exalted status is warranted. Unlike the previous fourteen years, the next fourteen will undoubtedly be filled with many, many rewatches.

Thank you for the nightmares, Mr. Craven. You will be missed.

Grade: A-