The Re-Appreciator #5: Scream

Scream

The Re-Appreciator is a feature in which I dust off the classics (and/or personal favorites). If you’ve seen the movie in question, perhaps I’ll provoke a new thought or two. If you haven’t seen it, perhaps I’ll compel you to check it out.

After two decades of directing horror movies, Wes Craven released a bold postmodern take on the genre. It was a film in which A Nightmare on Elm Street’s villain, Freddy Krueger, had come to life outside his movies, entering our “real” world to terrorize Nightmare’s lead actress, Heather Langenkamp. Craven and Langenkamp’s Nightmare co-stars also appeared in the film, playing themselves.

This ambitious spin on a well-worn series was called Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, and it flopped. There have been nine Freddy Krueger movies to date, and New Nightmare is the lowest-grossing of them all. Perhaps 1994’s moviegoers were still too tired of the spent franchise to try a seventh film, especially when the sixth – 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare – had promised to be the last. Or perhaps audiences found New Nightmare itself lacking in some way.

Nevertheless, just two years later, Craven returned to New Nightmare’s core question: what happens when characters are just as aware of horror movies as we are – if they watch and talk about the same horror movies we do – and yet find themselves confronted with horror-movie situations? The resulting do-over was 1996’s comedy-horror hybrid Scream, a massive hit which spawned a franchise of its own.

Scream begins with a high-school student Casey (Drew Barrymore) home alone. She receives an anonymous phone call from a man who asks if she likes scary movies. The caller quickly shifts from flirty to menacing. Casey hangs up, but he keeps calling back, revealing that he is on the premises and has abducted Casey’s boyfriend. The caller threatens to kill the boyfriend unless Casey can ace an impromptu horror-movie quiz. She fails. The caller – dressed in a black cloak and white mask – makes good on his promise and kills Casey, too.

The double murder rocks the small California town of Woodsboro, where Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is already dealing with her mother’s rape and murder from the prior year. Sure enough, Casey’s killer calls Sidney and physically attacks her, too. She fights him off, but the encounter causes her to suspect her own boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich). The killer calls again while Billy is detained by the police, casting doubt on his involvement.

Sleazy TV journalist Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) comes to Woodsboro, further upsetting Sidney. Gale had covered the Prescott murder and contradicted Sidney’s identification of the suspect. Sidney resents Gale but begins to wonder if Gale was right, that maybe her mother’s killer is still loose and possibly committing the latest murders, too.

With their school temporarily shut down, Sidney and her friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) attend a party thrown by Stu (Matthew Lillard), Tatum’s boyfriend. Sidney and Billy close themselves off in a bedroom to have sex. The killer strikes shortly after they finish, stabbing Billy and attacking Sidney again. With most of the partygoers having gone, this time Sidney must fight the killer to the death.

When you read that plot synopsis, you may notice that it’s not exactly revolutionary. It’s yet another movie about a masked killer terrorizing teenagers in the suburbs. Halloween set that template back in 1978, and horror fans will also recognize Black Christmas (1974) and When A Stranger Calls (1979) in those phone-call scenes. Likewise the whodunit aspect of Scream recalls any number of early ’80s slashers which didn’t have an established villain, movies like Terror Train, My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, etc.

Kevin Williamson’s unique take on such material is what sets Scream apart. His screenplay, originally titled Scary Movie, set off a bidding war in 1995. Miramax won out and hired Craven after the director had passed a few times (and after the studio had considered a few other directors). In the end, Scream belongs to Williamson at least as much as Craven.

Williamson’s voice comes through strongly in the dialogue, a stylized language of quips laced with pop-culture references and sex talk. The nonstop cleverness of such writing may not appeal to everyone. It certainly appealed to many ’90s teens, however – Williamson launched the hit TV series Dawson’s Creek soon after Scream – which might also explain why Scream found the audience New Nightmare didn’t.

This clip is probably Scream’s most famous example of Williamson-speak, delivered by the video-store clerk Randy (Jamie Kennedy):

It also captures the gist of what Williamson is doing here: calling attention to the genre’s cliches even as he tweaks them. Our heroine loses her virginity but survives; a virgin survives, too, but the revelation of that character’s virginity is a punchline. The killer’s identity is surprising enough to rouse any jaded horror fan, and yet the killer can’t resist explaining his actions in the context of horror movies. From its opening scene onward, Scream signals that it knows all those movies’ tricks, and it promises to give us more of the same but different. It’s nothing if not self-reflexive.

The characters are very broadly drawn, which feels appropriate for a movie that’s largely poking fun at slashers. Even so, the fine cast makes the most of what it’s given. Sidney is meant to be strong, smart, and yet vulnerable, and Campbell does well in the role. Cox is fun to watch as the bitchy Gale, and her scenes with David Arquette’s goofy cop Dewey have a sweet chemistry rarely seen in horror. (They met here and would go on to marry in real life.) Roger L. Jackson, who provides the killer’s voice, also deserves a mention; he brings the malice that makes those phone-call scenes so effective.

Scream goes for laughs as often as scares, but Wes Craven turned out to be the perfect director for it. Fresh off New Nightmare, he understood the metacommentary in Williamson’s script and had always mixed humor into his horror. The opening sequence is tense enough to draw anyone in, the middle holds our interest, and the third act is vintage Craven. Its climactic bloodbath finds him once again unleashing pent-up savagery in middle-class American suburbia, one of his favorite themes going all the way back to The Last House on the Left. Scream is never as brutal as that movie, or as imaginative as A Nightmare on Elm Street, or as delightfully warped as The People Under the Stairs, but it’s satisfying all the same.

Most horror filmmakers never direct one landmark movie. With Last House, Nightmare, and Scream, Craven directed three in three different decades. Not that every horror fan was happy with Scream when it came out. Speaking from experience, I can say that if you were to venture onto a Usenet group devoted to horror movies back in the late ’90s, you would have found some heated debate about it. Some fans felt that Craven was somehow selling out or betraying the genre, mocking his audience, and abetting Williamson in smug, masturbatory, too-clever-for-its-own-good pretension.

Even if all that criticism were accurate – and I don’t think it is – it didn’t change the fact that Scream mattered. And it mattered because it changed audience expectations. Just as An American Werewolf in London and The Thing kicked away the filmmaker’s crutch of hiding an unconvincing monster, Scream laid bare the conventions that slashers had relied upon for decades. After Scream, any scary movie that stuck to those age-old rules would look old-fashioned, if not silly. Naturally, Hollywood responded by tapping Williamson to duplicate his magic again and again, as soon as possible.

Scream itself has aged pretty well, perhaps because so much of what fed into it remains so prevalent. Its video stores and VHS tapes are long gone, as is the novelty of a teenager carrying a cell phone. But Hollywood never stopped churning out slashers, and by now it has remade nearly every one Scream name-dropped. Filmmakers are still deconstructing the genre with movies like The Cabin in the Woods and The Final Girls, and fans are still arguing about those movies online. We still speak in snarky references, albeit now with New Media both generating and spreading our pop culture; if the Randy character were conceived today, he would no doubt be a blogger writing posts like this one. 9/11 didn’t rid our entertainment of Clinton-era ironic detachment, and we may experience yet another Clinton administration very soon.

In other words, many of us are still lost in the funhouse Scream’s Ghostface so gleefully haunted, and we may be wandering its mirrored halls for a long time to come.

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