Slashers don’t get much better than Scream. Directed by long-time master of suspense Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson, Grand Poobah of pop culture zingers, the deconstructionist thriller not only revived a genre drowning in perfunctory sequels but also revolutionised it by challenging every convention known to horror fans. Oozing with wit and innovation, the 1996 classic sits up there with pioneers of the scary movie like Halloween (1978), Profondo Rosso (1975), and, yes, even Psycho (1960).
Consider the opening hook, in which Drew Barrymore, advertised as the film’s heroine, tries to elude the Ghostface killer while he torments her with lame movie trivia. The camera keeps her character front and center while Ghostface is relegated to the fringes, popping in and out of our peripheral vision as if to strike our subconscious rather than his prey. Knowing violence doesn’t equate suspense, Craven focuses instead on the victim: her warmth, resourcefulness, and increasing panic. My heart pounds every time I watch the scene and then sinks when the inevitable happens.
Williamson is often credited (or blamed) for introducing self-referential humour to mainstream horror, but the genre had already devolved into self-parody four Friday the 13th sequels prior. Rather, his screenplay has given the punch line back to the good guys. Whereas the Halloween series stars Michael Myers and the Nightmare on Elm Street films tell of Freddy Krueger, Scream keeps the Woodsboro community as its focal point: Dewey (David Arquette), the hapless sheriff’s deputy; Gail (Courteney Cox), the insufferable reporter; and, of course, Sidney (Neve Campbell), the heart and soul of the franchise.
One year after her mother’s murder, our heroine finds herself the target of a serial killer whose modus operandi consists of harassing his victims over the phone before stabbing them to death. His prey all attend high school, of course, and own cordless phones so they can partake in elaborate cat-and-mouse chases. The twist here isn’t so much that the characters know they inhabit a scary movie but that they keep trying to beat it, adapting their behaviour to the genre’s most popular tropes: “Never ever, ever, under any circumstances, say, ‘I’ll be right back,’ because you won’t be back!”
At times, the film appears to go out of its way to undercut itself: Dewey licks an ice cream cone while delivering crucial exposition; Sidney complains about the archetypal slasher protagonist “running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door” moments before doing the same herself. You’d expect that irreverence to kill the tension, but the characters are stronger for it because they don’t behave like typical cannon fodder. One of the running jokes has the victims putting up so much of a fight that Ghostface comes across as mildly incompetent, which makes it all the more tragic when he overpowers them anyway.
The women come off particularly strong. This is common in Wes Craven movies, but here the director takes the feminist statement one step further by subverting specific gender biases in horror. Take, for example, the way he turns the “virginity shield” cliché on its head, applying it to one of the boys instead of the heroine. By the same token, Sidney remains in full control of her sexuality, avoiding judgment and exploitation from even those on the other side of the screen. When she agrees to a “PG-13 relationship” and flashes her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich), we’re never shown her breasts because the moment pertains to intimacy, not titillation.
I love those mundane character beats by the way. They make Sidney and her friends feel like real teens, even as they spew endless strings of pop culture references. Williamson has a gift for dialogue, but it helps that the actors understand his voice. Matthew Lillard, in particular, steals every scene he’s in as Stew, the mean-spirited joker of the bunch. When he rags on his classmates, we get so caught up in his offbeat rhythm that we forget he’s providing motives and alibis for the entire cast.
Here is a rare slasher that doesn’t cheat with its mystery. In fact, on second viewing, it struck me how much the filmmakers flaunt the killer’s identity, banking on our subconscious desire to “follow the rules” rather than withholding information. The whodunit aspect also serves as a statement: the characters are all suspects because they’re all sociopaths. More than a thrill ride or collection of cinematic in-jokes, Scream remains close to my heart because of its social satire.
A bit of context may be needed here. Sometime in the early nineties, public policy groups decided horror flicks were to blame for violence in the world, which, to me, is like saying we should ban Little Red Riding Hood lest our children start eating Grandma. Craven and Williamson take the argument in the opposite direction, exposing the image of a morbidly desensitized youth for all its absurdity. It starts with the kids making insensitive quips about a murdered classmate. Soon they’re rushing to see a faculty member gutted and hung in a football field.
Also consider Ghostface’s motives, which turn out so fantastically ludicrous they manage to be as disturbing as they are hilarious. Drenched in blood, the killer dishes out movie conventions and lame pop psychology (yes, they fit together somehow), refusing to acknowledge any sort of personal responsibility. The scene embodies everything I love about the franchise: its conceptual chills, grotesque sense of humour, and biting commentary. In fact, it’s perhaps the best I’ve seen in a slasher since, well, the opening of Scream.