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Scream (1996)

It's Hip to Be Scared

Yeah, yeah, yeah: The 90s were a horror wasteland overrun with shitty Stephen King adaptations and shitty sequels to decent Stephen King adaptations--until Scream came along.  I'm sure you've heard the story a thousand times before.  If you haven't, I've just summarized it for you.

What's interesting about Scream, and what people tend to forget, is that even though it spawned a bloated industry of pop-referencing slasher films starring attractive television stars, the fact remains that the reason it gave birth to so much garbage is because it was a huge hit.  Its success can be directly attributed to word of mouth, which often stems from a quality experience.  'Tis true: Wes Craven's Scream is a great movie whose low-rent genre doesn't prevent it from being a modern classic.

Two things set it apart from the movies that came before and after it.  Its first, most obvious and well-covered attribute is writer Kevin Williamson's self-aware screenplay.  His characters don't know they're in a horror movie, but they've seen enough of them to know when someone is re-enacting one.  High schooler Sidney (Neve Campbell), her boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and all their friends quote classic film lines and bring up obscure movies in everyday conversation.  While it's a bit hard to swallow at times (these kids' only frame of reference seems to be horror movies), the dialogue serve to paint a world in which teenagers are aware of the idiocy of exploring scary noises in the dark--precisely because they grew up watching movies where such idiots get killed.

The second key to Scream's success is that it's a scary movie.  While the sequels mistakenly capitalize on the hipness and humor factors to a greater and eventually unsustainable degree, the original is a straight-up suspense thriller with some gore and light humor thrown in.  Like The Usual Suspects before it, the fun of Scream is trying to figure out which of the large cast of characters is targeting Sidney and her classmates while dressed as a cartoon-faced grim reaper.  As video store clerk Randy (Jamie Kennedy) exclaims, everybody's a suspect; everyone gets one or two ominous close-ups and spooky music cues.  The coolest thing about the screenplay is that none of these tricks matters; significant clues to the Ghostface Killer's identity are all over the place, and Craven and Williamson cleverly pepper their misdirection with actual finger pointing--all in the service of unnerving the audience from frame one.

Ah, yes, frame one.  How about that iconic opening scene!  Another teen named Casey (Drew Barrymore), alone in her parents' house, makes popcorn before settling in to watch a movie.  The phone rings.  She answers, and begins a reluctantly flirty convesation with the soothing, older-sounding voice (Roger Jackson) on the other end. Before long, the voice reveals himself to be a stalker who's bound Casey's boyfriend to a chair on the patio and promises to kill him if she can't answer some basic movie trivia questions.

This scene is famous for Barrymore's surprising, gruesome death.  At the time of release, critics and fans praised the filmmakers for hearkening back to Janet Leigh's first-act demise in Psycho.  Moviegoers assumed Barrymore was the star of Scream because she appeared on the poster (twice), but after the first ten minutes, the audience was left with a previously unfelt unease that everyone in the movie was expendable.

Having just watched the film again for the first time in a few years, I'd also like to say that part of the reason this scene is so iconic is that it's really well done.  Aside from Barrymore's awful thirty-seconds of over-acting during her transition from curious to terrified, the actress gives a fine, sympathetic performance.  It's also a tragic one, as Casey's parents arrive home mere minutes before she's from a tree and gutted in her front yard.

To the two readers who haven't seen Scream, I apologize for the spoiler.  I won't discuss the killers' identity, though, except to say that--much like the Big Reveal in Scream 2--a moment of wonderful surprise is quickly undone by an exaggerated performance that I still can't wrap my head around. I know Jim Carrey ruled the multiplex in the mid-90s, but throwing an Ace Ventura clone into one's film is not a wise move in any decade.

As many of you know, I've been watching the Scream trilogy in reverse order this week in anticipation of seeing Scream 4 tonight.  Something I haven't touched on yet--something that began in part one and was never really topped in the sequels--is the relationship between tabloid reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and sheriff's deputy Dewey (David Arquette).  Weathers is determined to get the scoop on the teen murders as a follow-up to a book she's writing on another killing that happened a year ago--in which Sidney's mother was raped and murdered.  She charms Dewey into giving her leads and access, and eventually comes to like the guy.  Dewey is smitten instantly, and though he's a pretty broadly drawn doofus character, Arquette imbues him with an awkward nobility.  Most people know that Cox and Arquette met and fell in love on the set of Scream, and would later marry, and Craven captures the weird chemistry of a burgeoning relationship perfectly.  How much of that was due to directing skill, solid writing, or Cupid's arrow, we may never know.

Scream ushered in an era of cheap and mid-grade imitators, none of which got what their forefather was all about.  Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven targeted his film to the smartest people in the audience--but he also knew to walk the line between aloof and accessible.  If you're a dumb kid who just wants to see other kids get cut to pieces, you'll find a disposable Friday Night Fright Feature here.  But if you like some mystery to your mayhem; if you know who Henry Winkler is and are interested in seeing him act instead of just sleep through a "Hey-it's-Henry-Winkler" cameo; and if you prefer your horror movie victims to be uniformly intelligent and gutsy (if not always successful), then there's a lot to enjoy in this film.

I can't defend much of Craven's post-Scream oeuvre, but he and Williamson woke up audiences to the possibility that cinema's red-headed step-child (the horror movie) didn't have to be cheap and mindless wastes of time.  With a handful of films, including this one, he earned his title as a "Master of Horror". And there are few things in life as fun or as satisfying as watching a master do what he does best.

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