There was no denying that by the time the mid-nineties came round, the slasher movie genre was feeling a little tired. After seminal horror movies like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, slasher movie fans were given sequel after tired sequel to that proved to be a law of diminishing returns. Killers like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddy Kruger just weren’t that scary anymore.
Wes Craven changed all that with Scream. Aided by the writing talents of Kevin Williamson, who would also pen other popular 90’s horror movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Faculty, Craven brought back scares aplenty but also plenty of self referential humour as the post-modern slasher emerged. It’s a term that feels pretentious but Scream did for the slasher genre what Buffy The Vampire Slayer did for TV horror; it was fully aware of the horror tropes, the clichés, the rules and the twists and turns and embraced them. The characters of Scream don’t live in a world where serial killers don’t exist. They live in a world whey they have grown up watching Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street and they know exactly how a good slasher movie should play out.
Scream is a masterpiece of miss-direction; it casts Drew Barrymore, arguably the film’s biggest star and then kills her off in the opening scene. In the argument of the best film openings ever, this has to be there. It sets the tone for everything that follows as Barrymore’s Casey gets a mysterious call and gets caught in a game of cat and mouse as a quiz on slasher movies turns deadly as she becomes the first victim. It is perfectly directed, Craven ramping up the tension as Casey starts to realise this is more than a game; still the moment she finds boyfriend Steve gutted in the patio and Ghostface breaks into the house, the tension and terror is ramped up to the max. Worse still is her death, gutted in brutal bloody fashion just as her parents arrive home. The shot of her corpse hanging from the garden tree and her mother screaming echoes into the short but effective titles. If there is one problem with the opening it’s that it is so good, there was never a moment in this movie or its sequels that could come close to matching it.
The two bloody murders plunge the town of Woodborough into chaos, setting the scene for plenty of mystery, intrigue and just a few scares. Through the eyes of the series’ heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and her friends, the sense of unease is mixed with plenty of debate of who the killer might be. Jamie Kennedy’s Randy is the post-modern slasher movie geek of Scream and its first sequel, clued up on the various killers, motives, and slasher tropes that the film lovingly plays with. But he isn’t the only one. Sidney has seen enough slasher movies to know what not to do (not that it happens in practice) while best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) is dismissive of the whole genre. Matthew Lillard is at his zaniest, Stuart treating the whole murder spree as entertainment while Skeet Ulrich is cool and mysterious as Sidney’s boyfriend who knows more than he lets on.
It’s a cool cast of teenage characters (the actors are obviously much older than their onscreen roles), rounded off with the endearing Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) and bitchy reporter Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox) out for a big scoop. It is Cox’s greatest role (sorry Friends fans), playing a tough bitch with a hidden vulnerability; she could easily have become an irritating, unlikeable character but Cox gives a grounded performance, making her one of the best heroes of the franchise. And that’s not to mention terrific characters like the Fonz himself Henry Winkler as the tough but firm principal who meets a grizzly end.
Scream truly is a love letter to horror movies, filled with so many Easter eggs that I could write a whole article on them alone. The Exorcist‘s Linda Blair cameos as a rival reporter, Wes Craven has a brief scene as the janitor in Freddy Kruger’s infamous striped jumper. Billy’s surname Loomis is a shout out to Doctor Loomis from the Halloween movies while the shout outs to various slasher movies are immense but never overwhelm the film. The characters’ knowledge of slasher movies even extends to discussion over who might play them in a movie of the events taking place, a terrific bit of set up for ‘Stab’ in the sequel, down to Sidney prophesying that she’ll be played by Tori Spelling.
If there’s anything that feels weak in Scream, it’s the backstory of Sidney’s dead movie designed to adds some teenage angst but it pays off with the final twist on the end. Unlike the slasher movies of the past, the killers in the Scream movies could be anyone and the film really has fun playing guess the murderer. Is it Randy with his supreme horror movie knowledge? Billy, feeling rejected over Sidney’s personal grief? Dewey, using his police role as a cover? Or Gail out to get the story by making it happen? The film continually kept the audience guessing on first viewing and on repeated viewings it’s amazing to see how tight the script is playing the audience to the very end.
The final act is superb as Sidney and Tatum head to Stuart’s house for a party that ends in tragedy. It is packed full of tension, shocks, twists and turns; Tatum’s murder is particularly cruel, happening just feet away from her friends, while the time delay on the camera Gail’s cameraman Kenny has installed leads to a brilliant, nail biting murder. The homage to Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis’ screams and John Carpenter’s theme bleeds directly into the events taking place, making for the ultimate love letter to the slasher genre. The shocking stabbing of Dewey and Gail frantically searching for the keys as Ghostface attacks her from outside the police car is a really tense scene. But the best bit of double bluffing has to be the ‘death’ of prime suspect Billy, stabbed to death by Ghostface in front of Sidney after she has broken the cardinal rule of the genre and had sex with him.
And that is perhaps Scream‘s greatest masterstroke; there are two killer donning the mask. After Stuart is revealed to be the killer, Skeet Ulrich delivers a masterstroke performance as he switches from dying victim to cold blooded killer, quoting Norman Bates from Psycho and revealing that he used the old Carrie trick of pig’s blood to fake his attack. Admittedly, the reasons behind Billy and Stuart’s killing spree maybe don’t hold up as well as the mystery; Stuart wanting to make a real life slasher franchise feels a step too ridiculous, but Billy at least has motive in Sidney’s dead mother – killed by them a year ago – slept with his father, destroying his family. Though that does feel a little throwaway; perhaps the most frightening thing about Billy Loomis is that he just likes killing.
Scream is immensely entertaining, funny, tense and sometimes scary too that sent the audience on an emotional, nail-biting rollercoaster. It also jump started the slasher genre once again, though it didn’t necessarily succeed (aside from Scream 2, it’s other two sequels lacked the magic of this film). Perhaps most successfully, you can enjoy it time and time again; some movies lack re-watch-ability once you know who is behind the mystery. But Scream continues to be a blast from beginning to end even twenty years later.