Whatcha Craven?: Scream (1996)

Do I like scary movies? Sure, that’s why I started this site in the first place, and more new recently why I wanted to take a look back at the works of Wes Craven. After four weeks of checking out The Hills Have Eyes, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The People Under the Stairs, and Shocker, we’ve finally come to the last entry in Whatcha Craven. After trying to get a franchise off the ground with Shocker, Craven revisited his most famous creation with the mostly successful film New Nightmare (1994). Then he made Eddie Murphy a bloodsucker in Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), and the less said about that travesty the better. Luckily, the next year he made a film that is arguably one of his best.

Scream began its life as the brainchild of Kevin Williamson, a part time actor with one sold but not produced screenplay to his credit (Teaching Mrs. Tingle which Williamson would ultimately direct). When he read about a series of killings in Florida, he was inspired to write a script featuring characters as aware of horror movies as he was. The script, then titled Scary Movie, was sold to Dimension films which brought in Wes Craven to direct.

The film opens with a twelve minute sequence featuring Drew Barrymore being harassed and ultimately killed by a killer in a Munch’s Scream inspired mask. The killer taunts his intended victim with phone calls reminiscent of the film When a Stranger Calls, and their conversation involves a discussion of many of the great slasher films. The best line, and one that Craven almost omitted, comes when Barrymore’s character comments that the first Nightmare on Elm Street was good but “the others sucked”. Craven felt the line might be too egotistical, but since he had been involved as a writer of Part 3 and Part 7, he kept it in. Upon first viewing, the scene is shocking. Who could have expected that Drew would be killed off when the movie had barely begun? This opening is part of the reason the movie succeeds. After it, the viewer knows that no character is safe, expect the unexpected, and no matter how many rules are laid out, expect them to be broken.

As the film begins in earnest, we are introduced to Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), a young woman still reeling from her mother’s murder a year ago. She is soon terrorized by a phone call from a menacing voice and then attacked by the ghost face killer (not to be confused with Ghost face Killer, the badass Wu Tang Clan MC). Sidney escapes, but soon her movie conscious friends are being picked off by the killer. With nosy reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) on the story and bumbling detective Dewey (David Arquette) on the case, the kids have to try and survive if they can follow the rules.

Perhaps more than any other slasher in recent times, I think Scream owes a great deal to the classic gaily of the 1970’s. This is not a film not based in the supernatural like Nightmare or Friday the 13th nor does it feature in unstoppable force like Meyers or Leather face. Instead, I see much more of the hallmark of Bava’s Twitch of a Death Nerve or Argento’s Opera. While the characters, much like myself at the time, would not have been well versed in those film, there’s no telling where Williamson took his inspiration for the story’s structure. Like gialli, Scream features a masked and gloved killer, numerous instances of misdirection, and an ending featuring a shocking and unexpected twist. It’s interesting to me how the film contains all the parts from the whole history of slasher films from the roots in Italian cinema to the gore fests of the ‘80’s.

Throughout the film, the actors all do fine jobs, even the usually irritating Matthew Lillard and Jamie Kennedy. Kennedy especially was very enjoyable as the resident horror movie geek who introduces the group to the rules (Don’t have sex, do drugs, or say that “you’ll be right back”). This film is also the best role I’ve ever seen from David Arquette. His goofy cop Dewey is definitely my favorite character, and while I have great hesitation about the forthcoming Scream 4, at least he has been confirmed as returning. Also coming back for another sequel is his wife, Courtney Cox, whom he met while filming this movie. Rose McGowen is lovely as always though I hate that she dyed her hair blonde to appear less like the brunette lead, Neve Campbell. Neve herself is more the catalyst for the events in the film than an integral part to me. While she does a fine job, there is nothing in her performance that blew me away, and the same can be said of poor man’s Johnny Depp, Skeet Ulrich.

I’m not going to go into all the referential nods and horror inside jokes contained in the film because I think that has been endlessly explored elsewhere, and I’m sure that you folks don’t need them spelled out. I’ll just say that this time (perhaps my third viewing of the film) I did notice a few more things I missed last time. This film is loaded with Easter eggs for the horror fan, and that’s one thing that confuses me. I’ve often seen Scream looked down on by horror hounds as teen trash. While I think that label might be accurate of films it spawned, Scream was a game changing film for the slasher genre. By taking in and regurgitating the history of slasher films in the way it did, Scream turned the genre on it’s ear and breathed new life into what was basically a dead subgenre. I know that Kevin Williamson went on to pen Dawson’s Creek, and many people hold that against him. Perhaps they forget he also wrote the well done Scream 2, Rodriguez’s fun sci fi film The Faculty, and I Know What You Did Last Summer, the only worthwhile entry into that series.

If somehow you like scary movies, but have been living under a rock since 1996, then this is a film that you should see. If you haven’t seen it in a while, then I recommend a re-watch. Though the film loses something when you know the ending, there are tons of clues to look for when you do give it another view. It’s also a film about people like us, people who know not to run out into the woods, who yell at characters to look behind them, and who know the bad guy is never dead even when the credits roll. Thanks everyone who left all the great comments on the Craven films this month. I’ve got something special in mind for August’s feature, so check back in next week to see what I have in store for you folks.

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  1. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJuly 31, 2009 at 6:40 PM

    I always thought that "SCREAM" was ludicrously over-rated hogwash, i didn`t think much of the sequels either. I love that picture of drew with her mouth wide open, she would have been perfect for porno!!!.

  2. Scream was my first horror movie when I was 9 years old and I was instantly hooked by the genre. I have all the Kevin Williamson horror gold and could recite every line of all the Scream movies. If that means I need to get a life then so be it!


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