SCREAM: What’s Your Favorite Scary Movie?

Scream (1996) – Directed by Wes Craven – Starring Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, Liev Schrieber, Roger L. Jackson, and Henry Winkler.

Kevin Williamson wrote three of the best horror stories of the 1990s – SCREAM, The Faculty, and Dawson’s Creek – but only one of them is an all-timer and this is it. SCREAM is a true American masterpiece, an utterly brilliant movie that’s both a love letter to an entire genre of film and confident step forward. Brilliant movies are extremely rare, but rarer still is the movie that can both affirm tradition and reinvigorate a genre, and that’s just what SCREAM does and did.

SCREAM did for slasher films what Die Hard did for action movies, creating a blueprint for the next generation of genre films, and it’s only now, some 15 years after SCREAM debuted that the steam the film put back into the sails of slasher movies has seemingly finally run its course. We’ve now had reboots of the three big American slasher films – one, Rob Zombie’s Halloween, is a brilliant film in its own right, and two, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, were turds, not to mention remakes of nearly every significant teenage-driven horror film since the ’60s – and this year (2011) even saw saw an attempted relaunch (though not reboot) of the SCREAM franchise with SCREAM 4. Combined with the sputtering returns for remakes of Asian horror films (The Ring, The Grudge), snuff fantasies (Hostel, Human Centipede), and endless sequels (the Saw franchise), horror films look lost and stale, again.

What American horror films need right now, in other words, is exactly what SCREAM brought to the multiplex back in 1995.

SCREAM starts with the iconic sequence in which Ghostface (voiced by Roger L. Jackson) calls Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) at home and asks her, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” (SCREAM’s original title was Scary Movie.) The oft-copied scene still works beautifully; Barrymore is fantastic as the teenage girl who slides from annoyed to playful to terrified as Ghostface’s questions turn more grim and serious. When she’s told to look outside and finds her terrified boyfriend Steve tied up, she descends into hysterics and it’s only a matter of time for Ghostface to reel her in.

Wes Craven’s directing is exquisite, his camera alternately sweeping and jolting its way through the Becker household to both heighten our tension alongside Casey’s and then money shot on Casey’s terror. Back and forth Casey runs through the house, moving from the front door to the back door; everything here purposely elevates the drama, like the unchecked Jiffy Pop on the stove (do people even still eat Jiffy Pop?). The corn starts popping, then whistles to signify its done, the whistle turning into a scream as smoke begins to waft from the stove and gather in the kitchen. Seeing Steve all tied up on the back patio, the in-ground pool behind him providing some creepy light play, is the big shock for Casey, but Carven artfully builds to that moment by Ghostface on the phone, the swelling score by Marco Beltrami, and all that glass inside the house and the wild greenery on the outside. Casey keeps locking doors but glass is a weak barrier and that greenery outside looks like it could hide an army of monsters. The road that leads to the Becker house is just far enough away to make it tempting and taunting. All of this works together to make Ghostface’s emotional and physical assault on Casey come together in a disturbing, sorrowed end for our victim; SCREAM’s opening scene is every bit as perfect as the opening to Raiders of the Lost Ark or Once Upon a Time in the West, as Craven puts all of these elements (the call, the pool, the glass, the locks, the Jiffy Pop, the smoke, Steve) into play before we even see Ghostface, so when he does appear, we’re properly warmed up and Casey is properly on the edge.

I love that SCREAM can create this inventive sequence with smart dialogue and a slow-burn to terror, and then go for the total slasher finale, as Casey is gutted, hung from a tree in the family’s yard, and left to be found by her parents. It’s a fantastic move, too, that the film offs its biggest star in the first sequence, sending a clear signal that this film is going to be different. It also reaffirms, however, that in slasher movies the bad guy is the real star. Drew Barrymore might have the biggest name going in, but Ghostface is going to be the biggest coming out.

Of course, SCREAM likes the illusion of being different more than it actually likes to be different. I don’t mean that SCREAM is a simple retread, dressed up in meta-ness; I mean that SCREAM reifies the genre its commenting on. For all of Randy’s (Jamie Kennedy’s) talk about the rules of horror movies, and for all of the tweaks SCREAM does to the genre (the guy who says, “Be right back!” doesn’t die because he’s one of the killers, Sidney loses her virginity and survives, etc.), the film also blatantly keeps insisting that Sidney’s boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) is the killer, and then allowing tiny outs so that you can out-think yourself instead of the film out-thinking you; it’s a clever move by Williamson to play with the intelligence of the audience.

I love that. I absolutely love that a movie doesn’t insult your intelligence but rather engages it in such a cheeky manner. It makes SCREAM about more than watching teenagers get slashed, though it never forgets that’s why you dropped a few dimes to sit down and watch it.

News about what happened to Casey and Steve spreads quickly, and the following day at school sees students being brought in for questioning by the police. Our heroine, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), is brought in and Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler) is very protective of her because her mother was killed a year earlier.

Williamson’s take on teenagers is a welcome one, too; instead of everyone freaking out about what happened, the desensitized kids are more thrilled about school getting canceled than they are worried about Casey and Steve’s murder. Their callous attitude is offset by Sidney’s fear-driven depression (you can practically see her putting up walls and drawing them in tight), but Sidney isn’t some kind of angelic heroine whose completely out of step with the other teenagers in the film. It’s not that she’s all torn up about Casey getting killed; she’s torn up because it’s reminiscent about what happened to her mother a year earlier, and it threatens to bring all that came with her mother’s murder back into her life. In her own way, she’s just as self-centered about the murder as he classmates, it just manifests in a different manner and for different reasons.

Her best friend is Tatum (a blonde Rose McGowan), who’s super-concerned about Sidney without losing her own self-centered attitude. Sidney’s dad is gone for a few days for work (a dumb move considering the anniversary of his wife’s murder is approaching), and Sidney tells Tatum she doesn’t want to be left alone, so Tatum promises to come get her by 7 PM at the latest. Sidney falls asleep on the couch, wakes up well after 7, and Tatum is still yet to arrive. She calls to apologize, Sidney asks her to hurry, but first Tatum is going to stop off at the rental store to pick up a few movies to watch, allowing Ghostface to make his first attempt on Sidney’s life. This leads to Billy being arrested as a suspect.

McGowan is fantastic in a sneaky good performance; while never the center of the movie, McGowan has the most wide-ranging part, she’s concerned, protective, a smart ass, confident, terrified, a best friend to the protagonist, a sister to the comedic hero, and a girlfriend of one of the killers. McGowan effortlessly moves between these roles, and I alternately hate and love Tatum throughout the film.

The aforementioned comedic hero is deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette), a bumbling modernization of Barney Fife who nonetheless wins you over with his dedication to protecting Sidney. Sure, he spends too much time hitting on news reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), mistakenly thinking her interest in him is personal and not professional, but Arquette plays it all with a loveable sheepishness – Dewey is trying to be a man and trying to be a good cop, but at every turn he’s getting sliced down.

And yet, in nearly every scene, he’s there doing his job. Why the sheriff’s department doesn’t assign its better cops to watch Sidney is up for debate, but the film wouldn’t be improved by having a super cop around and so Arquette’s Dewey fits perfectly into the film.

What Williamson understands so brilliantly in SCREAM is what the film needs in any given moment to work. One of the conceits of the genre is that our heroine is really a victim for much of the film, and she’s going to spend the bulk of the film getting her ass chased down by a maniac trying to kill her. Robbed of much of her agency (slasher movies usually give a victim her agency back at the end to recast her as a hero in order to take down her attacker), being the main victim in a slasher film isn’t a fun gig. Neve Campbell is perfectly fine as Sidney (of course she is, she was on Party of Five, so she knows how to cry and mope), the nice girl who’s haunted by what happened to her mom – and more importantly, what her mom was when she was alive. There were rumors of her mom cheating on her husband all over town, and Sidney finally admits that she’s not having sex with Billy because she’s afraid of turning into her mom. When she says early in the film that she wonders if Billy will settle for a “PG-13 relationship,” it comes off as both haunted and cute; Sidney knows what’s driving her chastity but she’s not willing to reveal it, yet. It’s a really solid piece of writing, as Sidney’s desire to remain sexually pure coincides with Randy’s “rules” of slasher films, which state that only the virgins get out alive.

When she finally gives in to Billy’s advances, it signifies that Sidney is, on some level, either giving in to her fate, or finally taking charge of her own life. When they’re getting dressed after their tryst, Sidney looks away from Billy as she asks him who he called at the police station when he was hauled in as a suspect. He insists it was his dad, but Sidney tells him, no, that the police chief called his dad. Billy offers an excuse that is both perfectly plausible and obviously (since we’re in a slasher film) false; he tells her he tried to call his dad and didn’t get him, but Sidney isn’t buying it, and it’s this scene that makes me love Sidney because what it reveals about her is that she knows Billy is the killer, yet she slept with him anyway, either because she’s given up on the idea that her life can be salvaged (right before she has sex with Billy she laments, “Why can’t I be a Meg Ryan movie? Or even a good porno?”) or because she’s already decided to take control of her life and this is the first decision she makes as an adult.

Whatever the reason, this scene is the pivot between who Sidney was (the victim) and who Sidney becomes (the heroine). Billy is frustrated by Sidney’s continued insistence that he’s possibly guilty, and he wonders what he has to do to prove that he’s innocent; it’s at this moment that Ghostface bursts in and apparently kills Billy.

It’s a ruse, as Ghostface is actually two killers: Billy and his best friend Stu (Matthew Lillard) are both Ghostface, and this is a clever twist on the “guess the identity” game that’s been going on. SCREAM is a horror movie, of course, but Williamson borrows this angle from a murder mystery, and it’s a clever and subtle genre mash-up.

Forced to play the victim yet again, Sidney turns the tables on Ghostface, fighting back and eventually seizing control of her life from the memory of her mother’s sexuality, the memory of her mother’s murder, and the physical terror of Billy and Stu’s costumed assaults. When Stu jumps up for the expected last thrill, Sidney puts him down with a bullet in his forehead, declaring, “Not in my movie.”

A cinematic thrill-ride from start to finish, full of great characters tucked inside a smart script and orchestrated by an experienced director, SCREAM is one of my all-time favorite movies.

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