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111 min.
Release Date

Wes Craven’s Scream opens with an iconic scene that’s greater than the remainder of the movie, even the remainder of the franchise. Drew Barrymore, the most famous star in the cast, plays the big-breasted blonde teen, Casey. She receives a menacing phone call while home alone, popping popcorn and preparing to watch “some scary movie”. The gristly male voice on the other end asks her to name her favorite scary movie, to which she replies Halloween. After the voice gets a little too creepy, even threatening, she hangs up. The calls continue, and Casey becomes frightened; she asks what the voice wants. “To see your insides,” he replies. The voice proceeds to quiz her on scary movie trivia, leading to the murder of her boyfriend, Steve, just out of her patio window. Casey, too, meets her demise when a masked figure bursts into the house, chases her outside, and disembowels her.

This bravura opening demonstrates Craven’s affection for slasher movies, while also confirming screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s desire to simultaneously embrace and expose the subgenre’s formulas through satire and in-jokes. The scheme is a rather brilliant one, as Craven and Williamson reinvent the material by using the same formulas that they seek to parody. Their characters are aware of slasher movie clichés; they quote classics of the horror genre and list “the rules” of them with enduring enthusiasm. Craven and Williamson know that such truisms are sometimes ludicrous, but that they’re also compulsory. And yet, though Williamson’s script adheres to the clichés as the body count increases, Craven’s capable direction makes the procession of twists and bloody murders visceral and scare-inducing.

The opening sequence gives way to scenes in your typical horror movie high school, complete with twentysomethings playing teens and almost no time spent in class. Here, The Fonz (Henry Winkler) is a principal whose loudspeaker broadcasts include Orwellian announcements (“Remember that your principal loves you”). This is a full-on satire, to be sure. Virginal student Sidney Prescott (a glossy-eyed Neve Campbell, fresh from her fame on TV’s Party of Five) dwells on the murders of Casey and Steve, as nearly a year ago her mother was raped and murdered in almost the same manner. Her supportive but sexually rejected boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich), attempts to calm her. But a nosy local reporter, Gail Weathers (Courteney Cox), seeks to interview Sidney about her take on the murders and their similarity to her mother’s death. Though Sidney already testified and helped convict her mother’s alleged killer, Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), Gail believes Sidney was mistaken—that the latest rash of killings, conducted by someone wearing a “Father Death” costume, proves Weary’s innocence.

On the periphery are Sidney’s friends, played by an obnoxious Rose McGowan and an even more obnoxious Matthew Lillard, who take the term over-acting to new extremes. McGowan’s character helps dub the killer with the name “Ghost Face”, while Lillard’s over-the-top performance is enough to take a viewer right out of the movie. Luckily, Jamie Kennedy provides some laughs as Randy, the resident video store clerk and movie geek whose vast knowledge of the horror movie survival rules (don’t have sex; don’t drink or do drugs; never say “I’ll be right back”) keeps at least one or two characters alive. He’s involved in a smart sequence while watching Halloween. During the scene where the masked Michael Myers approaches Jamie Lee Curtis from behind, Randy shouts “Jamie, turn around!” Meanwhile, Ghost Face approaches Randy from behind, leaving the audience shouting for Mr. Kennedy to observe his own warning.

In the post-Tarantino, pop-culture reference sense, this is a horror movie about horror movies—specifically those in the slasher subgenre, but also about movie watching and trivia in general. Nods at Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein give way to discussions about Jamie Lee Curtis’ frequent virginal heroine presence in everything from Prom Night to Terror Train. Someone mentions those “Wes Carpenter” films with disdain, as Craven is sometimes confused with John Carpenter, since both directors have created iconic slashers. Another character questions why Hannibal Lecter eats people or why Norman Bates needed to kill at all, while another still wishes her life was more like a Meg Ryan movie. Horror movie icon Linda Blair appears in a brief cameo. And then there are the many Sharon Stone references, which Williamson’s script uses to no end. Indeed, the film was written in the 1990s—there’s no doubt about that. Discussions about “cellular phones” and how one teen suspect can afford this advanced device earns a chuckle every time.

Craven, who helped invent the slasher subgenre, pokes fun at himself and his own reputation. References to Craven’s 1984 hit A Nightmare on Elm Street occur throughout. In the opening sequence, the voice on the on the phone tells Casey how scary the Freddy Krueger movies were. “Well, the first one was, but the rest sucked,” she replies, as if in defense of Craven, who directed only the first film in the initial series. The high school employs a janitor (played by Craven) donning a red and green sweater and dirty brown hat. The story involves an innocent teen whose Johnny Depp-esque boyfriend climbs in through her bedroom window for PG-13 rated romance. It’s all very familiar, but enlivened through Williamson’s sharp approach.

Craven’s use of lens flares, manic chases, and Dutch angles in scenes of suspense give the material technical merits that enhance the thrills and occasional shocks. However, once the self-referential slasher movie humor becomes secondary to the plot, and the characters finish pointing out the tired formulas that Williamson’s script adheres to anyway, Scream progresses on autopilot, resulting in a mystery that becomes predictable. Horror fans can’t help but think of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, another movie-savvy horror flick by Craven that professed to be something new while offering more of the same. But under the pile of dead teenagers is an innovative movie experience in which the characters are strangely aware that they’re in a horror movie. That the audience gets to watch them point out, try to avoid, but make obvious mistakes anyway suggests something unique and original—a wildly entertaining (and almost sophisticated) rarity among slasher movies.

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