#4 in my ranking of Wes Craven’s filmography.
#1 in my ranking of the Scream franchise.
I don’t think I can come up with a better argument that Wes Craven should never have written his movies alone than Scream. I think he was a perfectly competent filmmaker when it comes to the visual aspects, and his ability to manage actors had improved over the years. However, he was always a subpar writer. Even A Nightmare on Elm Street, his best work that he wrote himself, really needed another pass by a better writer. Scream, though, from a script by Kevin Williamson, is Craven bringing his professional ability to a clever and well-built screenplay.
The movie famously opens with Drew Barrymore’s Casey, a high school student, preparing popcorn and taking a series of increasingly threatening phone calls from a male voice over the phone. Having kidnapped her boyfriend and tied him to a chair in her backyard while quizzing her on horror movie trivia, ending with both her and her boyfriend’s gruesome murder. This was a shocking thing at the time because the marketing had put Barrymore, the biggest movie star at the time appearing in the film, front and center of every trailer and poster. Killing her off early established that the film wasn’t going to follow any rules. Of course, Hitchcock had already done this fifty years before in Psycho (a film that gets quoted and referred to directly late in the film, so I think Williamson understood that he was being clever but not completely original).
Then we meet our real main character, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), and if there is a wonderful center to this film, it’s Sidney Prescott. It takes a little while to figure out where she’s coming from, but Sidney’s mother was murdered and raped a year before by a man now in prison named Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber) for the crime. She’s a hurt, young woman who is still dealing with the trauma of her mother’s rumored promiscuity and brutal murder when a series of new, brutal murders erupts in her otherwise sleepy town. She had a boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), with whom she has yet to have sex, insisting on a PG-13 relationship (not the first self-aware movie reference the movie will have). The two are two-fifths of a friend group that also includes Tatum (Rose McGowan), her boyfriend Stu (Matthew Lillard), and the horror movie obsessed Randy (Jamie Kennedy).
The movie is at its best when the focus is on Sidney and her sense of trauma. There’s a great scene where she goes into the girls’ bathroom at school, hiding in a stall, where a mean cheerleader details her theory on how Sidney is making up a lot of what’s going on in the town in order to attract attention. It’s really painful to Sidney, but she says nothing. Neve Campbell’s quietly pained performance here is probably the best performance Wes Craven ever got from an actor.
The murderer, nicknamed Ghostface because of the use of a cheap Halloween costume that resembles a ghost, attacks Sidney, which, when combined with the suspicious arrival of Billy into her room through her window moments later, convinces her that Billy is the killer. This is eventually cleared up when Sidney receives a threatening phone call while Billy is still in prison, and it’s about here that the real self-awareness from Randy starts coming in. I find Randy’s meta-humor amusing (especially when, near the end, he’s talking to the film Halloween on a television, telling Jamie Lee Curtis to turn around while, at the same time, it’s Jamie Kennedy telling someone named Jamie to turn around when the killer is right behind him), but I’m not really sure what it adds other than a bit of thin cleverness. Granted, it’s largely amusing, but I feel like it kind of ends up distracting from Sidney herself.
The finale of the film is a long party scene after curfew has been called (I’m not sure the movie understands how curfews work, but whatever) where the game of red herrings all over the place comes into play. It recalls the much less successful Deadly Blessing because the characters are much better established here, and it’s not really all that heavy handed. It just kind of ups the level of guesswork in the finale in order to keep the audience on its toes. Those who love the whole, “I can’t guess the killer” thing adore this kind of mechanic, but I end up feeling just a bit jerked around a bit.
Now, I’ve actually seen this film a couple of times (though it’s been a while), but I remembered enough to recall who the killer was before I started the film. With that in mind, it becomes really obvious who it is, with the film giving just enough curveballs to where the first-time viewer will get thrown off the trail.
The self-awareness ends up working against the film, slightly, in the final moments of the film when the main character veers from “I don’t need a motive because nothing matters,” to “I have a very specific motive, and here it is” in seconds. It can’t seem to decide if it’s a satire of the genre or an earnest attempt at one on a certain level. I also kind of hate the musical score, which Mickey Mouses every moment in the film. I honestly think the film would be a fair bit stronger without a non-diagetic score at all.
Still, I really do enjoy the film overall. Neve Campbell is the core of it, but there are a host of very nice supporting turns including David Arquette as the earnest and somewhat bumbling deputy Dewey (a seeming callback to the bumbling cops in The Last House on the Left, but much more effectively used) and Courteney Cox as the tabloid journalist who wrote the book trying to clear Cotton of the crime that Sidney was key witness against him for who has a wonderful antagonistic relationship with Sidney that helps drive some of Sidney’s emotional movements. I get the appeal of the who done it elements, though they have a very limited charm to me personally. I think if I got into those sort of mechanical parts of the story, I’d like this more like its biggest fans.
As it is, the film is a solid outing from a clever script handled professionally by someone who’d been making movies for more than twenty years. It’s entertaining, and it even works on multiple viewings. It doesn’t have the promise of Craven’s earlier quality work, but it entertains well.