1990s, 3/4, Horror, Review, Wes Craven

Scream

#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.

Rating: 3/4

12 thoughts on “Scream”

  1. I realize it was hugely successful but the film did nothing for me, really. Probably my fault. But I can sure see where someone saw Matthew Lillard in this and said “Call the studio. We’ve found our live-action Shaggy.”

    Fun fact: the voice on the phone in the beginning is Roger Jackson, who might be better known as the voice of Mojo Jojo.

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    1. I get the success. It’s the same reason that Agatha Christie mysteries are popular. It keeps the audience guessing about a concrete plot question. A lot of people like that. It’s a pretty well done version of that subgenre of mysteries. It also just happens to have a thick veneer of slasher thrown on top that appeals to the horror crowd at the same time (they weren’t seeing the new Murder on the Orient Express, but they might have if Ghostface had shown up).

      It has a limited appeal to me. There needs to be more, and I think that’s where this one succeeds where the rest of the series doesn’t. This one has a surprisingly strong emotional core in Neve Campbell. That’s what really gets me through this one.

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  2. I don’t hate Scream as a movie, but I do hate it as the KIND of movie it is.

    Scream walks the line between being a self-aware film and a parody or deconstruction of a horror movie. For me, the movie would have been strengthened tremendously by removing the winking and nodding. It does not quite cross the line but I’d rather it never got close to it but more on that later.

    This is Neve Campbell’s best performance in a film and David Arquette is surprisingly a serious and committed actor who never lets Dewy become Barney Fife. Courtney Cox is well cast, at least for this film. And honestly, Skeet Ulrich and Matthew Lillard killing people for kicks feels like the most honest part of the movie. The technical side is Craven’s strongest work since A Nightmare on Elm Street. The opening set piece is well done, (though I never thought Drew Barrymore was the main character so I wasn’t shocked by her killing) and it works as a stand alone short film. And that’s about all the nice things I can say about it.

    Now this is far from the first self-aware horror movie or slasher flick. It is the one that kick started a whole subgenre (maybe two if we count the Scary Movie franchise) and revitalized Wes Craven’s career. Following Scream, we get ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’, ‘Final Destination’, ‘Urban Legend’ and all their sequels and the rest of the late 90’s ironic horror drek. Scream wants to be clever and not scary and that’s a problem in horror. But horror is an emotion, self awareness is a thought (or part of Logos, to be Greek for a moment).

    Self awareness kills suspension of disbelief. We are increasingly aware that we’re watching a movie, and not watching the struggles of people. Every reference to scary movies (the original title and title of the parody versions of this franchise) removes tension, weakens horror. Hanging a lampshade on a trope doesn’t excuse it, if anything it calls attention to it, weakening the film even more (I’m thinking of the ‘PG-13’ relationship in particular). Because if we, the audience, is thinking ‘oh I got that reference, I am so smart’, then they aren’t feeling. They aren’t sympathizing, they aren’t putting themselves into the place of the protagonist. They’re looking for Easter eggs and not enjoying a satisfying meal.

    Is that all bad? Well, I hate it, but people can find enjoyment in stuff I don’t like, that’s fine with me. There’s an argument to be made for the enjoyment of tropes for their own sake rather than investment in a character’s struggles. But it makes for a weaker work of art, just like a pun is not poetry.

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    1. “A pun is not poetry.”

      I like that. There is always room for puns, but without poetry the pun ends up meaning little.

      I think the frustration is how this self-aware, cynical approach to horror ended up infecting everything else. Earnestness is uncool. You can only have Ryan Reynolds winking at the camera because it’s all stupid, you shouldn’t care, and you should be okay sitting there and enjoying this anyway. It’s an intentional disconnect between art and audience. There can be fun to be had there.

      Still, the self-aware stuff is the least interesting to me (except the “look behind you Jaime” stuff which is just one level extra clever that I get a kick out of), and the rest of the franchise…well, we’ll get to that.

      I find it amusing that a film held up as so daring to break all the rules ends up creating a series that conforms to its own rules so tightly forever.

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