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Review: Scream (1996)

Scream (1996)

Directed by: Wes Craven

Premise: The teenagers of a small community are stalked by a killer who taunts his victims over the phone and adheres to the clichés of slasher movies. One young woman (Neve Campbell) fears there might be a connection between the killings and the anniversary of her mother’s death.

What Works: There is a lot to say about Scream as a piece of self-reflexive storytelling and as a defining media artifact of the 1990s. While that’s all important to consider (and I’ll get to that a bit later) the first thing to be said about Scream is that it is an excellent film. Although it is generally categorized as a slasher picture, Scream is actually a hybrid of the slasher genre and the murder mystery. Those genres have been frequently matched; even the original Friday the 13th was, at its core, an Agatha Christie-style whodunit. But few films have matched the primal terror of a slasher picture with the psychological intrigue of a murder mystery as well as Scream. The success of the film is primarily due to the collaboration of filmmaker Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. At this point, Craven was a well-established name in the horror genre, having directed classics like The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. But since Nightmare, Craven’s output had been inconsistent and he was in need of a hit. In taking on Scream, Craven brought all of his skills to bear on the genre and made a picture that was frightening in a violent and primal way but was also slickly produced. The other major contributor to Scream was writer Kevin Williamson. In much the same way that John Hughes tapped into the youth culture of the 1980s, Williamson presented teenage culture of the 1990s in a way that was authentic and respected the audience’s intelligence. He also crafted a clever and impenetrable murder mystery that spoke to the audience’s experience as moviegoers by invoking the classic scenarios of horror films while acknowledging the clichés. The combined talents of Craven and Williamson are perhaps best observed in the first ten minutes of Scream which is one of the strongest opening sequences of any Hollywood film. In this first scene, the picture alternates between the funny and the frightening in a way that is engrossing and disturbing and sets the tone for what is to come. The use of pop culture references, and especially allusions to other horror films, is one of Scream’s best known qualities. But looking at the film twenty years later what is most impressive is how restrained the movie is in deploying them. Scream alludes to Halloween, When a Stranger Calls, and Psycho (among others) but those references don’t overwhelm the film the way that they do in some post-Scream movies. Another successful element of Scream is its cast. Like a lot of low budget pictures, slasher films of the 1980s had a reputation for bad acting but Scream featured performers of considerable talent including Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Rose McGowan, David Arquette, and Courtney Cox. The cast elevates the movie well beyond what audiences typically expect from a teen horror flick and the credible performances ground the wit and the violence in a recognizable reality that keeps the film frightening. To that end, one element of Scream that was unusual in a horror film, both then and now, is a sense of the lingering trauma of violence. A lot of Hollywood films present violence in a casual way but the murder of Sidney Prescott’s mother, which occurs a year before the events of this movie, haunts the story and gives it an air of grief that allows the film and the characters a lot of depth. And that is key to why the film resonated so powerfully in 1996 and continues to play decades later; Scream takes place at the intersection between cinema and reality in a way that is disturbingly resonant but also entertaining enough to remain fun.

What Doesn’t: All media artifacts are a product of their time but movies about teenagers and adolescent culture are very prone to age. Part of that is to do with the fickle nature of teenage style and the way clothing and slang are specific to a particular decade, fad, and adolescent identity. Teenage culture also tends to be the most impacted by shifting cultural mores and consumer technology. That is very true of Scream (even more so that its sequels) and in 1996 the film’s understanding of teenage culture was what made it hip; twenty years later that quality gives the movie a nostalgic appeal. But beyond the mid-90s teenage dress and pop cultural references, there are some ways in which the technology of 1996 is entwined with the plot and the logic of the film. For viewers who were born after Scream there are a few plot points and lines of dialogue that are confusing. Scream also has a bit of a mixed message about the link between media and violence. The premise of the movie implicitly suggests that the killers—and all of teenage culture—have been warped by media violence. Late in the film we get additional information that suggests that the cause of violence runs deeper but the film’s thematic message is tenuous. That in itself might be the point.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, interviews, trailers. Bottom Line:Scream was a defining movie of a decade and a generation. But that shouldn’t be allowed to obfuscate that this is also a terrific film. The picture delivers as a slasher story and as a murder mystery and it is highly entertaining while also intelligently dramatizing the link between reality and media.

Episode: #617 (October 23, 2016)