Scream (1996)

Director: Wes Craven

Starring: David Arquette, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, Drew Barrymore

Horror movies don’t turn people into killers. They inspire talented screenwriters to become more creative. The slasher films of the 1980’s had captured the attention of millions, to the bewilderment of parents and critics alike. But, but the mid/late 1990’s, the effect had become watered down, the clichés all-too familiar, and audiences were dwindling as a result. However, the “fad” was not coming to an end, merely taking a siesta. Meanwhile, the titles which which made this craze what it was were readily available to rent or own on home video, to be viewed whenever its fans damn well pleased! The key to bringing them back from their couches to the theaters was a screenplay (originally titled “Scary Movie”) by Kevin Williamson, in which its characters have every bit as much knowledge of horror movies as the audience. Part of the success of “Scream” was in its casting of established young actors, instead of unknowns. This much is evident by the time of the first ringing telephone that opens the film.

On a seemingly quiet evening in the town of Woodsboro, high school student Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) is about to sit down to watch a movie when she receives an anonymous phone call. Playfully, the voice asks her what her favorite scary movie is. Because she’s not looking to spend the night on the telephone, Casey hangs up before the conversation is allowed to get much deeper. The phone rings again. It’s the same guy. She hangs up again. But he won’t stop, and the voice’s tone turns threatening. He has her attention now. Eventually, it’s revealed that he has her boyfriend tied up in a chair on the front porch. In order for the boyfriend to survive, Casey must first answer some horror trivia. She gets the “warm-up” question right, but fails the “real” question. Casey watches in horror as her boyfriend is disemboweled. Time for the next question, but Casey refuses. The caller, dressed in a black hooded costume with a “Ghostface” mask, responds by chasing her down and murdering her. Casey’s parents arrive home to find the place trashed and their daughter’s mutilated body hanging from a tree.

After this harrowing, bloody beginning, the scene shifts to the next day. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who until today sat next to Casey Becker in English class, has suffered personal tragedy of her own. Almost exactly one year earlier, her mother was raped and murdered. Sidney’s lingering grief has caused her relationship with Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) to suffer as a result. Billy, who bears a slight resemblance to Johnny Depp, has recently taken to climbing through his girlfriend’s bedroom window, the same as Depp’s character did in director Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” One of these spur-of-the-moment climbs happens to coincide with a phone call/attack from the Ghostface killer. When Sidney spots a cell phone dropping from Billy’s pocket, it leaves her with the suspicion that it’s Billy she should suspect and fear. Billy is then taken into police custody, and Sidney retreats to the house of her best friend, Tatum (Rose McGowan). However, a phone call from the same sinister-sounding voice lets Sidney know that, whoever the killer is, “he” is still out there.

At school, several tactless students dress up in the widely sold Ghostface costumes and run amok around the halls. Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler) is not well pleased, expelling the offenders and cancelling all classes until further notice, after which he is dispatched in his office by the real killer. To celebrate the school’s closure, Tatum’s boyfriend Stu (Matthew Lillard) hosts a party at his house. In addition to several other students, attending this party are Sidney, Tatum, and horror film connoisseur Randy (Jamie Kennedy). Outside, Tatum’s brother Dewey (David Arquette), a deputy sheriff, is standing watch for anything suspicious. He’s also watching for signs of Sidney’s father, who has gone missing and is now topping the list of suspects. Also staking out the party is reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), whom Dewey has a crush on and with whom Sidney has an antagonistic relationship due to the book she wrote about Sidney’s mother’s murder case.

After Stu sends Tatum out to the garage for beers, she is killed while trying to escape through the garage door flap (which, as it turns out, was easier for actress Rose McGowan to fit through than she makes it appear in the film). Curiously, just after this latest murder, Billy shows up. He and Sidney go upstairs to talk in private… and wind up doing more than talking. The phone rings, answered by Randy, who reports the news of the principal’s murder. Most of the party guests leave the house, nearly running over both Dewey and Gale, who discover Sidney’s father’s car abandoned by the side of the road near the house. Inside, Sidney and Billy are attacked, with Billy seemingly left for dead. Sidney flees the house, Gale’s cameraman is killed, Dewey is stabbed in the back, and Gale herself crashes the van after almost running over Sidney, who has no other alternative but to return to the house. Grabbing Dewey’s gun, Sidney shuts the front door in the faces of both Stu and Randy, who are each accusing the other of being the killer.

Billy suddenly emerges alive, takes the gun and opens the door to let Randy in. To the shock of both Sidney and Randy, Billy turns the gun on Randy, revealing his own injuries to be fake. Billy is the killer. Stu also shows up, announcing himself as an accomplice. The duo take credit for the death of Sidney’s mother, with Billy revealing that his parents’ separation was due to Sidney’s mother having an affair with Billy’s father. Billy and Stu plan to kill Sidney, frame Sidney’s father (whom they have captured), and then act as the survivors of the whole bloody massacre. With an assist from Gale, however, Sidney is able to foil their plans and kill both men. Although lives have been lost, Sidney, Gale, Dewey and Randy will all recover from their injuries and live to scream another day.

“Scream,” which writer Kevin Williamson based in part on the very real story of the Gainesville Ripper, but which was also born of Williamson’s long-standing love of horror movies, gets away with its graphic depictions of murder by balancing them with witty, self-aware dialogue. The deconstruction of the slasher film, perpetrated by “Scream,” was so popular that it led to a new direction for the subgenre and plenty of work for Williamson, with several other similarly-themed films like “I Know What You Did Last Summer” (starring Neve Campbell’s “Party of Five” co-star, Jennifer Love Hewitt), as well as three Wes Craven-directed “Scream” sequels. Like all imitators, none ever quite matched “Scream” in terms of writing, acting, directing, music (especially “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave), and mood.

It’s been long enough that I actually can’t remember whether I originally saw “Scream” before or after “Halloween” (which “Scream” references often). Whatever the sequence may be, I hold “Scream” largely responsible for kickstarting my interest in slasher films, and in the horror genre in general. You may want to see a few of the films it references first just to appreciate this one a bit more, but it won’t hurt at all to make “Scream” a priority.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    So several big stars die right off the bat! I am totally unfamiliar with the “Scream” films, but I’m impressed that some of the stars, who were very young then, are familiar to me. Surprising how many young actors make their chops on horror films!!

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