Each Friday, I will be exploring (and dissecting) one of my favorite films of all time. I’ll be delving into spoilers for each film, as I elaborate on why they remain so vital. As my first entry, I decided to go with my personal #1 movie ever, the 1996 horror masterpiece: Scream.
I will never forget the first time I watched Scream. I was 6 at the time, and I selected the VHS case at Blockbuster. I loved the sleek and stylish look of the art, and I remembering reading the back cover with bulging eyes. My mom obliged, completely out of the loop as to the actual context of the film. Later that night, we broke out the popcorn. My 4-year-old sister, my mom, and I got cozy on the couch and popped the movie into our VHS player. Less than 15 minutes later, the sheer effect of the powerful opening scene was obvious. As we got to the slow-motion scene, where Casey gets stabbed for the first time, a lot of things happened at once. My mom, under the assumption we were watching a family-friendly teen comedy, had one rude awakening. My little sister was in tears, screaming while my mom covered her eyes. I sat on the couch eating my popcorn with a huge grin on my face.
Scream practically speaks for itself. It profoundly changed the horror genre, brought the slasher booming back into the spotlight, and set the stage for opening-movie deaths. Before Scream, that sort of thing was almost unheard of, although Kevin Williamson absolutely took a page from the opening scene of Friday the 13th Part 2. All sorts of character relationships are alluded to throughout, creating an immediate atmosphere that throws into question everything you are being shown, and what you may or may not know about each of these characters. It also gifts us the greatest horror final girl: Sidney Prescott.
Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven are a horror dream team in crafting the excellent 1996 film, Scream. The plot is simple enough: a killer in a creepy costume is murdering high school students in grotesque fashion. It is the specifics of it all that makes Scream a unique and terrifying satire on the horror genre. The lead character, Sidney Prescott, our heroine, is played by the stunning Neve Campbell, while an all-star cast makes up the bulk of the other faces. Drew Barrymore plays Casey Becker, Skeet Ulrich is Billy Loomis, Rose McGowan is Tatum Riley, Matthew Lillard is Stu Macher, Courteney Cox is Gale Weathers, Jamie Kennedy is Randy Meeks, and David Arquette is Deputy Dewey. Craven keeps the viewer guessing till the end and crafts a flawless whodunnit where “everybody’s a suspect.” Scream remains the best horror mystery of all time.
Every character in Scream is given a full arc, a specific set of rules, and dialogue that defies the concept of the genre. These kids know about horror films, they know what they shouldn’t be doing, and yet, they’re doing it anyway. They love having sex, drinking at parties, and going places alone to grab a beer. The teens in Scream know exactly how to survive a horror movie, but they’re too dumb to see what’s staring them right in the face. Sidney, in one of her first conversations over the phone with the killer, speaks about how much she despises horror movies (“it’s always some big-breasted bimbo running up the stairs when she should be leaving out the front door”). Only a scene later, and she’s repeating the horror movie norm, heading up the stairs, when she should have just tried the back door.
It’s a clever satire on horror itself, and even the two killers are complete idiots. The gay implications of Stu and Billy as the killers have certainly not been lost on me. Both Ulrich and Lillard are excellent, with Lillard in particular going full-scale bonkers. Is the killer reveal surprising at all? Well, now that I’ve seen the movie maybe hundreds of times, I would say Williamson’s screenplay makes it obvious what’s coming once you’re in on the secret. Rather than being a drawback, knowing the twists makes it all more cohesive and interesting. A passing mention is made in the scene at the fountain, where Stu says he once dated Casey for “like a minute,” and Randy points the finger at Stu in not-so-subtle ways about murdering Casey. After Tatum gets dispatched in the garage, Billy gives Stu a look indicating he’d finished the job. Subtle hints like this one are dropped many times during the screenplay, and they serve only to enrich the material.
One of the most powerful scenes of the entire movie is the opening, which has been mocked and spoofed in every sort of media, but is now undoubtedly a classic of the horror genre. From the second the film begins, the title, “SCREAM” flashes across the screen accompanied by a deafening girl screaming, and you know you are in for something special. Drew Barrymore, a charming actress whose face had been plastered on every poster for the film in its months before release, meets her demise in the first fifteen minutes, in a brutal and completely shocking manner. As things quickly escalate into what ultimately becomes Casey’s final minutes of being alive, we, as an audience, are desperately trying to figure out why this is happening to her? Who is doing this to her? Before he even comes onscreen, the killer is spewing lines like “I wanna see what your insides look like” and “You hang up on me again, I’ll gut you like a fish. Understand?” This makes it that much more terrifying when the killer actually does show up. This isn’t someone playing phone games, it is someone who has a bold presence, and is simply toying with Casey before he goes in for the kill. And later, although Casey doesn’t say anything before being stabbed, as she unmasks her killer and the camera pans up, there is definitely a look of recognition etched across her face. This moment is only intensified by the killer’s grunt noise afterward, as he swings down the blade into Casey. The seeds are laid out that will keep us guessing until the very end. Much of that can be attributed to the intense simplicity of the phone call, well before we actually see Ghostface as a physical presence. The opening death wonderfully sets the stage for the events to come. It’s realistic, eerie, and genuinely terrifying. Horror like that, true horror, is obscenely hard to accomplish and even harder to replicate, which makes the success, creativity, and quality of the sequels even more surprising. You really want to know who is behind that mask, and we get plenty of teases just in that opening thirteen minutes.
Last August, The Elmira Drive-In hosted what can only be described as a perfect double-feature. The billing? The original Scream, and the first Scary Movie. I went with my younger brother, sister, best friend, and my mother. We even brought along our dog, Mowgli. As the music cue dropped, and the title came yelling into focus, I was brought back to a simpler time. The time was 1997, when my biggest worry was what movie to pick out at the nearest Blockbuster. I had the same goofy smile on my face that night as I did all those years ago. 1996’s Scream is already considered a horror classic, and time will certainly be kind to this already-beloved 90’s meta-flick.