For those who’ve never seen Scream, I’ll keep this article spoiler-free as possible!
Halloween is just days away which means you still have time to squeeze in a few horror movies before the month is up. There are a plethora of options out there but if you’ve seen sitting on Wes Craven’s Scream or perhaps it’s been a long time since you’ve checked it out, this may be a good time to check it out. There’s a fifth film on the horizon, also titled Scream, and we’re actually at the 25th anniversary of the first film. So grab your Ghostface masks, some popcorn and let’s talk about what made Scream such a hit.
On paper, Scream will sound very familiar to anyone whose seen a slasher horror film before. A masked villain haunts a teenaged girl in a suburban town, killing anyone in their way to reach their goal. That girl is Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott, a normal girl in a normal town. But Scream and Wes Craven, legendary director of Nightmare on Elm Street and The Hills Have Eyes, did something relatively novel back in 1996: it made the teens in the film aware of other horror films. This meta angle to Scream not only allowed for some very clever humour to exist, but it played with audience expectations and subverted them.
Scream plays this card right out of the gate in the opening sequence, which in itself could be a short film. Ghostface, the serial killer of the film, calls up a random girl, Casey Becker, and asks her what her favourite scary movie is (fun fact, “Scary Movie” was the original title for this movie). He then begins to quiz her, asking who the killers were in films like Halloween or Friday the 13th. For getting one of the answers wrong, Ghostface kills Casey before turning his attention to Sidney and her friends for the rest of the film. It sets up the stakes of the film, which is gruesome murder in the name of entertainment (both for the killer and for us) while also letting us know that those films exist in this universe. Not only that, but by name-checking these movies, the film is both paying homages to the genre as a whole while also saying, let’s do something new with the tropes that have become very predictable and cliché as a result.
Unlike most killers in slasher films though, like Freddy, Jason or Michael, Ghostface has no supernatural abilities. He’s just a person in a cheap Halloween costume that’s readily available, rampaging through town on a mission of terror, which could technically happen at any moment in real life. This turns Scream more into a crime thriller with a big “whodunit” angle. Just who is the man under the mask and why is he doing this? Well, that’s part of the fun and the horror, right? And the movie is very much in on the mystery, offering us plenty of red herrings, clues and suspects for us to consider. We’re left trying to solve the mystery ourselves, something that very much goes against the standards for the slasher genre, which is usually just having the terrifying being hunt down a group until there’s one left standing. That’s not the case with Scream and it’s so refreshing.
Another great part of Scream is Neve Campbell as Sidney. In a genre with plenty of dumb characters, Sidney brings it back to the era of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie from Halloween by having an engaging and realistic lead. Not only that, but she’s intelligent, savvy and very human. We sympathize with her, as a result of her backstory but she’s also in on the joke of the genre. Sidney is also aware of these genre tropes, citing that horror movies are often dumb as a result of cliches and poor decisions on the part of the bad actress. It’s just great to see a protagonist in a horror genre not be portrayed as weak or compromised by the events. She’s certainly on edge, but she’s not going to be pushed around either and live in fear, despite the real fear and threat to her life.
As previously mentioned, the teens in this movie have seen all the horror movies of the past and are aware of the genre tropes. Jamie Kennedy, a scene-stealer as Randy, often laments on things such as if a horror movie is too complicated, it would lose its target audience, or will explain what the “rules” of a horror movie are, such as never have sex or never say “I’ll be right back”. And while I’m not getting into spoilers, I have to shout out to one particular scene. Because it’s not just genre tropes that Scream is in on. In a particularly hysterical scene, Randy is watching the original Halloween, drunk and telling Jamie Lee Curtis to look behind her in order to spot Michael Myers. At the same time, Ghostface is entering the room behind Randy, John Carpenter’s score right on cue. With the timing of the scene, Randy is telling Jamie Lee Curtis to turn around right as Ghostface is lurking behind him. If you don’t know that Randy is played by Jamie Kennedy, the joke doesn’t have the same impact, but if you’re in on the joke, it’s one of the funniest moments in the film. Likewise, Matthew Lillard is also a scene-stealer as the wild and slightly off-kilter friend of the gang, Stu. He’s a big fan of the horror genre as well but in a different way than Randy’s more encyclopedic fanboy way. Rounding out the cast are David Arquette as Dewey, the deputy sheriff of Woodsboro, Courtney Cox as Gale Weathers, a local reporter and Rose McGowan as Tatum, Dewey’s sister and friend of Sidney.
In the end, Scream is one of those movies that reinvented and reinvigorated a whole genre. The film is as much a teen slasher flick as it is a mystery, making for a compelling and engaging watch. The film boasts one of the best leads in a horror film and is also one of the funniest films to watch, especially if you’re a fan of the genre or if you can’t stand the genre for its many tropes.