We are now at the half-way point in my marathon of 90’s Horror reviews throughout October, but just before I dive into today’s movie, let’s do a quick re-cap on the state of Horror films leading to this point. Way back in 1978 with the movie “Halloween”, director John Carpenter practically wrote the rule book of the slasher sub-genera, and thus a new wave of horror films took shape in the early 1980’s. The late Director Wes Craven was one of the biggest architects of this new trend of slasher films, especially when he released “A Nightmare on Elm Street” back in 1984. However, as the 80’s died down and the 1990’s took shape, brand new films like “Angel Heart”, “Misery”, and especially “Silence of the Lambs” were making horror less formulaic, more serious, and above all more intelligent. This is when director Wes Craven decided to bring self-awareness to the horror genera, and thus, one of his biggest movies that reshaped and reinvigorated the genera in 1996 came to be known as “Scream”. In this film, Craven dug out the old rule book, dusted it down, added some new notes of self-referential mockery, and threw all his experience into a slightly watered-down slasher movie for a new generation. The result is a cheeky, yet enjoyable film that works as both a sly comedy and a respectable addition to the horror genera.
Our thriller revolves around a young girl named Sidney, who in the process of morning her late mother, has found herself caught right in the middle of a typical slasher movie plot. A masked serial killer has begun carving his way through her friends in a sleepy American town, so through her knowledge of horror films and their clichés, she has to rely on both wit and caution to stay alive. For a movie that blends dark comedy with a typical horror plot, it has some credible filmmaking merits. I love the subtlety of select moments, like the back story revolving around our heroine’s late mother. The movie never drops strait up exposition of her fate, or how it affected Sidney’s life, instead we are given subtle clues like picture frames, and brief news headlines that allow the audience to fill in all the blanks without character exposition, and I always admire a film for accomplishing that. Of course the film isn’t without its share of less subtle moments, namely the death scenes. Looking back, this is actually very tame by gory horror standards, but they make up for it with just how creative and over the top it gets. One scene that always comes to mind is when one of the best friends is killed by a garage door, it’s arguably one of the more unique, disturbing horror deaths I’ve seen.
Of course the most famous scene of all is the films iconic opening in which the teenager played by Drew Barrymore gets a mysterious house call, and is forced to play a deadly game of scary movie trivia. This is arguably the most classic horror movie opening sequence sense “Jaws”. Having a big name actress like Drew Barrymore in the role of the victim was also a smart move, and felt intentionally reminiscent of how “Psycho” killed off its most famous actress early in the film. The natural progression of dread and suspense is pulled off masterfully as this phone call transitions from silly small talk to a matter of life and death. Once again, I love all the details in this scene, like a popcorn bag that’s been on the heater for too long causing the room to smoke. Most effective of all is that her parents arrive home and can hear their daughter slowly being butchered, but are unable to do anything in time. It’s a very tense moment that puts us in the parents shoes, and keeping the actual murder off screen only added to just how stressful and foreboding the situation is. Just like how “Psycho” made people look twice before taking a shower, and “Jaws” got people terrified to go swimming, “Scream” got people scared to answer their own phones without caller ID.
While the film as a whole was innovative and unique for its time, I really don’t think it would have been as popular without the iconic Ghost Face costume worn by the mysterious killer. As a kid in the 90’s, the scream costume was one of the most popular Halloween costumes that I distinctly remember many of my elementary school friends wearing for trick or treat. Even before this movie, the costume was very popular, and the Ghost Face creature was one of my favorite Halloween mascots. It was inspired by a famous painting called “The Scream”. Even as a kid, I pictured a horror movie revolving around the Scream character, but I wanted it to be a supernatural phantasm of sorts. It had potential to be a modern day classic monster along the lines of Dracula or the Headless Horseman. Obviously nothing supernatural happens in the film, and the villain is just a regular killer in a costume, which actually disappointed me upon seeing this for the first time. Do to the films popularity, I’ll probably never get a film revolving around the scream monster as a supernatural entity. Looking back, it really isn’t an issue as it helps build a mystery revolving around the killers identity, and it helps create an atmosphere where you can’t trust anyone. Plus, it’s still cool to see the ghost face costume as the figure head of a successful horror franchise.
Neve Campbell is good in the leading role of Sidney, and fills the role of genuinely nice all-American girl. The remaining characters are nothing special, all of them stereotypes, all of them obnoxiously over the top, but I do at least like how many of the side characters work as red herrings. In a setting like this, everyone’s a suspect, and this film has the complete gallery of potential killers. You got the annoying news reporter who’s desperate for tragic news to cover, the complex father who’s had a questionable past, the shady boy friend, the nerd who knows all the horror movie clichés, and a strict principle who’s annoyed with kids. The most obvious red herring of them all is this one good natured police officer named Dewy. Any fan of mysteries commonly point to the least obvious suspect, which is why Dewy works so well in this gallery of characters. He seems the least likely to be a killer, and that’s why we all suspect him. I also like the small town look and feel of the setting, where everyone knows each other, and the smallest incident could have a massive impact on the community at large. This movie also succeeded in making the school setting dangerous, which is great because the school is supposed to be our safe haven where nothing could possibly happen.
As for the films comedic self referential hummer, personally, I don’t think it’s nearly as clever or as original as the movie thinks it is. I’ve seen clever satire in horror before, and done with real scares too. In fact two years earlier, there was “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”, which is personally one of my all time favorite horror movies. This film was also very self aware but was far more innovative revolving around a film crew making a horror movie, and even illustrates how working on such a film could have mental side effects. That to me was very clever, where as “Scream” deludes itself into thinking its original simply because the characters know all the clichés. The downside to this gimmick is that way too often the film devolves into the exact type of film it’s trying satirize. I’ll say this, if you’re a horror movie buff, you’ll love all the trivia and homage’s to other scary films. This is one of those movies that loves “film legacy” and succeeded in bringing attention to older horror films, now celebrated as classics. There’s a very amusing gag in which someone is watching “Halloween” while it runs parallel to the horror events going on around him. As he’s yelling at the people on screen to look behind them, he’s oblivious to the ghost face killer approaching from behind. There’s also a random school custodian wearing a hat and striped sweater which resembles Freddy Krueger from “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, just to remind us that Wes Craven was involved in both films.
With its satirical over tone, the film never really comes off as scary or disturbing, that is until the very end when things get really nasty. Spoiler warning, but now I’m going to be talking about the finally, and the films twist reveal. The climax takes place at a guys house where a party is going on, and teens are slowly getting killed off by Ghost Face. Soon it becomes an exciting game of cat and mouse as characters are running all over the grounds, splitting up into different groups, and doing their best to avoid the knife wilding killer. It all leads to the shocking reveal of who the Ghost Face killer really is, and while I found this to be very predictable, it was still genuinely unsettling. Turns out that two of the horror obsessed teens have been taking turns in the role of the Ghost Face killer, and their doing this solely for their love and enjoyment of horror films. It’s a little exaggerated, but it’s still a genuinely disturbing concept that exposure to sick horror films turned two teens into psychopathic killers. The scene itself is very distasteful as the two deliberately inflict pain on one another in front of our last survivor just for amusement. I will say that the finally builds to an awesome villain death, where Sidney gets the better of her captures by dropping a TV (with a horror movie playing on the screen) on one of their heads leading to an electrifying death. It’s very satisfying and so appropriate that he died by way of scary movie on TV.
In 1997 there was “Scream 2”, a rare horror sequel that was actually good, and some would argue even better than the original. “Scream 3” and “Scream 4” followed but I never watched those and from what I heard, they were very mediocre. “Scream 5” is set to premier this year of 2016, but I have zero interest in it. The success of “Scream” lead to other similar teen horror films such as “I Know What You Did Last Summer” in 1997. Of course “Scream” also launched the “Scary Movie” franchise, except that series was far more direct with the comedy. The first “Scary Movie” was almost like a soft remake of “Scream”, recreating the exact same plot, characters, and scenes. Unfortunately I watched “Scary Movie” first, which I felt spoiled the experience of “Scream” as both were so similar, in fact on a subconscious level I can’t even separate the two films.
I’d definitely recommend “Scream” as the superior movie, but what does that mean for the film overall? It’s no surprise that “Scream” became one of the most marketable and iconic horror films of the decade, but I’ve personally never been that big a fan. It has its merits to be sure, and even some worthwhile excitement, but the film still comes off as average to me. If you’re a fan of dark comedy laced with self-referential satire, you’ll probably enjoy this movie, but I’d strongly recommend other horror comedies like “Zombieland” or “Shaun of the Dead” first. There are several terrific details in the movie, some decent satire, and it’s still credible for ushering a new era of horror. However, the experience is just “okay”, nothing great really stands out to me. By no means a bad movie, but I’d say it’s still nothing special to scream about.
I give “Scream” 2 ½ stars out of 5.