By the mid nineties the horror genre was practically dead on it’s feet. Not shuffling around zombie dead you understand, but bleeding out, stabbed multiple times with a sharp implement dead. Studio’s had all but given up on the genre claiming that it was stale and no longer profitable despite the massive explosion the horror movie had enjoyed during the 80’s and the majority of noticable fright flicks being released where to be found languishing in the untenable hell of the direct to video market… all seemed lot until our attention was grabbed by something as terrifyingly banal as a ringing phone and upon answering we were treated to five words that changed and supercharged the genre virtually overnight: “What’s your favorite scary movie?”.
Written by newcomer Kevin Williamson (as a love letter to John Carpenter’s Halloween) and directed by established horror legend Wes Craven, Scream went full meta, drew huge crowds in droves, revitalized a flagging genre and gave us a second golden age of slasher flicks while birthing three sequels, a tv show and more copycats that I can be bothered to list.
A serial killer is stalking the streets of Woodsboro in California by phoning up his victims and putting them under siege while he quizzes them on their knowledge of scary movies like a knife wielding episode of Jeopardy but with ACTUAL jeopardy involved. After a popular girl and her boyfriend are found murdered (actually scratch that – try SHREDDED) the whole town is put on alert but it seems that the next possible target is Sidney Prescott, a good girl who’s mother was murdered a year prior. The possible suspects start to rise along with a very bloody bodycount as the killer continues to brazenly taunt Sidney with calls and scares and things eventually come to a violent head when Sydney’s friends decide to throw a party to blow off some steam from the stress of being picked off by a serial slasher (kid logic, ammirite?).
So who is responsible for this movie inspired killing spree? Billy – Sydney’s broody, frustrated boyfriend? Stu – Billy’s over exuberant best friend? Randy – the movie literate geek? Dewey – the seemingly sweet deputy? All of the above and others jostle each other for the title of number one suspect as the blood starts to flow and the zingers fly thick and fast.
Scream instantly slaps it’s winning hand on the table as confident as a Las Vegas card shark with an opening scene that ranks as one of the greatest stalk and slash sequences ever committed to celluloid. Cheekily annihilating it’s biggest cast member in a scene so magnificently tense it causes you anus to clench so tightly it could crack a walnut (don’t try THAT at home) it throws an unsuspecting audience into thinking that any one of the fresh young leads could wander into the business end of a hunting knife at any moment.
Fusing the oh-so-hip screenplay of Williamson, which lovingly dissects the rules of the slasher movie through the suprisingly novel outlet of a bunch of victims who are incredibly horror savvy, Scream turns an entire genre on it’s head, forcing itself to come up with far more fiendish and ingenious ways to have a masked lunatic burst out of a dark corner brandishing a blade. Enter Wes Craven, a man who has revolutionised the horror movie once or twice before (no biggie) and who brings his no frills, meat and potatoes skills to making the scares as rock solid as he can. It also hugely helps that both men REALLY know and understand their audience (Craven in particular excelled with his teen characters in Nightmare On Elm Street) which is evident by including viewers in on the joke that these kids KNOW they’re in a scenario they’ve watched a million times before.
However, a slasher movie lives and dies (literally) on it’s villain and the shrouded “Ghostface” is, to put it bluntly, fucking magnificent. Clad in a costume that’s a black hooded shroud that sports a bone white face that evokes Edvard Munch’s notorious painting The Scream, the killer zips around with a penchant for gutting his victims with a hunting knife after tricking them to fail a rigged test and ends up being one of the most fiercely iconic screen killers in years. On first sight you are not so much “who was that?” as ” what the fuck WAS that?!” and even his voice – wonderfully enhanced by a voice changer – is perfect as he taunts his sobbing victims over the phone lines; but the real kicker is… he (or she) could literally be anyone which adds the further spin of a Scooby-Doo style whodunit to the already electric melting pot the film provides.
The cast, a gaggle of hot young things – and Courteney Cox – are wonderful and contain the debuts of Neve Campbell (perfect as the tough Craven leading lady archetype) Matthew Lillard, David Arquette, Rose McGowan and the MIA Skeet Ulrich and all pump their roles to the bursting with life – until the film repratedly stabs it out of them…
But the script is the true star here, the filmmakers teasing every thrill and twist to concoct stunningly original scenarios. Watch Ghostface stalk a drunken Randy as he watches Michael Myers stalk Jamie Lee Curtis while watching Halloween and his panicked warnings to a character on screen mirror our own. THEN, due to a hidden camera mounted on the TV we watch people watching Randy ALSO yelling at him to turn around – all the while THEY should be turning around. The movie takes hyperactive glee in twisting the rules and conventions into knots to wring every bit of frightful fun it can to give the genre a supercharged kick in the pants and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s satisfyingly bloody too.
There is an argument to be made that the rise of Scream’s particular brand of meta-commentary obnoxiously hampered horror’s growth for about a decade but considering horror movies had essentially stalled completely as a genre in the eyes of Hollywood, it’s not a complaint that holds to much water. Similarly accusations of the film feeling too much like a comedy are simply flawed thanks to people unable to separate it from it’s own jarring spoof, Scary Movie. Gallows humour has always been a part of horror movies, take the pie fight in Dawn Of The Dead, the sarcastic wit of An American Werewolf In London, or practically ever single second of Evil Dead 2. Laughs and scares often go hand in hand to create a hugely fun theatrical experience and Scream has is in spades.
While a certain amount of the movie has inevitably dated (as every film that features a brick sized phone should) Scream now amusingly is reguarded a snapshot of it’s time much in the way that Halloween is for the 70’s and Friday The 13th is for the 80’s (Republica on the soundtrack? Remember them?) and while that means that it’s now taken it’s rightful place on the pedestal of awesome horror movies of yesteryear, Scream’s sparkling wit and innovation still feels as nimble as ever.
Ghostface famously asks his victims “What’s YOUR favourite scary movie?”, for a whole generation in the 90’s, it was Scream.