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It's A Scream Baby: Scream Review
When Wes Craven’s Scream hit movie theaters during the Christmas season of 1996, it was the adrenaline shot to the heart the horror genre so desperately needed. Once highly profitable and even revered, the horror genre descended into an afterthought the same way the western had following a disastrous, sequel filled 1980’s. Thus entered Craven, a horror pioneer who, with the help of young screenwriter Kevin Williamson, set out to change the game. They did just that; Scream is a film that is scary, funny and above all else intelligent. Horror films don’t get much better than this.
The film opens up with one of the landmark beginnings of any horror franchise; while making popcorn at her home, teenager Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) receives a phone call that will eventually lead to her boyfriend having his throat slashed and her being gutted and hung from a tree by someone in a Ghostface costume. The murders send shock waves through the town (Woodsboro, California), and before you know it chaos is running rampant and a blood thirsty media has descended upon the town, led by the ruthless Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox). Affected most by these events is Casey's classmate Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who is still recovering from the murder of her mother just a year ago, something that has strained her relationship with her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich). Tensions continue to rise after Sidney is attacked by the killer, and soon it becomes clear that local geek Randy’s (Jamie Kennedy) suggestion that “everybody’s a suspect!” is quite true.
Despite having directed such horror classics such as Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Swamp Thing and (most notably) Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven’s name had declined by the mid 90’s following a string of duds, most notably the disastrous Eddie Murphy vehicle Vampire in Brooklyn. Scream represented a chance of redemption for him, and the film shows that other than longtime friend John Carpenter, nobody has understood the modern horror genre quite like Craven. Some of the red herring tricks he plays in the film are some of the most subtle and brilliant pieces of filmmaking in horror history. In one scene where Sidney escapes from the killer in a school bathroom, Craven chooses to have the camera focus on the killer's shoes right before the attack. It seems like a random shot, until a later scene of the Woodsboro Sheriff (Joseph Whipp) stomping out a cigarette shows him wearing the same type of shoe as the killer. While it leads to nothing, it’s a great red herring provided for those really paying attention. Furthermore, the film simply looks marvelous; during the day Woodsboro looks like a dreamy sort of small town, the kind most people would like to live in. Yet there are shadows lurking all around, and Craven knows how to make sure the audience sees all the darkness beneath Woodsboro’s seemingly clean surface, something that would be explored even after the Scream franchise left Woodsboro in later films.
As good as Craven is though, he’s given a big assist by the writer Williamson. His script is 100% dynamite, perfectly paced to provide character development (the death count is quite small in the film, allowing us to mostly focus on the characters and their relationships) and filled with some of the funniest dialog ever featured in a horror film. Film buffs who love pop culture references are in for a treat; films like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Prom Night, Friday the 13th, Psycho, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, All the Right Moves and many more are either directly name dropped or subtly referenced throughout the film. What ultimately makes the humor and the references work however is how smart Williamson’s script is. A long time fan of the genre, Williamson not only acknowledge past mistakes horror films had made, but to directly point them out and either mock them or blow them to smithereens. It’s a bold move that allowed Williamson and Craven to mold intelligent characters instead of stereotypes. As solid a career as Williamson has had, Scream remains the best thing he’s ever written.
The cast for Scream is tremendous, mixing in established names, TV stars and unknowns to create a nice balance. As the three leads, Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette (as the bumbling police officer Dewey Riley) are all serviceable, though their performances and characters would become more fleshed out in the sequels. Drew Barrymore and Henry Winkler (uncredited as the Woodsboro principle) are memorable in small roles, and Barrymore’s death in the film’s opening remains one of the most shocking moments in horror history. The show stealer though is Matthew Lilliard as Sidney’s friend Stu. A long time character actor most famous for eventually playing Shaggy in the live action Scooby Doo films, Lilliard’s performance here remains one of his best, right up there with his lead role in the cult hit SLC Punk and as a drunk reporter in FX’s underrated series The Bridge. No one draws more laughs than Lilliard does, and he even pulls off some great ad libs during the film’s climax. Almost equaling him is Jamie Kennedy, whose makes Randy one of the coolest geeks in the history of cinema (his highlighting of the rules to survive a horror movie in the film’s second half is one of the biggest highlights) and Rose McGowan’s Tatum (Stu’s girlfriend and Dewey's sister), who almost equals Lilliard with the quotable lines. Arguably the only weak spot of the cast is Skeet Ulrich, who’s Billy Loomis (while appropriately creepy and sleazy) just isn’t as interesting as the rest of the characters.
One can rave about the positives of Scream all day; I’m just now getting to the music, which perfectly balances a good soundtrack (highlighted by Nick Cave’s awesome “Red Right Hand”) and Marco Beltrami’s all timer score to create effective chills and a teenage atmosphere. As far as horror films go, Scream can do no wrong. It’s the sort of intelligent, funny film that the horror genre was missing, while it also delivered the scares and gore (enough that the film nearly ran into censorship issues) that horror fans love. Many other films have tried to duplicate Scream’s formula over the years; some have succeeded in some way (such as the Scream sequels, Williamson’s alien invasion film The Faculty and Joss Whedon’s wonderful Cabin in the Woods), while others have just crashed and burned (Scary Movie). In the end though, nothing tops the original. It may not be the greatest horror film ever, but Scream is the king of modern day horror, and the first horror film to show the audience it’s okay to for scary movies to have their tongue (and knife) in cheek.