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Movie Review: Scream (1996)

Updated on February 13, 2013

Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy, Rose McGowen, Courtney Cox, David Arquette,
Matthew Lillard, Drew Barrymore, Liev Schreiber, W. Earl Brown, Joseph Whipp, Lawrence Hecht

When director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson set out to make Scream, it almost seemed like they were setting themselves up for failure. Here is a movie that not only wants to parody the conventions of your typical hack-n-slash, but also work as a seriously scary genre entry as well. Done wrong, the movie could have came across as smug and tonally muddled (as some of the later sequels are). Luckily, Craven finds the right note for the movie, and the end result is a successful and entertaining blend of sharp humor and blood drenched horror.

The movie gets off to a terrifying start. In the film's ten minute prologue, we are introduced to young high school girl Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore), who is fixing to watch a video at her house (which is, of course, out in the middle of nowhere). Suddenly, the phone rings. At first, she flirts with the mysterious caller as they both discuss their favorite horror movies. Suddenly, the conversation starts to turn sinister. Casey discovers the caller is lurking somewhere outside her house, and if she is to survive the night, she has to play a movie trivia game and guess the right answers. It's a superbly executed and horrifying sequence, and its climax is both haunting and heartbreaking.

The next morning, both the media and the authorities have swarmed upon Woodsboro High School, and an investigation commences. The whole school is in an uproar over the news of Casey's gruesome murder, especially troubled teen Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell), whose mother was brutally raped and murdered nearly a year ago to the day. As she and her friends -- including best friend Tatum Riley (Rose McGowen), boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), slacker Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard), and horror movie buff Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) -- speculate the identity of the killer, Sydney herself is attacked by the killer, who wears a Ghost Face mask to conceal his identity, in her home while her father is away on business.

Cutthroat journalist Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox, very good here) believes there to be a connection between the recent string of attacks and the murder of Sydney's mother, and tries to interview Sydney for a story. Tensions arise between the two women, as we learn Gale published a book about the murder of Sydney's mother that accused Sydney of falsely accusing Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber) of the crime, and allegedly slandered her mother's character. Sydney refuses the interview, but Gale is bound and determined to get the scoop, and stays on Sydney like white on rice, even at a horror movie party at Stu's house, where the climax takes place.

Image from "Scream"
Image from "Scream"

One of the most endearing (or grating, depending on your point of view) aspects about Scream is the fact that it has a good sense of humor about itself. One character insults horror movies for being about "Big breasted girls who always run up the stairs when they should bolt for the front door." Of course, when the killer finally comes after her, guess which direction she runs to for safety. Randy gets up in front of a group of kids to lay down the horror movie rules one has to abide by if they want to survive. They include 1) no sex; 2) no drugs or alcohol; and 3) never uttering the words "I'll be right back." Of course, some of the survivors end up breaking one, if not all, of the rules over the course of the film. Randy also criticizes the police and their investigating techniques. "If they watch Prom Night, they'd save time," he says at one point. "It's all a very simple formula!"

Craven sprinkles a number of amusing cameos throughout as well. Linda Blair shows up briefly as an obnoxious news reporter, who shoves a microphone in Sydney's face and asks her "How does it feel to be almost brutally butchered? The people have a right to know!" Henry Winkler, aka The Fonz, has a small role as the school principle, who ends up getting murdered by the killer in his office (hope that didn't spoil anything for you). Even Wes Craven shows up as the school janitor Fred, who is amusingly dressed up in Freddy Kruger's sweater and dusty fedora.

It's all in good fun, and Scream scores a couple of very big laughs. Yet while the movie never ceases to poke fun at itself, it also takes both its story and its character's fates with a degree of seriousness. The violence in the film is raw and sometimes numbingly bloody (it is said that the original cut of the film was so graphic that it was threatened with the NC-17 rating), and the attacks made by the killer are very dark and very intense. It's a tricky thing, balancing two wildly different tones in a single film, but Craven is no stranger to self-referential horror shows (see his superior 1994 film Wes Craven's New Nightmare), and here, he pulls it off with gusto.

He also gives us characters we can actually root for. These are not horror movie archetypes, but rather fully developed characters that we grow to care about. Neve Campbell is especially strong as the leading lady, creating a character who is fierce, spunky, yet completely vulnerable. Out of all the kids (and they're all good), Kennedy and Lillard stand out, with the former bringing oodles of charm and the latter creating a character who's initially likeable, if a little obnoxious. David Arquette turns in a winning performance as Tatum's older brother Dewey, a police deputy who develops a crush for Gale Weathers. Cox and Arquette share a lot of chemistry in the film, and the fact that these two would later get married in real life makes their scenes all the more endearing.

Scream is not a perfect film. The ending is needlessly protracted, and while the performer(s) who play killer(s) are convincingly psychotic, he/she/they suffer from that ever so annoying Talking Killer syndrome, where the future victim has to hear in detail the reason behind all the slaughter (as though it really matters). And the more you think on the killer(s) plan and how it involves Sydney, the more you notice how fulls of holes it is. It truly is a shockingly inept plan. Surely anyone who could have successfully gotten away with murder would have thought it through more. Casting those faults aside, Scream is one of the more entertaining entries in the Mad Killer genre. It's slick, funny, and scary, and certainly worth a look if you haven't seen it already.

*** (out of ****)

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