image credit: Paramount Pictures

Movie Review: Scream (1996) *****

Scream is a slasher flick about a killer who taunts his victims over the phone (mostly about scary movies) before killing them. The final girl, Sidney, is still mourning the death of her mother the prior year; her life was disrupted by accusations, rumors, and reporters months before more killings began to strike. It’s a mix of genuine horror and intelligent satire of horror.

I only recently began watching slashers, since I have a friend who is a horror scholar and she loves slashers. I had to get this meta framing on what slashers *do* in order to appreciate the movies. I’ve only ever been into supernatural horror, really – The Shining, 13 Ghosts, The Others – and I didn’t understand the appeal in watching normal people try to kill each other. My impression was one of meaningless gore and screaming.

I’d argue that slasher horror is an experiential genre: the gore/screaming isn’t exactly *meaningless*, but most of what you get out of it is the excitement of a chase, and the social experience of watching it with friends. The meaning is punching your bro in the arm saying “omg omg omg” because it’s getting tense, throwing pillows at the screen when the heroine is stupid, and then being too scared to sleep with the lights on later.

But there is actually a lot more going on with slasher movies, and Scream isn’t keeping any secrets about it. Scream is like a magician doing a trick while also explaining exactly how it’s done. Scream is so good at doing the trick, you can know what it’s doing and you still get the full exciting experience.

The fact there’s a bigger cultural discussion about slasher movies “rules” and final girls in horror is thanks to Scream. Aside from the Ghostface Killer’s fascination with bringing up classic slasher cinema, like Halloween and Friday the 13th, we’ve also got a bunch of teenagers talking about horror movie tropes at a party near the end. This alone makes Scream an utterly seismic moment in pop culture: it didn’t *just* bring slashers back, and it isn’t *just* a good movie, but it consciously educated people on how movies should be done, creating whole generations of intelligent moviegoers like my lovely horror scholar friend.

Wes Craven directed Scream, and he’s responsible for a lot horror classics: Nightmare on Elm Street, The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, etc. It’s hard to imagine another director taking Kevin Williamson’s screenplay and turning it into such a success. IMDB trivia tells me slashers were considered dead at this point, so Scream was a risky proposition in the first place, and other directors considered for the project wanted to take it more like comedy. Wes Craven said “no way” and jumped feet-first into making it exactly as scary and splattery and sincere as any other flick.

The comedy aspects arise on their own from extremely smart writing. When the movie teens watch Halloween at a party, they’re yelling “look behind you!” at Jamie Lee Curtis as the Ghostface Killer approaches from behind them. And then we have another layer because there is a reporter spying on them from outside, with her camera guy watching on a time delayed monitor, and the camera guy is yelling “look behind you!” because he sees the Ghostface Killer approaching the teens watching Halloween.

It’s these kinds of moments that function as both meta commentary and as compelling sources of fear. You know exactly what it’s doing, yet you’re still excited as hell, the way that a toddler gets really excited about Daddy saying “ooh I’m gonna get you” and swiping with clawed hands. The rules of the game have been laid out on the table. Now it’s just time for us to play.

Somehow the smart writing and sincere directing isn’t the only charm. The casting of Scream is a minor miracle of excellence. Apparently Matthew Lillard was cast sort of accidentally (he was accompanying a girlfriend on an audition when spotted) and his performance of a character with minimal backstory is an absolute riot. Skeet Ulrich is so cute and steamy, I’m betting most girls kinda didn’t care if he was a baddy. Watching Courtney Cox and David Arquette flirt with each other, knowing they were actually in love at the time, electrifies their entire subplot. I could give paragraphs to everyone: Neve Campbell, Drew Barrymore, Rose McGowan, even friggin Fonzie. There’s just so much charisma around every corner, the actors could have made a much worse script successful. Having a good script with this much charm in performance is almost TOO MUCH.

Although I remain more interested in the supernatural, being who I am, this launched itself straight onto my favorite horror movies list as soon as I watched it. It’s sheer competency porn with a love of genre that shines out of every frame. It’s amazing when a culture-shifting blockbuster is as smart as it is deliciously fun. Dare I say that Scream was the 90s horror version of Barbie? I dare.

(image credit: Paramount Pictures)

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