Director: Wes Craven (USA). Year of Release: 1996
Woodsboro, 1996. Mobile phones are an exciting new thing, people watch films on VHS video and hang Indigo Girls posters on their walls. Actors like Neve Campbell, David Arquette and Skeet Ulrich are still a thing. A local teen, Casey, gets a nuisance call when she’s home alone, and instead of telling the caller to fuck off, she lets him lure her into a discussion about her favourite scary movie. It’s not long before she is disembowelled and hung from a nearby tree.
But Casey is just the appetiser. It becomes increasingly clear that there’s a serial killer on the loose, and their main target is Sidney Prescott. We’re just approaching the first anniversary of the death of Sidney’s mother, who was raped and murdered. A suspect was found and now sits in Death Row, but Gale Weathers, a tv tabloid journalist who’s back in town to cover the case, believes that he was wrongly convicted.
Suspects abound. Sidney’s father is supposed to be out of town at a conference, but he can’t be reached. Her boyfriend Billy is a little frustrated that she won’t put out. Billy’s nerdy friends Stuart and Randy are both just a bit weird and over-obsessed with horror films. They insensitively provide a commentary on what should happen next according to genre rules and who Sidney should suspect.
One rule that they don’t mention is that this sort of horror film only really works when the kids are from pretty well off families. It’s not just that they’ve all got cars. If this took place in a council flat, it would be all in the same room and there’d be no suspicious noises behind closed doors. There’d certainly be no-one going to pick up more beer from the cellar. This makes some of the deaths of these over-privileged brats all the more satisfying.
Watching Scream today is like listening to an old joke when you already know the punchline. You admire the elegance with which it is told, but you no longer feel the same sense of surprize that you felt when you first witnessed it. It is worth remembering just how original Scream was when it was released – before the sequels, but also before the parodies of the parody – the Scary Movies and what have you. We really were astounded that anyone could do something like this.
For many of us the only actors we’d actually heard of were Henry Winkler (who is uncredited, but sends up his Fonzie persona hilariously) and Drew Barrymore. Courteney Cox was known from Friends, but who watched that? Plot spoiler alert if you’ve taken 26 years to never see Scream – Drew Barrymore is dispatched in one of the opening scenes. While constantly telling us the rules that horror films must obey, Scream continuously and knowingly flouts these rules.
Scream is also fully aware of films in the genre – it must be the first film where people don’t just go and see movies, they talk about the films they’ve seen and their expectations from the genre. You wouldn’t expect anything less from director Wes Craven. There are references to films like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, but also to more conventional slasher films like Friday the 13th.
A crucial scene takes place as people shout abuse at the characters from Halloween for acting like, well, people in a film rather than how anyone would behave in real life. As the killer appears on the screen behind the heroine, someone watching the film desperately shouts “Behind you” … as a killer lingers behind him, holding a large knife.
Scream is also aware of sexist tropes – it notes that the main victims in horror are women, particularly “promiscuous” women (that is, those who have had sex at least once). Occasionally, this film reproduces the same clichés. Someone remarks that the victims in slasher films all have large breasts. This advice appears to have been taken on board by whoever did the casting for this film. Your heart sinks for the female actors rejected because of the size of their tits.
Towards the end, (some of) the women do start to fight back, but for most of the film they are portrayed as passive victims. One could argue that here the film is just making a point. Alternatively you could say that this is trying to have its cake and eat it (especially as the name Harvey Weinstein appears prominently in the end credits). Because this is a parody of a flawed genre, it sometimes feels entitled to reproduce these flaws.
This is a legitimate criticism, but it should not be used to dismiss what Scream got right. It is an intelligent and informed reaction to a genre which was ridiculously popular in the 1980s, when videos became available to people who previously could not afford anything like that. It did inspire a horde of inferior copies, but can’t be held responsible for this. Very few films are historically significant – Scream most certainly is.