Scream (1996)

“What’s your favorite scary movie?”

To this day Scream remains scary and hilarious, surprising and expected, and the brilliance of this 90’s cultural touchstone is how refreshingly self-aware it was at the time of its release. That a movie this badly dated still resonates and says something is significant. Maybe it’s because the genre – specifically the teen slasher – had become formulaic to the point of parody, featuring mostly masked killers haunting their prey without reason or purpose. And what stuck out to me most upon rewatching Scream was how the film evokes a visceral sense of terror and mystery when, at the end of the day, we can pretty much surmise how it’s going to end. The story is so very simple and the filmmaking borderline masterful. It’s so watchable and memorable.

Ostensibly, Scream is a piece of transgressive art, a form popular in the 90’s and one that’s shown here with equal parts overtness and subtlety. Brilliantly, the picture establishes this ethos in the unforgettable opening sequence, leaning into tropes while gently twisting them every step of the way. It’s fun to watch Casey (Drew Barrymore, the film’s biggest name who wanted one of the smallest parts), play along with a supposed crank caller, make popcorn on the stove, turn on the TV while home alone. In most films she’d be the final girl, but Scream literally kills that idea within the first 5 minutes, setting up a movie that’s never afraid to disguise how inspired it is by other movies. It’s a reinvention and complete distillation at the same time. I believe it to be one of horror’s finest moments of the modern era. The cutting style is staggering and stabbing.

Casey’s demise comes on the cusp of the one year anniversary involving Sidney’s (Neve Campbell) mother’s gruesome murder. She’s scarred by history and scared by the similar recent killing of her classmate. Sidney is a strong high schooler though, sometimes indulging her ultra horny boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) but initially refusing to let him go all the way, playing it safe at times and bending to social pressure at others. She is the film’s leading lady – the real final girl and a scream queen with agency – and the character blends the mythos of Halloween with the structure of classic 80’s horror pictures, all told through the lens of story so utterly 90’s. Scream is a studied movie that’s incredibly enamored by and with other movies, and Kevin Williamson’s sharp script showcases that passion scene after scene. It’s easy to break rules out of ignorance. Scream breaks them out of diligent intelligence.

The bare bones of the film itself are good but the supporting cast round the creative endeavor out, making it borderline great. There’s the sensationalist and smarmy reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), the dim deputy Dewey (David Arquette), the local film buff Randy (Jamie Kennedy), and the suspicious Stuart (Matthew Lillard, who delivers yet another one of his trademark tight-rope acts). All of the typical characters are filled by strong actors, played and performed by typical faces in an atypical fashion. That’s the magic of Scream. It follows a recipe for success but has the gall to swap ingredients, change the presentation, and make something new out of something old. In the case of Wes Craven’s classic, Scream literally kills, and is about as iconic a time capsule horror movie as there’s ever been.

“It’s all one great big movie.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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