Scream ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


Third viewing, last seen 1997. (Looks like I rewatched it the day before Scream 2 opened.) I reviewed it at some length upon its initial release, so let's start there:

I must confess that I shed no tears when the slasher movie died an ignominious death about half a dozen years or so ago; with the exception of John Carpenter's creepy exercise in nervous anticipation, Halloween, I'd found the genre dreary and revolting, little more than a primer in the creative perforation of the human (usually female) body. Scream, a reasonably clever meta-slasher film written by Kevin Williamson and directed by horror maestro Wes Craven (Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street), uses the trite conventions and inherent limitations of its predecessors to its advantage, demonstrating a giddy reflexivity not seen since The Player. It's the same tired premise—attractive, horny teens are methodically executed one by one in the latest designer methods—but the characters in Scream are savvy enough to understand that they're living in a cheesy slasher film...and what's more, they spend a lot of their time talking about the fact that they're living in a cheesy slasher film, excitedly discussing (and then inexplicably ignoring) the tried-and-true rules for survival. All this analysis makes for a relatively tame viewing experience, as this kind of picture goes—apart from a bravura opening sequence featuring Drew Barrymore, Scream provokes few screams—but I nonetheless found its deconstruction of the genre more gripping and entertaining than most of the "texts" to which it refers. The film is also unique in being as much a murder mystery as a hack-'em-up; the latter usually features a faceless Creature who represents pure evil (Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason), but we're encouraged to believe that the psychopath in Scream, who wears a cheap but nonetheless chilling Halloween mask that calls to mind Edvard Munch's famous and similarly-titled sketch, is one of the main characters. This guessing-game element further distances the audience from the violence and mayhem (was it Professor Plum in the garage with the electric hedge clippers?), which seems entirely in keeping with the uncommonly introspective tone; unfortunately, the answer, when revealed, is less than satisfying, not least because I guessed part of it in advance. Still, an unexpected pleasure, from a director who hadn't made a film I'd wanted to see since The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1988. The young cast—including The Craft's Neve Campbell, The Doom Generation's Rose McGowan, and Johnny Depp doppelgänger Skeet Ulrich—is uniformly competent.

Nothing there I'd now recant, though Scream 2's car scene (which I wrote up for Scenic Routes nine years ago, and keep forgetting to mention in response to that recurring Twitter prompt about notable audience reactions) subsequently demonstrated that Craven could make this scenario unbearably tense as well as amusingly clever. Just for fun, and by way of underlining what caught my attention then vs. now, I'll annotate the notes I took this time around, transcribing them exactly as they appear on my phone's Notes app. (I once did this in a Time Out New York review, 20 long years ago.)

• Jason's mom

Barrymore's sequence remains a nearly perfect short film, so effective that it threatens to make the rest of the movie feel like an afterthought. I'd forgotten that the boyfriend's death pivots on an actual bit of movie trivia that most people do in fact get wrong (because it is more or less a trick question, as Casey complains; she was correct w/r/t the franchise). A nice touch by Kevin Williamson, who as far as I'm aware has never equaled the admittedly self-conscious wit he demonstrates here. (Haven't seen any of Dawson's Creek, I should note.)

• Rarity of cell phone a plot point

This wound up being a bit less significant than I'd thought, as Billy subsequently tells the cops that everyone carries a cell phone nowadays. That wasn't even remotely true in '96, though—I don't believe I got my own first phone until around 2004—and Billy dropping his phone right after Sidney is attacked by Ghostface absolutely has a duh-duh-DUH impact that would be impossible today. Don't think we ever see any of the other kids with a cell. It was non-standard. This has been yet another edition of How The Advent Of Smartphones Has Killed Or At Least Crippled A Good 80% Of Thriller Plots.

• Skeet cast suspicion, remove, cast again

As noted above, Scream is as much whodunnit as horror film, and Williamson's misdirection is remarkably elaborate. Having the murderer fall under suspicion almost immediately, only to be (it appears) exonerated, is standard-issue mystery stuff—so much so that I tend to assume anyone ostensibly cleared early on must be the guilty party. Billy (whose name I apparently couldn't recall in the moment, or maybe it's just more fun to type "Skeet"), however, goes through this whole cycle twice, which as I recall succeeded in getting me to dismiss him as a suspect after Ghostface "kills" him at the party. No doubt the dual-killers twist has been employed many times, but that particular angle is effective enough to merit Edgar consideration.

• Halloween on TV to use score

Not italicizing Halloween pains me, but I didn't bother in the notes app. Anyway, while Marco Beltrami composed (less-than-memorable) original music for Scream, having the kids watch this particular classic not only sets up some primo meta-commentary but also adds bonus suspense to a scene of I think it's Dewey walking through the now-empty house, accompanied—diegetically!—by Carpenter's magnificently unnerving score. Honestly, it should just be recycled for every horror movie. There are few it wouldn't improve.

• Useless Gail Dewey (were they already a couple?)

I don't mind Gail Weathers' function as another sort of antagonist for Sidney, and am even mostly sanguine about her climactic...what's the opposite of a heel turn? But the dorky romantic stuff is entirely a waste of our time, and I wondered whether Courteney Cox was already on her way to becoming Courteney Cox Arquette or whether they in fact met on this shoot. Still don't know, as I type this. [Looks it up.] They did meet while making Scream. So it's wholly Williamson's fault.

• Turning tables dumb (phone, esp. costume)

Speaking of which, here's the hack-y Williamson who'd later write The Faculty and Teaching Mrs. Tingle. Having managed to escape Billy and Stu, who are clearly psychopaths, would Sidney bother calling the house's land line and speaking to Billy through his own voice-changing gizmo, rather than just getting the fuck out of there and calling, y'know, the police? One can rationalize that she's fearful about her dad's safety, I suppose, and thus needs to stick around, but the taste-of-his-own-medicine thing is too programmatic for my own taste. And I literally can't think of any reason why Sidney would don the Ghostface costume in hiding. To borrow a phrase from Jason Bateman's Game Night character, that's some cute full-circle bullshit. (Ironically, that line demonstrates exactly the sort of self-awareness in which Scream generally glories. Would've been an easy fix.)

• Liev?

I realize Liev Schreiber wasn't quite yet a big deal at the time—I'd discovered him only nine months earlier, in the now-forgotten indie Denise Calls Up—but it's still kinda bizarre that he was cast in a role that amounts to a silent news-footage walk-on (or drive-by, as the case may be). Literally anyone with a face would have sufficed; a great actor was quite unnecessary. Did they already have plans to give Cotton more screen time in the sequels, à la Dylan Baker's brief appearances in Spider-Man 2 and 3 (a plan that never came to fruition)? Scream's Wikipedia entry is silent on the matter.

• Winkler first time since Fonz

Didn't mention it in my '96 review, but I vaguely recall finding Henry Winkler's uncredited cameo as the high school principal a bit annoying—as my note indicates, it was the first time I'd seen him in anything since Happy Days (which I'm old enough to have watched when it aired; young folks have no idea what a phenomenon he was), and I suspect I perceived his presence wholly as an in-joke. Having since seen him do superlative comic work in Arrested Development and Barry, I better appreciated his expert timing in the scene that sees him chew out two doofuses right before being murdered.

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