Screenplay : Kevin Williamson
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Neve Campbell (Sidney Prescott), David Arquette (Deputy Dewey Riley), Skeet Ulrich (Billy Loomis), Courteney Cox (Gale Weathers), Matthew Lillard (Stuart), Rose McGowan (Tatum Riley), Drew Barrymore (Casey Becker), Henry Winkler (Principal Himbry)
I grew up during the heyday of teenage slasher movies. I was four years old when the genre was started in 1978 with John Carpenter's masterful "Halloween," and in my early twenties when it was giving its last dying breaths with such junk as 1993's "Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday" and 1995's "Halloween 6." During that period, Hollywood produced a seemingly endless stream of graphically violent, brainless movies where the only goal was to kill as many people in as many grotesque manners as possible. Young audiences ate it up for years, but as the eighties turned into the nineties, their appetites began to wan.
Now, almost twenty years after it was all started, director Wes Craven (who was greatly responsible for the splatter genre with his "Nightmare on Elm Street" series) reves it up again with "Scream," a nineties-style teenage slasher movie with just enough tongue-in-cheek understanding of its own silliness to make it gruesomely fun without being insulting.
The movie starts with a brilliantly realized set-piece involving a teenage girl (Drew Barrymore) getting spooky phone calls when she is home alone. The entire sequence was obviously inspired by 1979's "When A Stranger Calls," quickly making clear that "Scream" is not a particularly original movie.
Of course, because its genre is already so overloaded, there's really no way it could be original. Therefore, screenwriter Kevin Williamson wisely decided to borrow from other, well-known slasher pics, and twist them to his own liking. This achieves two things: first, it allows him to parody and mock the ridiculousness of the genre (such as when a kid is watching "Halloween" yelling at a victim to look behind her while he himself is being stalked from behind), and secondly, it allows him to generate real chills and some genuine scares by using what has worked before.
The plot centers around a mysterious killer who is knocking off teenagers in a small town. The heroine (slasher movies almost always have heroines rather than heroes) is Sidney Prescott ("Part of Five's" Neve Campbell). The recent spat of knife-inflicted deaths may have something to do with the rape and murder of her mother exactly one year ago. The list of possible suspects is long, ranging from her boyfriend (Johnny Depp look-alike Skeet Ulrich) to her own father (Lawrence Hecht). Thrown into the mix is a goofy police deputy (David Arquette) and a local tabloid TV reporter (Courtney Cox) who doesn't think the man Sidney fingered as her mother's killer is really guilty. Thus, the actual murderer could still be out there, waiting to strike again . . .
Kevin Williamson' screenplay lives and dies by the rules written years before. He doesn't try to hide that fact, especially in a particularly knowing sequence where one of the teenagers begins listing what not to do in a horror movie: don't have sex, don't drink, and never say, "I'll be right back." All of those things guarantee death.
Of course, half the teenagers do exactly that, and when they do, we watch with a smirk because everybody knows just what will happen. Unfortunately, the last fifteen minutes of the film, when the killer is finally unmasked, goes on too long. If there were a spot where the movie could have profited by being original, this was it.
Craven, who has had an uneven career making horror movies, is back in rare form behind the camera. He uses every trick in the book to milk new life from the mad killer story, and he is more than often successful. He gets good performances from his actors, which range from some of today's hottest young performers such as Neve Campbell and Drew Barrymore, to amusing cameos by Linda "The Exorcist" Blair and even Henry "The Fonz" Winkler.
One thing I noticed missing from "Scream" was some of the inventive splatter effects pioneered by people like Tom Savini and Rick Baker. Here the effects were engineered by Howard Berger, who first worked with Savini on George A. Romero's "Day of the Dead." Apparently, the MPAA made Craven make major cuts to some of the gorier scenes in order to avoid an NC-17 rating.
I guess some things never change.
©1997 James Kendrick