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Review: “Scream”

Directed by: Wes Craven
Produced by: Cathy Konrad, Cary Woods
Written by: Kevin Williamson
Cinematography by: Mark Irwin
Music by: Marco Beltrami
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, Roger L. Jackson
Year: 1996

 

If there’s any one series of films that have possibly helped to turn me around on my disinterest in the horror genre, it would be the Scream series. Having first seen Scream 3 some time after its release to home video, I became unusually preoccupied by the concept of this meta-heavy horror series. Neither pure satire nor straight up scary movie, Scream appeals to both fans and non-fans of the genre by covering all the tropes, calling out, subverting, and embracing all their idiosyncrasies while referencing past works and still adhering to the genre by becoming a relentless horror film in its own right.

After the vicious murder of two local high schoolers, the town of Woodsboro is suddenly thrust into the media spotlight. Schools are shut down in order to protect the kids from this potential serial killer as a manhunt ensues. One of these kids, Sidney Prescott, whose mother was also viciously murdered almost exactly a year prior, finds herself at the center of attention as the killer has targeted her for his next victim and, of course, the media, of course, wants to know how she feels about all this — Gale Weathers, in particular, who happened to have written a book about the death of Sidney’s mother and the man whom she believes Sidney wrongfully sent to prison for her mother’s death. What should be a time of mourning, however, quickly turns into a night filled with alcohol and blood, as the loosed kids of Woodsboro take the opportunity to party all night and watch slasher films in honor of the recent murders — a perfect opportunity for the masked killer to strike again.

The concept behind Scream is fairly ingenious when you think about it. It would be easy to say that writer Kevin Williams merely researched tropes and threw them into a film and called it a day. Virgin girl? Check. Troubled past coming back to haunt her in the form of a murderer? Check. Oblivious individuals allowing themselves to get killed? Check. To be quite honest, that’s probably how the idea started, however, Scream is smart enough to have fun with the concept and use this to the film’s advantage. Consider the fact that, back in the 90s, horror films were largely just made up of mediocre sequels to previous films, released direct-to-video or as TV movies.

Scream is credited with jump starting the genre and bringing it back into profitability, and it wasn’t just because it was a greatest hits compilation of past movie tropes woven together. Scream was a reactionary film that questioned why horror greats like HalloweenWes Craven’s own Nightmare on Elm Street, and even the sacred Psycho were being diluted by less than admirable follow ups and copycats that didn’t fully understand what made the first films click in the first place, and it did so by bringing those films best qualities to the forefront while also examining their impact on the people who consume these types of films.

Keep in mind that Scream was released in 1996, well before the horrific acts of the 1999 Columbine shootings. Even without this stigma, however, Scream was released amid a heightened public interest in the media that young people were consuming — video games, in particular, had recently adopted a ratings system in order to appease concerned parents and politicians calling out for censorship due to their increasingly realistic depictions of violence and sex. Scream played upon these fears of violent, sexual media and its impact on the minds of impressionable kids, and the image of Ghostface has with each film become a sort of embodiment of this evolving fear.

The film’s opening, of course, is infamous for setting up the tone that would carry on throughout this eventual (perhaps inevitable) franchise, managing to simultaneously pull off fun winks and nods at the audience while feeding them the legitimate, horrific scares they crave. You pretty much feel bad for enjoying it as much as you do.  Like most classic horror films, you’ve got your teenage girl stuck in a large house with several entryways and exits, and there’s a mysterious killer on the loose tormenting her with increasingly threatening phone calls. He provides her with an out, however, and this is where the series goes meta. “Do you like scary movies?” he asks before revealing the big twist: If she can answer his horror movie questions correctly, he’ll let her live.

This is actually pretty interesting, because while Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven obviously have every intention of defending horror films — being horror filmmakers themselves — they acknowledge with their portrayal of Ghostface that they at least believe this fear to be a legitimate cause for concern — in this film at least, it’s pretty obvious that the person behind Ghostface is pretty well read on all the minute details of famous horror films. And yet, at the same time, once the identity of the killer is revealed, it also becomes clear that they also want us to know that, sometimes, people are just deeply disturbed, and it’s not necessarily violent media that makes people do violent things.

It’s a simple, reasonable, and self-reflective stance for a film of this sort to take, and it single-handedly informs the audience that it’s okay to enjoy violent media, so long as the villain doesn’t become your hero. Scream remains effective and relevant even 16 years later, and while its legacy has, in my opinion, been largely carried on admirably by its sequels, the first still remains the best thanks to its able mixture of intelligence, genuine scares, and a good sense of humor about itself. You’d be surprised how much a little self-awareness can take the stigma out of a genre film such as this while still allowing the film’s edge to remain as sharp as ever, and Scream has yet to be topped in that area.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5

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  1. November 2, 2012 at 9:04 am

    Not scary at all, but still hilarious and a bunch of fun for how much it makes fun of horror-movie cliches and conventions. Now almost every horror movie tries to do that, and mostly all fail, but this one was the first and probably the best. Good review CJ.

  2. CJ Stewart
    November 2, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    Thanks! I still find some parts (particularly the opening scene) pretty intense, but overall, it’s more of a fun movie than anything, totally. The only movie that I’ve seen that compares is “The Cabin in the Woods,” which I also did a review of at the beginning of October. I started doing Scary Movie Month since I wasn’t actually a huge fan of horror films, but forcing myself to celebrate has really opened my eyes a bit more towards them — I might slowly be becoming a fan, you might say!

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