Monday, October 7, 2013

Scream

I didn't grow up in a family that watched horror movies.  Aside from an occasional sleepover, I didn't watch horror movies until I was in college.  The movie that convinced me that I was, maybe, missing something was Scream.  Toward the end of my senior year in high school, a friend invited me over to watch a movie and she chose Scream.  I agreed, but was wary.  I wasn't trying to impress this girl, but I didn't want to embarrass myself either, by wetting my pants or shrieking like a schoolgirl.  For some unfathomable reason, I just assumed those were the options open to me.  But then I watched the movie and did not shriek --- it's none of your damn business about the pants-wetting --- but instead really enjoyed myself.  Seventeen years and three sequels have passed since its release; how has Scream held up?

Scream opens with one of the more famous scenes in modern horror.  Casey () is home alone when she receives a phone call.  Casey doesn't recognize the caller's voice, but he is playful and a little flirty, so she goes along with it.  The caller asks what her favorite scary movie is (and she somehow didn't choose Poison Ivy?!?) and everyone is having a good time...until the caller lets it slip that he's watching Casey.  In fact, the caller has captured her boyfriend and will kill him, unless Casey plays a sort of horror movie trivia game over the phone.  How did she do?  Let's just say that you don't want Casey on your Trivial Pursuit team.
"Orange!  No, *sob* red!"
It seems that the brutal slaying of Casey and her boyfriend were not the first of their kind in this area; a year ago, Sydney's () mother had been murdered and the case became a media phenomenon.  But, since high schoolers are sociopaths on their good days, Casey's presumed friends aren't terribly affected by the crime.  Instead, Sydney and her boyfriend, Billy (), are more worried about their sex-free relationship; Stuart () and Tatum () are concerned over who can be more stereotypically 90s;
The answer is "nipples"
and the media-oversaturated Randy (Jamie Kennedy) sees the events as a direct parallel to horror movies.  Against all odds, it turns out that Randy is right.  The killer is following horror movie logic, which means that people who break the cardinal "rules" of slasher flicks (promiscuous teens, people who announce that they will "be right back" when going somewhere alone, etc.) will pay for their sins.

On the surface, Scream is kind of a sketchy idea.  A horror movie about a killer who loves horror movies, and victims who are aware of horror movie cliches?  There is a high potential for snottiness and finger-quotes irony in that pitch.  Thankfully, director Wes Craven had already toyed with this notion in his last horror film, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, and got that out of the way.  Craven, along with writer Kevin Williamson, did a very good job keeping Scream from succumbing to its potential weaknesses.  The script had clever dialogue and a reasonably likable (by horror standards) lead character.  Craven directed his relatively young cast well, and none of the featured characters seemed terribly obnoxious or paper-thin.
Well, nobody was unusually obnoxious
There are several bits in this movie that Craven handles expertly.  The opening scene is probably (and justifiably) the most famous, but pretty much every subsequent extended sequence with the killer is well-balanced and suspenseful.  As a whole, the script's efforts to be funny undercut any prolonged attempt at creating atmosphere or a sinister tone, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  Scream works because it is light and funny and because it plays along with the tropes that horror fans have known about for years.  I revisited this film, expecting the movie to have aged noticeably, but the only things showing their age are some of the costume choices.
Her "Dancing in the Dark" outfit has aged better than this
Well, okay...there is one noticeably stupid moment in this movie: the killer attacking Sidney in the bathroom in the high school.  For a killer that chose his moments pretty well in the rest of the movie, that just seemed gratuitous.

One of the things that separates Scream from its slasher movie brethren is its cast.  In the 80s and early 90s, a lot of noteworthy actors started out in horror movies, but established talent didn't stick around.  There isn't much prestige or acting challenge in the role of "Bust Campy Councilor #2."  Thanks to its script, though, Scream was able to attract some reasonably well-known talent.  The biggest name in the movie at the time (and even now) was Drew Barrymore, who was in the midst of her "bad girl" career renaissance.  Even better than having a big name actress was the fact that Barrymore took a role similar to Janet Leigh's in Psycho; by taking a smaller, more memorable role and nailing it, Barrymore set Scream up for success.  The rest of the cast is not quite as good, but not bad, either.  Neve Campbell's character has some angst, but she wasn't out of her depth when articulating those emotions, or showing a reasonable amount of intelligence.  I typically ignore people who clearly don't wash their hair in odd-numbered months, but wasn't half bad either.
That shirt will get washed before that hair
doesn't really do much, which is about par for course with her.  I will give her credit for having the stupidest death in the movie; if your character is boring in a horror movie, it's good to strive for a memorable kill scene.  She's really the worst actor in this movie, and that is shocking, given this cast.  The typically obnoxious comes off fairly cute and likable.  played a fairly one-dimensional character, but at least her character served a purpose in the plot. 
, who has never not been terrible, is actually okay; granted, he is just acting as a mouthpiece for the writer, pointing out all the horror movie cliches that Kevin Williamson wanted to mock, but credit where it's due.  Why it was decided that Kennedy should wear pastel hush puppies and do Jerry Lewis impersonations, I do not know, but the 90s were a very ironic time.  Even the always (ALWAYS!) annoying played his part well.
Maybe he should get stabbed in more movies?
There are a few teeny-tiny roles that are worth pointing out, as well.  had some lines and a death scene, even though his role was uncredited.  Less obvious was 's cameo, but the best bit part went to Wes Craven himself, as the Freddy Krueger-looking school janitor.  That was great.  Oh, and is also in the movie, but he doesn't actually say or do anything aside from glare, so he barely counts.

When it comes to the classic horror stuff, the sex and violence, Scream does some interesting things.  This is a violent movie, no doubt.  We see a few people getting disemboweled and there is a good amount of stabbing.  In other words, a lot of fake blood was spilled in Scream.
The worst was the blood swirlie Campbell got
Maybe it's the humor in the script, or maybe it is the fact that most of the kills aren't especially ridiculous, aside from Rose McGowan's, but it just doesn't feel all that violent to me.  Still, the blend of violence and humor keeps it interesting, even in the late-second-act wasteland that can drag down a lot of slasher pics.  While there isn't any gratuitous nudity, the script does speak of the evils of teenage sex; somehow, the self-awareness of the script is almost as enjoyable as random boobage.  The strangest thing about Scream is the fact that the killer is so bland.  When you hear the voice over the telephone, he is charismatic, funny, and a little frightening.  When you see Ghostface in the flesh, though, he's underwhelming.
Look at that face!  It looks like he's apologizing!
Ghostface (Killah) isn't a bad villian, per say, but Scream isn't iconic because of him.  Scream was a hit --- and is now working its way toward "classic" status --- because of the writing and the wit.  That's not a knock on the series, by any means, but it is a knock on Ghostface.

All in all, I was genuinely impressed with how well Scream stood the test of time.  Even though it has had three sequels and revitalized slashed movies in the late 90s, it still feels fresh.  The writing is still fun, and even the presence of a moderately anonymous killer doesn't dampen its impact.

1 comment:

  1. Surprised you didn't mention what is possibly the stupidest scene in the film: when the killer is stalking around the convenience store in full costume. How does no one notice? Why would he be wearing the costume? (presumably he's not about to commit a murder.) I understand they were going for a Halloween-esque stalking scene, but in an otherwise clever script it kind of shits the bed.

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