*Originally written in 2004
Wes Craven proves he’s a master of horror and innovation with Scream, over 10 years since his last smash which pulled a similar trick – A Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven had been a legend for 3 decades, but with this he made possibly his best known film, reinventing a dead genre for better and worse, making horror films profitable again. More importantly it gave horror fans something to cheer about – a smart, funny, sexy, but above all scary film.
Scream’s intro has already gone down in movie history as the benchmark of a shocking and effective way to start a film. Take an established actress, and eventually butcher her to set the tone. The phone, the knife, shocks, inevitability of death, blood, helplessness, and a love of scary movies. Craven turns what we expect on its head, and we know we are in for something special.
We are introduced to Sydney Prescott, a teenager whose mother was murdered a year ago, trying to get on with her life – coping with school, a boyfriend, the court case involving the man (Cotton) who has been charged with her mother’s murder, and intrusion from journalists. She has become strong through this ordeal, but is still vulnerable. Her boyfriend Billy wants sex, but isn’t pushy. The news of a new murder comes as a shock to the whole town though because of the town’s recent history, journalists flock in including Gail Weathers, who had previously accused Sydney of lies. In school the news spreads, and the cops question the students. Sydney’s tight group of friends try to work out who the killer was, believing everyone’s a suspect. Her friends are Tatum, feisty, strong whose boyfriend is similar yet comically manic, and Randy – movie nerd who secretly loves Sydney. When Sydney is attacked, it seems the killer is not done and may have a larger plan. The teens of the town gather together for a curfew-baiting house party all the while debating who the killer is, and who could be the next on their hit-list.
This is clearly one of the best horror movies of the decade, not just an excuse for gore, but clever on many levels, and self-referential. It is more than that, being one of the best looks at teenage life in the last few years. The characters are extremely well drawn, taking stereotypes, but changing them against our expectations, enhanced by some brilliant performances. Every cast member performs well, with special mention to Kennedy, Arquette, and Lillard for bringing the laughs. Cox is good, but Campbell is excellent, going through a myriad of emotions and proving that her character does not have to be stupid like most final girls are typically shown to be.
Craven is in control, feeding us clues as to the identity of the killer, but ensuring that by the end we are surprised. Gore is used effectively, the scares and jokes come thick and fast, but it is the story of Sydney which makes it a classic. She is strong willed, smart, and we go through every emotion with her, aided by Neve’s performance. We feel for her, and are frustrated we cannot help. The film is shot beautifully, with Woodsboro shown as an idyllic place to live, but with dark secrets. I love near-Leone style facial close-ups, and the care given to each character so that we are hurt when one is killed, but suspicious of each. The script is sharp, with many references to horror movies which fan will try to recognise.
Thematically we return to Elm Street territory; We must fight for ourselves in the world, and while our friends are the most important people in our lives, they may not be around forever and we must be able to cope with their loss. Parents are either not around, don’t care, don’t understand, or are to blame. Sydney’s mum seems to be the catalyst for the deaths, the only authority figure to gain respect is Dewey, who isn’t much older than the teens. The opening scene as Casey crawls towards her nearby parents, with the killer behind her highlights this, that the older generation will not always be able to keep us safe. The Headmaster, played by Henry Winkler hates kids, but he cannot organise or gain respect from them either.We are never certain of Gail’s intentions, another point to do with the media’s involvement in society today. Death has become trivialised, the victims just a ploy for ratings or power for those who tell the stories. Our thoughts on violence, on violent movies are challenged – Craven a veteran of criticism over use of violence. In the end it’s up to us as individuals. The film shows that places we believed to be safe -our homes, our schools, have become dangerous places today too, that we are not safe anywhere. In a group, or by yourself, we are still vulnerable. The scene in the school toilets emphasizes this point, and is another beautiful scene. However, the film teaches us that rather than being overcome by fear, by the fact that we are not always safe, we should fight.
I wanted to mention a few of my favourite scenes – Sydney on her porch, staring over the hills; Sydney and Billy in her bedroom while Gus’s cover of Don’t Fear the Reaper plays in the background. It gives a perfect glimpse of what it is like to be in love at that age, and together with Campbell’s beauty makes an odd atmosphere, especially when viewed again, having watched the other 2 films. We become intimate with Sydney, wishing we could save her from her pain.
With the combination of genres subverted, a brilliant script and score, some excellent acting, good scares and jokes, Scream paved the way for a new breed of horror films, none of which, like Halloween and Elm Street, have matched it. We should be thankful for Craven, as he has provided the world with another film which should be watched and talked about as much as those felt to be the best movies of all time. This is certainly one of the best of our time.
Let us know in the comments what you think of Scream!