Do You Like Scary Movies?

Scream (1996)

Having gone through a whole host of the "classic" Slasher flicks (Child's PlayAlthough some might have thought that the idea of a killer doller slasheer flick couldnt' support a multi-decade spanning franchise, Chucky certainly proved them wrong, constantly reinventing his series, Child's Play to stay fresh and interesting three decades later., Friday the 13thOne of the most famous Slasher film franchises, the Friday the 13th series saw multiple twists and turn before finally settling on the formula everyone knows and loves: Jason Voorhees killing campers 'round Camp Crystal Lake., HalloweenThe franchise that both set the standard for Slasher horror and, at the same time, defied every convention it created, Halloween has seen multiple time lines and reboots in its history, but one thing has remained: Michael Myers, the Shape that stalks Haddonfield., Nightmare on Elm StreetThe brain-child of director Wes Craven, A Nightmare on Elm Street was his answer to the glut of Slasher films that were populating the multiplex. His movie featured an immortal character, Freedy, with a powerset like none other, reshaping the expectations for Slasher movies to come.) a common thread emerged: as the genre moved on from its visceral start in the late 1970s and early 1980s it also lost its way. The creeps and scares of the early films became a need for more gore, or more comedy, or stupid gimmicks. Very rarely did any of the later films find a way to tap into the scary energy of the original. The Slasher genre, in essence, had lost its way.

What the genre needed was a shake up, a way to find that visceral energy it had once before and tap into the scares again. That revamp wouldn't come from any of the per-existing series (although a number of them would try to tap into the new style of Slasher flick after), but from a new film, one headed by a master of the genre: Wes Craven. That film, Scream, went onto become a huge smash hit not only by commenting on the genre as it played within the conventions but also by finding the scares and bringing them to the forefront once more.

Scream (a simple and effective title if ever there was one) opens with Casey (Drew Barrymore), a high school teen getting ready for a movie night. She gets a call on the house line and the caller isn't a voice she recognizes, but she banters with him for a bit, being a little flirty, before hanging up. He calls back, again and again, until the calls get threatening. And that's when she realizes the caller is watching her from right outside her house. Soon her boyfriend is dead, the killer has broken in, and Casey is running for her life... right up until she's caught, maimed, and left for dead. This opening section is the movie in miniature and Casey and the killer talk scary movies before things take a darker turn and the scares ramp up, and up, and up. It gets positively brutal by the end of the sequence (but not in a Rob Zombie Halloween II, shock for shock's sake way).

We then cut to Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who's own mother had been butchered a year earlier. Although she thought the killer, Cotton Weary, was in prison (having testified at his trail saying she saw him leaving the scene of the crime), but now Sidney has her doubts. He boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich), is acting weird. Her best friend, Tatum (Rose McGowan), thinks anyone could be the killer. And their other friends, Stu (Matthew Lillard) and Randy (Jamie Kennedy), have problems taking any of it seriously. But the attacks keep coming, and things start to get serious real quick. Anyone could be the killer and before the mystery of who is killing teens in town is revealed the body count will continue to rise.

While I've already noted that the film is scary -- and it manages to keep that scary energy and edge-of-your-seat tenseness throughout -- the film is most remembered for its meta-commentary on the genre. Much of this is provided by Randy, a horror movie buff who also works at a video store (back when video stores had endless selections of VHS tape), who constantly comments on how things play out in "real life" and the lessons people should be learning from slasher flicks (although the film calls them "splatter" films, which is really a different genre, if we're being technical about it). The most famous scene, the "Rules for Surviving a Horror Film" -- don't have sex, don't drink or do drugs, don't say "I'll be right back", two of which perfectly notes the Regan-era politics of the 1980s Slasher genre -- was endlessly quoted for years after.

But it's not just Randy's commentary that sets the stage for Scream's own discussion on the genre. Each character has a bon mot to note, from Sydney complaining about the dumb blonde girl always running upstairs when she should be running out the front door, or Tatum (right before she dies) asking the killer if they were going to play victim and killer (because she thought it was a prank). "No, Mister Killer, don't hurt me! I want to be in the sequel!" This movie had one eye clearly on the genre it was playing in the whole time, acting like a discussing of what does and doesn't work in a Slasher flick.

Of course, the movie plays again and again with the conventions of the genre. The pretty young teen who should clearly be the "Final Girl" of the movie: she dies in the first ten minutes of the movie. The killer who always seems to be right in front of the victim no matter what they do: it's actually two killers working together. The threat that the killers will be back for a sequel: they're mortal, and they die, and that's that. Not that there won't be a sequel (there were three more films, another potentially on the way, plus a TV series), but the two killers we have here don't ever come back again because, for all it's thoughts of playing in the genre, Scream keeps itself rooted in reality (most of the time, more or less).

For the most part Scream works just as well now as it did back then. It benefits from a smart script that treats its characters like actual people and not just stock cookie-cutters to fill a void. The number of real characters, ones with story and dialogue, is kept low so the focus can be maintained on a select few, and each of them have real motivations, real stories, real attitudes. Randy is the nerdy character but he also serves as the Greek Chorus of the film. Sydney is the Final Girl but she also has back-story that informs her decisions and colors her reactions. Everyone in the film, even the killers, is given a motivation that makes sense, but the film wisely doesn't spend time exposition dumping to get it in our heads; it doles out the details over time, organically, with an eye towards the big climax, the film twist, and the satisfying conclusion.

It also knows that the best scares are done in doses, that the kills (and gore) should come at key moments. Craven, as noted, was a master of the genre, creating one of the biggest classics of the form, A Nightmare on Elm Street (along with two of its better sequels), and he clearly still knew what he was doing here (amusingly one of the Nightmare sequels he direction, New Nightmare, was another meta commentary on the genre). The kills aren't frequent in Scream but doled out over time to heighten the tension. Characters you really like are killed to show that no one is safe, but each one is done as a long set-piece. No one just appears on screen and is immediately murdered because the tension has to build, the scares take time to develop. Scream is a master class is Slasher direction.

Of course, at this point the film is also over twenty years old so not everything in it holds up like it should. Video stores, for example, barely even exist anymore and VHS has long gone the way of the dodo. At one point Sydney thinks he boyfriend might be the killer because he has a cellphone and, clearly, the killer had to use a cellphone; now everyone has a cellphone so that big twist wouldn't even work for someone that's never seen the film before. "So he has a phone? Who cares?" And, of course, someone is killed with a giant, CRT TV when it's dropped onto his head; hard to think of anyone dying via flat-screen TV in our era. The film does show its age in a few ways that just don't work for a modern eye, sadly.

That said, much of the movie does work even now. The female characters are more than just sex-pots to get naked and then die (although the lack of nudity in the film at all did set a trend for a softer-R rating among Slasher flicks that lasted for over a decade). The women defend themselves, even, something that usually didn't happen in the older films -- they usually needed a guy to help them out, to save them from the big bad. The setting might feel like its set in the 1990s but the politics off the film are much more mature and developed.

The film feels both of a piece with its era and yet prescient enough to remain above the fray, ageless in a way that, for the most part, allows it to work no matter what year you watch it in. It's one of the best, most effective Slasher films of any era, one that holds up even now, twenty years later.

The Killing Floor:

First Sin:

Lying. In the fantastic opening of the film, the killer(s) calls Casey, acting all sweet and nice, and when he asks if she has a boyfriend, she lies and says she doesn't. I assume this is supposed to make her seem like a cock-tease or a slut, something on par with the "if you have sex you die" mantra of the genre. Whatever the case, that's the first step to her losing her life.

First Kill:

It's a two-fer, although the first is meant as an appetizer for the second. The killer, having terrorized Casey, gives her a "chance" to escape her fate, and he asks her a series of questions. When she gets the second on wrong her boyfriend, who is tied up on the patio, is gutted. The the killed goes in for the big kill on Casey, chasing her all around her house and then outside before killing her (stabbing her repeatedly before leaving her hanging in a tree), just as her parents come home. Damn.

Final Body Count:

Seven, with the opening duo, plus the high school principal, and then one party goer at the big, final set-piece, plus the news-van camera man. And, of course, the two killers since they never come back in these films. (Although I still say the garage kill is impossible if you know anything about garage doors.)