[REVIEW] Scream (1996)

Though Wes Craven is best remembered for his earlier efforts in the horror genre, 1996′s teen slasher film Scream still remains not only one of the best of Craven’s later projects, but one of the best unapologetic slasher films to date.  It is part cliché and part homage, made up of standard slasher components while seeming fresh and funny as it honors and lambastes its own genre.
The set up is simple: small town, horny teenagers, scary movies and serial murder.  Throw in the requisite annoying though foxy television reporter (Courteney Cox) and a bumbling police deputy (David Arquette), and the recipe is complete.
The film opens with a fairly brutal for its day (given a relative dry spell in mainstream slasher-horror in the time Scream hit theaters) scene that climaxes in the death of Casey Becker, played by Drew Barrymore.  This is the viewer’s first introduction to the sleepy California town of Woodsboro, watching as pretty Casey and her boyfriend get slaughtered while the killer plays a teasing cat and mouse game with doomed Casey over the phone.  Adding to the frenzied feel of Casey’s futile struggle for her life is the doomsday clock device of a tin of popcorn burning on the stove; it is clear to the viewer from the start that Casey will not live long past the corn’s popping.  Parodied and emulated almost immediately, the gory scene that culminates in the mutilated teenager hung from a tree in her own front yard is one of the best death struggle sequences yet brought to film.
After the gruesome antics of the opener, we finally meet our heroine.  Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is your average everyday teenager, with a pushy boyfriend named Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and generally absentee father…. as well as a mother brutally murdered in the not-so-distant past.  In the classic high school setup, Sidney’s less-than-’good girl’ best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) is dating Billy’s best bud Stu (Matthew Lillard), and all four are friends with the endearing if eccentric Randy (Jamie Kennedy).  The fact that all five of these young actors went on to successful film and television careers only exemplifies the quality of their performances; though their roles are purposeful clichés (following the tongue-in-cheek style of the film), they manage to play them without seeming campy or forced.
It soon becomes clear, through stalking phone calls and one very close to fatal attack, that Sidney is the target of the killer, who wears a ‘ghostface’ Halloween mask and taunts victims over the phone, just as had happened with Casey’s opening fatality.  Sidney is under the scrutiny of close friends as well as high school classmates and members of the media that descend on Woodsboro (including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Linda Blair as a pushy reporter demanding that “the people have a right to know”).  Throughout it all, Sidney’s father has mysteriously gone missing, only adding to the teenager’s angst.
The gentle pokes at horror movie history speckled throughout the film are what make it shine, such as the Linda Blair cameo.  Randy, the horror film buff portrayed by Jamie Kennedy, outlines at the obligatory party scene the ‘rules’ for surviving a horror film, that have been repeated far too much at this point to be listed again here.  Sidney’s boyfriend is Billy Loomis, a reference to Dr. Loomis from John Carpenter’s classic, Halloween.  Best of all is the appearance of Wes Craven himself as a high school janitor, decked out in a red and green striped sweater; the audience learns through the principal (Henry Winkler) that the janitor is named ‘Fred’, and if you don’t get this reference, rent A Nightmare on Elm Street – the original version, please!
Overall, Scream is a refreshing return to slasher roots with modern style.  The only real lag in the film comes with the murder of the high school principal which, while entertaining, seems to be a dragging point within the movie.  The idea is reinforced by the fact that the scene was a late add to the film in order to spice up the gore.
The acting is solid with Neve Campbell leading a strong cast as the embattled Sidney; Jamie Kennedy adds surprising charm and wit, as does David Arquette.  Courteney Cox plays her ambitious reporter to perfection, Matthew Lillard shines in a goofy-guy-that-everyone-knows-and-likes role; Rose McGowan is wonderful as the nice girl’s not-so-nice best friend, and Skeet Ulrich does a commendable job as the double-sided coin that is Billy Loomis.  The casting here was superb and has yet to be matched in any subsequent horror films.
Scream aimed high and hit every note to perfection; pity that the many copycat films it spawned couldn’t quite meet the bar raised so high.
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Jamie Kennedy
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Studio: Dimension Films
Rated: R

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