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Dustin Putman

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Scream  (1996)
3 Stars
Directed by Wes Craven.
Cast: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Drew Barrymore, W. Earl Brown, Joseph Whipp, Henry Winkler, Lawrence Hecht, Liev Schreiber, Linda Blair.
1996 – 111 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong bloody violence and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2008.

Sidney Prescott:
God, look at this place. It's "The Town That Dreaded Sundown."

Deputy Dewey Riley:
Hey, I saw that movie. True story, about some killer in Texas.

"Scream" opened on December 20, 1996, and raked in a paltry $6.3-million over its first three-day weekend. Being a horror enthusiast, I remember excitedly going to see the film on opening night. The theater was empty, but the film was groundbreakingly original, as good as the then-dying horror landscape had been in years. I went back and saw the film a week later, and there was scarcely an empty seat to be found. I went back a third and final time the following weekend, and the theater was so packed that people were sitting in the aisles. Cultural cinematic phenomena are often like that, taking consumers by surprise and building quickly upon rabid word-of-mouth.

Written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven, who went on to also helm the series' subsequent installments, "Scream" arrived at the perfect moment. Many people, most notably studio execs, had long begun writing horror movies off as a form that was no longer commercially viable. Creativity was at an all-time low, and box-office receipts were no better. "Scream" changed all that, taking audiences (and Hollywood) by surprise in a way that only happens a few times every decade. The film, at once a pointedly knowledgeable, frequently funny satire on slasher conventions and a terrifically scary, joyously suspenseful horror picture itself, treated viewers with a rare intelligence not often seen. By outwardly making note of the rampant clichés found in the genre even as it sometimes intentionally mimicked the very things it was deriding, the movie was not quite like anything that had come before it (coincidentally, 1994's "Wes Craven's New Nightmare," seamlessly melding fiction with reality, is probably its closest cousin).

The opening ten minutes of "Scream" are masterfully conceived and horrifyingly pulled off, likely as well-known as the shower scene in 1960's "Psycho" or the shark attack that started 1975's "Jaws." Although the prologue has been spoofed numerous times since, most notably in 2000's "Scary Movie," it has not lost its unblinkingly terse power. Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) is home alone, making popcorn and readying herself for a night of watching horror flicks, when the telephone rings. She at first flirts with the unknown caller as they chat about their favorite scary movies, but becomes increasingly nervous when she senses the person on the other end of the line might be closer than she thought. Terrorized by a horror trivia game the culprit has concocted, Casey answers the question incorrectly ("Name the killer in 'Friday the 13th'...") and finds herself running for her life.

By the next morning, the media has descended upon the sleepy campus of Woodsboro High School as buzz about Casey's brutal murder spreads. Virginal teen Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who can't help but be reminded of her own mother's slaying a year earlier, tries to go on as usual, but cutthroat journalist Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), sensing a connection, won't let her forget the past. As Sidney's pals—boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), cinephile Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), over-caffeinated Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) and sympathetic best friend Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan)—hypothesize about who the killer might be, Sidney almost becomes the next victim when she is attacked in her home and narrowly escapes. Wearing a flowing black robe and ghostface mask, the psychopath next sets his or her sights on a party at a secluded farmhouse where all the principle characters, including Gale and Tatum's smitten police officer brother Deputy Dewey (David Arquette), have converged.

The plot may sound like more-of-the-same, but it is in its conception and delivery that "Scream" becomes something special. Instead of populating the film with big-breasted bimbos and brainless jocks, screenwriter Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven have imagined a world in which horror movies exist and the characters are all too aware that their lives are becoming one. Sharp references to pop-culture and all things scary movie-related naturally litter the dialogue, with Randy particularly adamant that the authorities would be able to solve the crime if they paid attention to the slasher films filling the shelves at the video store he works at. Timeworn traditions—sex equaling death; the notion that saying "I'll be right back" is a death sentence; victims running up the stairs when they should be fleeing out the front door—are all lovingly mocked here, and then turned on their heads. Snappy and always smart, the writing allows the characters to be identifiable, existing as human beings rather than just chopping blocks. Despite knowing what they know, they do not always make the best decisions when placed in harm's way, and that's part of the fun (and the point).

If "Scream" were only a winking nod to horror's past, it would only be half the film that it is. The key to its exceptional success is the effortless blending of humor with genuine terror. The story is taken seriously, and so are the characters' fates. Tension is high throughout—the costumed killer lurks in the background of the proceedings, waiting to strike—and the violence, some of it quite graphic, is sobering and dark. When Randy watches "Halloween" and pleas for Jamie Lee Curtis to turn around at the moment where Michael Myers is right behind her, the ghostface maniac perilously looms behind Randy. It's an ingenious moment, perfectly commenting on how knowing the rules of horror movies will not always save you when faced with the real thing. The finale, wherein the identity of the killer(s) are revealed, is unexpected, though a little too talky and explanatory. Fortunately, the film returns to its glory in time for the shrewd closing moments.

The ensemble cast is speckless. As heroine Sidney Prescott, Neve Campbell (at the time riding high from TV's "Party of Five") is strong-willed and vulnerable—two characteristics necessary in essaying an endangered protagonist whose mortality is at stake, but who also has what it takes to overcome the evil headed her way. That Sidney is still in the midst of trying to move on after the death of her mother adds a rich texture to the character, and Campbell hits all the right notes. Courteney Cox (who shot this when TV's "Friends" was still in its infancy) is superb as tabloid reporter Gale Weathers, willing to do almost anything for a story but with occasional signs underneath that she still has a beating heart. Cox's sizzling chemistry with David Arquette, then a virtual unknown who would later marry his onscreen love interest, gets a lot of mileage from their scenes together.

Memorable supporting performances from Rose McGowan, as Sidney's best friend Tatum; Skeet Ulrich, as Sidney's suspicious boyfriend Billy; Matthew Lillard, as Tatum's boyfriend Stu, and Jamie Kennedy, as the acerbic Randy, gave most of these actors the careers they have today in film and television. As for Drew Barrymore, the biggest star of the cast, she uninhibitedly throws herself into the brief but emotionally demanding role of ill-fated Casey Becker, getting the film off to a rousing, unforgettable start. Barrymore's scene alone still has the effectiveness to send chills down one's spine.

Technical credits are the icing on the cake. The cinematography by Mark Irwin is tight, slick and still gritty, taking suburban and rural settings and making their idyllic innocuousness seem threatening. The editing by Patrick Lussier doesn't waste a second of film, keeping the pace moving and knowing when to slow down to orchestrate taut suspense. The music score by Marco Beltrami is additionally top-tier, with alternately mournful and eerie cues complementing the silences. The soundtrack, too, is just right, with Gus' cover of "Don't Fear the Reaper," Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "Red Right Hand," and SoHo's "Whisper to a Scream" (the latter over the end credits) ideally chosen and placed.

So enormously successful was "Scream," not only personally but financially, that it single-handedly jump-started a whole new slasher era the likes of which hadn't been seen since the late-'70s/early-'80s. 1997's "I Know What You Did Last Summer" (and its sequel), 1998's "Urban Legend" (and its sequel), 1998's "Disturbing Behavior," 1998's "Halloween: H20," 2000's "Cherry Falls," and 2001's "Valentine" were just a handful of the efforts that were clearly inspired by and modeled after "Scream" before the tides once again turned and supernatural thrillers and remakes became all the rage. The horror genre is like that, reinventing itself every few years, but never going away. Audiences like to be scared—fear is perhaps the most cathartic emotion that cinema offers—and "Scream" was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle miracles that proved why horror will continue to endure as long as movies are made.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman