Horror. Worldview. Faith.

Scream – Review

Scream – Review

May 1, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by Wes Craven, 1996

Note to the Readers:  Scream is nearly fifteen years old and is one of horror’s most recognizable films, so I likely don’t need to say that the review is full of spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film, but I will do it anyway.  Attention:  SPOILERS AHEAD.  APPROACH WITH CAUTION

With the release of Scream 4, I began to become a bit nostalgic for the original trilogy.  I’ve been wondering a lot lately about the effect of time on my perception of the films I have always thought of as genre classics.  I’ve revisited a number of them recently, and while most hold up, many are starting to either show their age or reveal themselves to be less in reality than they were in my memory.  With that in mind, I loaded up the Wes Craven’s original Scream to see how it had held up.  Scream was released in 1996 to widespread acclaim and commercial success.  It left in its wake a mini-explosion of self-referential horror films that featured a lack of quality, shallow understanding of the genre, and dearth of originality. Those films have, unfortunately, tarnished the reputation of Craven’s classic.  Despite its less-than-inspiring progeny, re-watching Scream reveals a film that clearly deserved its original reception.

Scream‘s opening sequence is iconic.  It is one of the most famous opening scenes in horror and the years have done nothing to dim its luster.  The taunting, stalking, and eventual murder of Casey is tense, visceral and disturbing.  We learn quickly that Scream’s killer isn’t the silent, demonic archetype spun off of Halloween’s Mike Meyers and Friday the 13th Part Two’s Jason Vorhees.  The film will get around to recognizing and, to an extent, parodying those films, but in this opening shows a a killer who is smart, talkative, and undeniably cruel.  Had the rest of Scream been awful, this opening sequence would still be considered legendary.  It is just that good.

After that opening, the rest of the film is bound to be a bit of a letdown.  Few films are capable of maintaining that level of suspense for their entire running time.  Scream doesn’t quite pull it off either, but it comes surprisingly close.  The standard exposition reveals a group of only barely likeable characters and our protagonist, Sidney.  Sidney is very likeable.  Despite having lost her mother to a brutal murder and going through the turmoil of a highly publicized trial, Sidney remains grounded and, we will learn, resilient.  Her friends are a different story.  The script by Kevin Williamson gives all the characters very funny things to say and for the most part the actors handle the comedy and the drama well, but not a single character in the film talks or behaves like an actual teenagers—which was likely intentional on the part of Craven and Williamson.  In fact, other than Sidney and her goofy brother, Dewey, none of Scream’s characters seem like real people at all.  They all seem like movie characters.  This would ruin the film’s ability to invoke suspense and horror if not for the fact the Sidney feels real and, surrounded by jerks, remains someone we can root for throughout.

The above thoughts might make a reader think that I disliked Scream’s script. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Fifteen years ago, I loved the one-liners, the subtle spoofing of genre conventions, and the twisty plot.  I still love it all today.  The writing is undoubtedly vastly better than we normally get in genre films.  If it were released for the first time today, I think it would find the same level of success and cultural impact that it had fifteen years earlier.  I just can’t help but feel that Williamson and Craven traded some of the potential impact of the film’s plot for a smarter-than-thou attitude that is both the films legacy and its weakness.

Certainly much has been said about the film’s final plot twist.  It is hard to remember if I had it all figured out back in the day, but I think Craven did an excellent job keeping the audience vacillating back and forth between potential killers.  It wouldn’t have been a surprise at all if either Billy or Stuart were revealed as the killer at the end of the film.  The fact that they were working together and, at least Stuart, had a real, emotional reason for his hatred of Sidney, was effective, if not truly surprising.

Scream manages to keep its status as a classic by virtue of talented artists who are on top of their game.  Williamson’s script is remarkable.  The core of actors, especially Campbell, Lilliard, and Ulrich, are outstanding.  Finally, Craven’s direction from the  iconic opening through to the equally iconic ending is masterful.  I’m pretty confident that if I were to visit the film once again in another decade, I’d find that these elements had continued to age well.

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