by Matt Levine
It’s strange to realize that a film you remember vividly from your youth—a popular, controversial release that came out in the peak of your movie-hungry high school years, for example—is now so outdated that it can’t possibly be viewed in the same appreciative light. Such is the case with Scream, which—while it was released less than twenty years ago—undeniably belongs to a different era. This isn’t simply a matter of awkward teen slang or cringe-inducing clothing and hairstyles; nearly every facet of Scream belongs to a cinematic time period before horror movies became innately self-referential and before genre hybrids became the norm for films trying to appear fresh and marketable to a young crowd. The film's winking genre mash-up has become a quaint artifact of early postmodernism that lazily falls into the same clichés it so gleefully derides.
Director: Wes Craven
Producers: Cathy Konrad, Cary Woods
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Cinematographer: Mark Irwin
Editor: Patrick Lussier
Music: Marco Beltrami
Cast: Neve Campbell, Drew Barrymore, Skeet Ulrich, Courteney Cox, W. Earl Brown, Rose McGowan, David Arquette, Joseph Whipp, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, C.W. Morgan, Frances Lee McCain, Liev Schreiber
US Theatrical Release: December 20, 1996
US Distributor: Dimension Films
At the time, though, according to the critical consensus, you would have thought Scream was the second coming of Psycho (and not in the Gus Van Sant sense). Entertainment Weekly called it a “deft, funny, shrewdly unsettling tribute” to the slasher subgenre; L.A. Weekly raved that it was “a meta-horror film that hilariously parodies the genre’s clichés with smarts to spare.” Most other critics agreed, lauding its balance of intelligent humor and satisfying horror tropes. It is indeed hard to think of many wink-nudge meta-horror movies before the mid-90s, and it should be noted that Scream came around at the perfect moment for slasher movies: after a 1980s heyday that launched a number of franchises (most of which are mentioned at some point in Scream), the subgenre had fizzled out with a glut of cheap knockoffs and generic sequels. Give Scream points for innovation, then—or, at least, being in the right place at the right time—but all those critics’ superlatives dismiss the fact that Scream doesn’t do much with its pop-culture-steeped in-jokes.
The opening sequence remains the film’s high point: a 15-minute prologue in which an innocent young high schooler named Casey (Drew Barrymore, who, like all of the other high schoolers in the movie, looks at least 25) is terrorized by a masked killer who first bombards her with movie trivia over the phone. Horror buffs will get a kick out of the dialogue here, which references Halloween and Friday the 13th while simultaneously evoking an air of impending violence. Director Wes Craven (whose Nightmare on Elm Street remains my favorite ‘80s horror movie, though the franchise fell off quickly) demonstrates his prowess for atmospheric cutaways: smoking popcorn here, a lonely tree swing there, edited into the narrative with devious subtlety. The dialogue is self-satisfied right from the start, and the killer’s ludicrous, slightly modulated voice is never as unsettling as it could be, but this opening does achieve a funny-scary balance that the rest of the film is sorely lacking.
After Casey and her boyfriend Steve are disemboweled by the so-called Ghostface Killer (so called because of his/her dime-store costume and mask, not because of any love for the Wu-Tang Clan, sadly), we meet our protagonist, Sidney (Neve Campbell). A good girl in the vein of Halloween’s Laurie Strode, Sidney lives with her single father in an affluent California suburb; her mother was raped and killed almost precisely one year earlier, though the purported killer, Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), is now imprisoned. Sidney is even more disturbed to hear of her classmates’ murders than the rest of the school, and when she’s soon targeted by the killer, she begins to suspect there’s a connection between this killing spree and her mother’s death. Her friends, most of whom seem to be pretty awful human beings, are all suspects: her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich), best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan), Tatum’s boyfriend Stuart (Matthew Lillard), and their film-nerd cohort Randy (Jamie Kennedy), who tags along mostly to cite earlier slasher-movie classics and relate “the rules of horror movies.” (Don’t have sex, don’t drink or do drugs, and never say “I’ll be right back.”) In fairness, Campbell makes Sidney into a likeable character, but the rest of the ensemble is mostly insufferable meat for the killer to slice and dice; in order to generate scares, most horror movies have to lend their characters at least a shred of humanity, but Scream seems mostly disinterested in that task.
The fact that Scream constantly indulges the clichés that it cites is partially a sign of its self-awareness, but it’s also a sign of poor screenwriting: the movie devolves into the protracted jump-scares and lame-brained plots familiar from so many earlier bad slasher movies. I’m normally not one to hate on a movie for numerous plot holes, but Scream has so many lapses in logic and common sense that it’s absurd the movie was lauded for its intelligence. Was the masked killer hiding in the high school women’s room for hours or even days before Sidney happened to walk into it, like Arrested Development’s Tony Wonder hiding in the dumbwaiter? How did the killer stalk Sidney in a crowded grocery store without being noticed by anyone else? Why is the high school principal killed, considering this victim is totally different and the motivation for his murder wholly unexplained? Why are some characters incapacitated by a gunshot to the shoulder while others are stabbed repeatedly but remain conscious? You can only defend a movie’s stupidity as ironic and self-aware up to a certain point.
The aspect that most critics did deem as intelligent—its overt reference to the lazy clichés that have propped up an entire subgenre, not to mention how avidly young viewers immerse themselves in those clichés—exists mostly at a surface level. Musical clues from Halloween are used fleetingly; a drunken horror-movie viewer screams at the characters to “look behind you!,” when the killer is of course standing right behind him. Even the school’s groundskeeper is named Freddy and wears a striped sweater (and amusingly played by Craven himself in a cameo). Granted, the main villain is killed when his head is crushed by a TV, and one dialogue exchange points directly towards the movie’s theme: when one character professes that this isn’t a movie, another responds, “Sure it is. It’s all one great, big movie. You just can’t pick your genre.” If the movie had indulged this idea more, it might have led to an interesting deconstruction, but such an obvious point regarding the gray area between reality and fiction has become commonplace in the wake of such ensuing horror-comedy hybrids as Cabin in the Woods and Super 8.
Scream is most definitely a product of 1996, as evidenced by a Ricki Lake reference and a hilarious moment when the police captain grimly asks, “What are you doing with a cellular phone, son?” But this almost archaic pre-millennial vibe isn’t the film’s greatest flaw; watching it again, you realize that it’s just not funny or scary. After its strong opening scene, Craven does little to heighten the suspense, relying instead on a preponderance of canted angles (and rather ugly ones at that) and a mind-numbing score by Marco Beltrami that’s all loud noises and grating strings. The dialogue by Kevin Williamson might have been celebrated for its pop-culture knowingness and easygoing slang, but it now sounds arch and self-satisfied; it’s well-written in the same way as Williamson’s Dawson’s Creek (which is to say, not at all). Yes, Scream might have revitalized the horror genre and initiated a string of postmodern scary movies that wallow in their own tropes, but is that a good thing? We’ve reached an inner circle of postmodernism where simply recycling and citing clichés isn’t good enough; expectations must be dashed and subverted in more unique ways, as demonstrated by Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011), for example. Scream might have pointed more creative writer-directors in the right direction, but all the film does is prop up tired, old tropes with a pretense of innovation. That’s not only stagnation—it’s regression.