Reinventing an Abandoned Genre: An Analysis of “Scream”

I cannot think of another name in American horror that has the stature of the late, great Wes Craven. Craven, who sadly passed in 2015, is a name that many of you are likely aware of, perhaps subconsciously, even if you don’t necessarily recognize it in passing. To refresh the memories of those who are scratching their heads at my previous statement, Craven was responsible for some of the greatest and most well-known horror films and franchises ever made, including 80s mega-hit A Nightmare on Elm Street (that’s Freddy, for the less informed), his 70s midnight movie darlings The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, as well as some more obscure hits you may recognize like the Rachel McAdams-led and highly underrated Red Eye and, well, whatever the hell The People Under the Stairs is (has anyone seen that movie, by the way? It’s weird).

But I digress.

What I’ve written about here is what may be Craven’s ultimate masterpiece in my eyes, the 1996 phenomenon that is Scream. Scream is a film that single-handedly rewrote the canon of the slasher film. Scream satirized the many clichés that had made the subgenre as popular as it was in the 80s, while also bringing it forward into uncharted, postmodern territory, ultimately becoming the most successful slasher flick ever at the box office and paving the way for a resurgence in the genre in the following decade. This is where we would see eventually the releases of imitators such as Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and yes, even Scary Movie.

The characters in Scream, like its viewers, are aware of Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and every other horror movie icon that was a part of the 80s craze. This is what really set Scream apart from its predecessors at the time, and allowed for its success and endless influence moving forward into the early aughts. Still, over 20 years later, it’s also the aspect that keeps the film fresh and unlike any other.

And with this knowledge, of course, the characters understand the rules of horror films; retaining some inkling on how to better survive an attack by a homicidal maniac — or so they think. Through one of my favorite characters in the film, Randy (Jamie Kennedy), we’re introduced in to a set of rules that truly define what you should and shouldn’t do in a horror movie situation, adding to the film’s satirical self-awareness (for a fun game, take a shot every time one of the characters breaks one of these following rules). Number one: You can never have sex. Remember, sex equals death. Virginity is purity, and goodness always defeats evil in Hollywood. Number two: Never drink or do drugs. Randy says this plays into the sin factor, being an extension of rule number one. And number three: Don’t you dare, under any circumstances, say to someone, “I’ll be right back.” That person almost certainly will not be back.

Scream begins with its most iconic scene; one that begs the question of its viewers, as well as its most well-known cast member, Drew Barrymore, “Do you like scary movies?” I don’t believe it to be impossible to enjoy Scream while having even the most basic knowledge of horror films; surely it can still excite its less knowledgeable (or less nerdy) audience members. But especially for its more savvy viewers, Scream is a captivating ode to your favorite scary movies, effectively making use of every trope in the horror film guidebook, and in a modicum of very fun ways, flipping all of your expectations on their head.

All of my previous words are in total praise of Scream, and yet, on paper, it oddly isn’t all that original of a film, even at the time of its release. In utilizing almost every horror trope known to man, though, Scream is made all the more special due to its exceeding self-awareness, which I made note of above. Scream honestly boasts a cookie-cutter horror story, collecting a large number of attractive, high school-aged characters and placing them within a sort of sadistic whodunnit story, complete with an unknown, masked killer whose reveal near the end of the film stacks up in my mind as one of the most classic horror film twists to ever exist. Scream’s overall plotline is not much different from, say, the story of Halloween — or its dozens of iterators that oversaturated the market in the 80s leading to the genre’s quick demise — but since the characters are well-aware of said storylines, Scream makes up for its lacking originality through its characters and relatable world.

But still, most of these characters don’t even escape the expected portrait archetypes of this kind of film. There’s the kickass final girl in the film’s hero, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell); the bad-boy love interest in Billy (Skeet Ulrich); the intelligent know-it-all in Randy (by intelligent, I mean he knows his movies really well). Then there’s the ditsy, promiscuous friend in Tatum (Rose McGowan), and the charming jokester in Stuart (Matthew Lillard).

The characters that are at least a little surprising are the adults, like the clever news reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and the lovable doofus deputy, Dewey (David Arquette). Perhaps my favorite aspect of this cast of characters is the people that portray them, which is the most 1996 ensemble ever assembled, with Drew Barrymore, as I said before, along with Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy, Rose McGowan, Matthew Lillard, David Arquette, and fresh off of Friends fame, Courteney Cox. This is a cast that, believe me, could only have been compiled in this time frame.

Going back to the brilliant opening scene, it’s the perfect set-up for the unique list of rules that the film will abide by over its nearly two-hour running time. The killer — known as Ghostface — is on the other end of the phone when a home-alone Casey (the character portrayed by Drew Barrymore) picks up, in a distinct nod to When A Stranger Calls. The voice asks the iconic line I mentioned before, but the film even takes this a step further, playing a game of life-or-death trivia featuring questions about popular horror films (like, ‘Who was the killer in the original Friday the 13th?’).

The remote calling is a recurring idea throughout the film, such as when Ghostface later calls up Sidney, recalling to her, “With the murders and all, it’s like right out of a horror movie, isn’t it?” The film alludes to many of its biggest influences throughout, but also winks and nods at the audience that it itself knows it’s a horror film. You’ll find yourself right alongside the characters at certain points, groaning at the screen as the lead does exactly what she just said she wouldn’t do — but that’s the genius of the satiric, often hilarious script.

Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson effectively craft a blueprint for what the audience is in for in Scream through the 12-minute opener in terms of the film’s tone and style. We’re also effectively introduced to the film’s compelling killer, who comes with some unique traits in relation to other horror films. While Freddy had already done the talkative horror villain a decade before Scream, Ghostface is distinct even when placed against Craven’s other horror icon. Freddy’s tenure began as a genuinely scary killer in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, but when Craven dropped out as a creative on the lead-up to its many sequels, the character only became sillier, never not saying a cheesy one-liner when offing another one of those attractive teenagers.

Ghostface, on the other hand, is a regular person — not an undead, stalk-you-in-your-dreams kind of monster. From Ghostface’s initial appearance, the killer realistically stumbles a bit while trying to murder the characters one-by-one. Ghostface cracks jokes and mentions horror films and their specific plot points over and over again, toying with the many victims in the film. The villain also seems to be well-acquainted with its ensemble of characters, leaving Sidney, as well as the audience, guessing as to who is underneath that silly mask.

Craven is a master of horror, bringing to the table the sensibilities that help the film retain its aspects of terror, while Williamson’s script remains ahead of its time, intertwining comedic moments with genuinely thrilling scares. I want to reiterate that the momentous genre-reviver, Scream, celebrates the slasher genre as much as it deconstructs it, in the process rewriting the most played-out subgenre of horror, becoming one of the biggest film phenomenons of the 90s, and defining itself as a true classic.

— Michael Lane, Blog Editor

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