Producers of violent horror movies like to claim their movies are “controversial.” Here’s a more mainstream-acceptable horror movie that actually is controversial among movie fans. It was hugely popular at the time, but it seems to me like most horror fans today look down on it or sent it. Like it or not, SCREAM was an important landmark in the ongoing history of the horror. It singlehandedly resuscitated the rotting corpse of the slasher movie (at least in its whodunit form inspired by FRIDAY THE 13TH, SLEEPAWAY CAMP, PROM NIGHT, TERROR TRAIN, etc.) It made horror big business again, paving the way for an onslaught of low (and medium) budget horror that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. But alot of horror fans see themselves as outsiders, so it bugs them when a horror movie is popular with people who aren’t as into stabbing and monsters as they are. And in my opinion there is a certain amount of sexism there, because they get mad about teenage girls liking the same movies as them. (Don’t tell them that HALLOWEEN is about teenage girls, they might cry.)
But the real problem with SCREAM is that it cursed us with a smart-assy self-referentialism that to this day still pops out like a screeching cat to ruin many a would-be tense moment.
So watching SCREAM in late 2008 comes with baggage. You watch it and can’t help but think of all the mediocre-to-bad movies it inspired and the things the cast have done (or haven’t done) since. Hey, that’s the guy from the SCOOBY DOO movies. That’s the lady that Robert Rodriguez left his wife for. That’s Jamie Kennedy. Hey, I forgot about the guy that looked like Johnny Depp. Didn’t he do a movie with Cuba Gooding Jr.? Is he in TV now? Or does he play Jack Sparrow at Disneyland?
Also you can’t help but think about the writer, Kevin Williamson. Wes Craven obviously pulls his weight as director, but this one’s definitely a writer’s movie. It seemed to many people like such a re-invention of horror that everyone wanted to see what he would do next. Well, he wrote a few similar, lesser horror scripts (I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, THE FACULTY) some terrible ones (TEACHING MRS. TINGLE, later CURSED)and mostly is just known now as the creator of the teen soap opera DAWSON’S CREEK. At the time the style of writing in SCREAM seemed new, now it’s got that DAWSON’S CREEK scent all over it. The soap opera elements stand out more. The gimmick of the characters knowing the cliches of horror movies was a clever way of making them relatable, but the main character begins the movie already a media figure at the center of a highly publicized murder trial and wrongful conviction controversy. So I doubt many kids are watching thinking “That could be me.”
Some of the horror references are kind of intrusive. Why would Sydney, who says she hates “scary movies,” mention THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN?
Also, that mask, such a good choice because it was a real Halloween mask with a very simple but creepy design, has been overexposed due to the popularity of the movie. It’s lost its power, meaningless now like Mickey Mouse.
But you know what? Despite all that this is still a pretty effective movie. Craven is a director who can get into a groove more often than most, and his many cat and mouse scenes get your heart pumping. The killer’s habit of calling on the phone, making you guess where exactly he’s hiding, has a primal effectiveness. And there are a couple other good gimmicks to keep you on your toes, like the hidden camera with the 30 second delay. So you know the killer was standing behind the couch half a minute ago, but you don’t know where he is now. Somewhere nearby.
Despite all the joking and referencing, the main emphasis of the movie is on serious slasher business, and on that level it works – especially in the scene with Drew Barrymore, who does a good charming and then a really good terrified. Definitely better than you often get from a slasher movie non-survivor. A classic scary setup, and that’s the opening scene of the movie. Think about how many horror movies start off with some character getting killed to set up the rest of the movie – usually you forget what that character even looked like by the time you get to the end. So an “opening kill” this memorable is an achievement.
Even some of the postmodernist shit still works, I think. When the killer calls Sydney (Neve Campbell) and quizzes her about horror movies she says she doesn’t like them because “What’s the point they’re all the same, some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door, it’s insulting.” But later she’s being attacked and she has trouble getting out the front door so what does she do? She runs up the stairs. I thought that was great because it always bugs me when people criticize horror movies by saying the characters are dumb because they didn’t do the one perfect strategic thing that they are confident they would be smart enough to do in that situation. Obviously, you or I would stay completely calm and focused and not panic or shit our pants, right? When Sydney runs up the stairs we understand why. It shows that sometimes you have no choice but to run up the stairs. It’s fight or flight, man, and she’s not ready to take on the ghost with the knife.
I must say though that if I did get called by these guys I think I would do pretty good with the horror trivia portion, for example I wouldn’t fall for that trick question about who the killer is in FRIDAY THE 13TH. And I would know other things like John Laroquette is the narrator on TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and Larry Fishburne was in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3 and the Michael Meyers mask is a William Shatner mask painted white and with the sideburns cut off. So I could take these guys on in my opinion. Look out scream killers, you met your match.
For alot of people this movie marks the transition into modern, not as good horror. The early ’90s were pretty light on horror, then this started a new wave of “who is the killer?” movies and other horrors featuring youthful casts from TV. After that it was BLAIR WITCH and THE RING’s brood of PG-13 ghost movies and remakes of Asian horror. Then there was SAW and all the remakes which they call “nu horror.” In terms of horror’s evolution it doesn’t seem like that long ago, but watching the movie it does just because of technology: cell phones are scarce (and sometimes brick sized), nobody has caller ID, and it’s hard for cops to check phone records.
A buddy of mine named Thomas jokingly suggested they should remake SCREAM. I wondered what that would mean exactly. At first I thought it would only reference horror from the SCREAM era, like URBAN LEGEND and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER. “What’s your favorite scary movie?” “FINAL DESTINATION.” Then I thought only remakes. They specifically make references to the Rob Zombie HALLOWEEN or Michael Bay’s remakes. Then I thought oh yeah, it would be from Platinum Dunes, so it would inexplicably take place in the ’70s. Thomas decided it would be in the ’70s without movie references, they would follow rules from some old book. They would remake that story about kids stalking their schoolmates but without all the pop culture and media elements that everybody remembers. It would be deadly serious with no irony or meta-anything. But it would be really good and act as a sort of spiritual cleansing of modern horror, atoning for everything SCREAM caused and setting us back to a pre-SCREAM moment in horror.
But I don’t know if that’s necessary. If you see SCREAM as one movie, not a movement or a template, it’s pretty good. For some reason we take the goofy shit more personally than we do in some of our classics. We can accept P.J. Soles saying “totally” in HALLOWEEN or wearing her painter’s cap over a hair dryer in CARRIE, but we can’t take a couple pop culture references in this one. We don’t watch HALLOWEEN fuming about the terrible holiday-themed slashers it spawned, or NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET mad that the dream-killer gimmick is too clever. But with this one for some reason we sometimes can’t separate the solid slasher movie from some of those little things. Why should we care if this movie inspired later movies to cast people from TV shows we don’t remember that aired on a network that no longer exists? What relevance is it now? But for some reason people will still talk bitterly about “the WB” when they talk about SCREAM.
Oh well. That’s not a battle worth waging. I just want to give credit where credit is due. It’s no ELM STREET and I prefer THE HILLS HAVE EYES but I think Wes Craven can still be proud of this one.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.