We’ve looked at the movies that popularized the slasher genre (Halloween and Friday the 13th), so now it seems to make sense to take a look at the movie that turned the genre on its head and reinvented it forever: Scream.
By 1996 the wave of horror films that followed Halloween was tapering off. The three most iconic slasher series (Halloween, Friday, and A Nightmare on Elm Street) had devolved into cartoonishly awful movies and the genre seemed dead in the water. There was nothing new to say, or so it seemed. Scream reinvigorated things by approaching a slasher story from a meta angle. The characters here know all the tricks horror movies use, but that knowledge won’t be able to save most of them.
This winking, slightly comedic approach combined perfectly with some genuinely scary sequences to become a raging success. Scream was so good that it even altered the landscape outside of the horror genre. Suddenly, overly clever and knowing teenagers were everywhere and writer Kevin Williamson was in high demand for similar projects, including Dawson’s Creek, a generation-defining TV show he created.
A sequel was fast-tracked and, frankly, rushed into theaters the following year. And because Hollywood never saw a trend it wasn’t willing to beat to death for money (no pun intended), a new wave of horror movies began. Urban Legend, I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty, Idle Hands–plus reimaginings of classic horror series like Halloween: H2O, The Rage: Carrie 2, and Bride of Chucky–all have Scream‘s fingerprints all over them. If only the quality of those movies had been better.
Oh, and Scream is my all-time favorite scary movie. So don’t answer the phone and let’s get to it.
The opening scene in Scream is legendary within the horror genre. Drew Barrymore plays Casey Becker, a teenager who just wanted to have a movie night when she gets drawn into a conversation about scary movies with some wrong number who keeps calling. Things escalate quickly and it doesn’t end well for Casey or her boyfriend, Steve, either. It’s a shocking, very scary scene that perfectly sets up this movie’s meta twists on established slasher formulae.
Next we meet our final girl, Sidney Prescott, when her boyfriend Billy drops by her bedroom window in a deliberate callback to Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Here’s what’s important: she’s still a virgin, checking a box on the clichéd final girl scorecard, and the first anniversary of her mother’s brutal rape and murder is coming up. Of course, this news is going to be significant because horror movies love either a holiday or an anniversary and Scream loves winking at you about tired horror tropes.
There’s a lot of talk about scary movies as we meet the rest of the main characters: Sid’s BFF Tatum, Tatum’s boyfriend Stu, Tatum’s brother Deputy Dewey, mean-spirited reporter Gale Weathers, and horror movie geek Randy. The movie will repeatedly fuck with us to ensure that everyone is a suspect.
Sid gets a call from Ghostface and from here on out the movie is something of a personal showdown between her and someone who wants to kill her. Sidney shows just how crazy smart and fearless she is by launching a blistering take-down of scary movies and the insulting way they tend to portray women and she calls the killer unoriginal to boot. That’s when she goes too far, walking out the front door to call the killer’s bluff that he’s outside. If someone says they’re stalking Sid to kill her, she wants the receipts.
Even though Sidney is showing how tough as shit and smart she is, walking outside allowed Ghostface to sneak into her house and surprise her from the closet when she goes back inside. Since she just pulled the chain latch shut on the door behind her and Ghostface is blocking the rest of the first floor, Sid has no choice but to run upstairs–which is exactly the dumb trope from horror movies she was just criticizing. (Side note: a lot of people who talk about this movie seem to assume that Ghostface was always in her closet. My take is that her chutzpah backfired by allowing Ghostface to sneak inside because the front door is briefly out of her line of sight. These people also quickly point out that Sid runs up the stairs, but seem to forget that she legit tried to run out the front door first–which is exactly what she said girls in horror movies should do instead. #JusticeForSidney).
Billy appears at Sid’s window as a super creepy Deus Ex Machina and drops a cell phone, which makes her instantly suspicious (remember, in 1996 basically the only person who had a cell phone was Frasier Crane).
Sid gets another call from the killer after safely ending up at Tatum’s house, which seems to clear Billy but like I said, this movie does a lot to make sure everyone is a suspect. After Sid’s attack, we get a lot of background information about her mom, Maureen, and her brutal murder. It turns out Maureen had a reputation as the village bicycle and Sid may have incorrectly identified one of her side pieces, Cotton Weary, as the murderer. This narrative is mostly pushed by Gale, who has been writing a book about Maureen’s murder and Cotton’s (false, as she believes) imprisonment.
It all leads to a raging party at Stu’s creepy AF house in the middle of nowhere. But before we get to the movie’s final act, we need to make one last stop because the Weinsteins (who owned Dimension, the studio that made Scream) complained that it had been ages since anyone died in this movie. Who will be the Weinstein’s token victim for pacing? It’s Henry Winkler (AKA The Fonz) as Principal Himbry.
Okay, it’s party time. Gale shows up and flirts with Deputy Dewey to get inside because she’s seen scary movies before and she knows a party scene at the end of the movie always spells trouble, so she wants to be there to report on anything that goes down. Then all the main cast members start to separate so you don’t know who to trust or who’s about to become a victim.
Stu sends Tatum to the garage to get him another beer and she’s promptly confronted by Ghostface, who kills her in a scene that rivals Casey’s death in the opening in terms of pop cultural impact, which says a lot. In case you’re wondering, she gets stuck in the garage door’s dog flap and gets her head crushed in a way that completely ignores the physics of how garage doors work but still manages to be shocking and scary.
Billy shows up and Sid decides to relinquish her virginity to him in an upstairs bedroom. Randy establishes the rules to surviving a horror movie: no sex (uh-oh Sidney), no beer or drugs, and never say “I’ll be right back” because you’re basically dooming yourself if you do. A phone call alerts the partygoers that Himbry has been killed and his body is hanging from the goalposts on the football field, so everyone who isn’t part of the main cast leaves to go see this for themselves. Oh, and Sid’s dad has been missing for the whole movie but his car is found hidden in the woods alongside the road.
Billy and Sid are done doing the nasty when Ghostface shows up and seems to kill Billy. Sidney eventually runs to Gale’s news van for help, where the poor cameraman is killed by Ghostface, who excels at both showing up suddenly and disappearing without a trace. Sid escapes once again and there’s a lot more running around. Dewey walks out of the house with a knife in his back and collapses, giving Sidney access to his gun when Stu and Randy show up in the front yard to beg her for help and accuse the other guy of being the killer. Not knowing who to trust, Sidney tells them both to fuck off and shuts the door.
Now Billy shows up alive and reveals himself to be the killer when he lets Randy in and shoots him with the gun Sid just handed him in a show of trust. As we’ll see, Sid is going to have serious trust issues from now on. But Billy’s not the only bad guy here because Stu walks in from the back of the house and reveals that he’s got the voice changer the killer has been using on all the phone calls.
They drag Sid into the kitchen and make fun of how movies always demand motives, then provide them anyway (wink). Turns out Sidney’s mom was sleeping with Billy’s dad and she was the reason Billy’s mom split town. Billy and Randy killed Sidney’s mom for revenge, and now he’s going after Sidney to complete the circle. Stu’s motive? Peer pressure. But, I mean, he also seems pretty fucking crazy. They also drag out Sid’s dad, who they’ve had tied up the whole movie so they can frame him for everything that went down.
Gale interrupts the proceedings, but since she forgot to take the safety off of Dewey’s gun she just gets kicked into a post by Billy and knocked out. She does, however, give Sid the chance to escape and force Billy and Stu to look for her. She flips the script by calling them before stabbing Billy with an umbrella. Stu charges her and they have a pretty badass fight, then Sidney kills him by dropping a TV on his head (remember when TVs were big enough that this could be at least reasonably plausible?).
Randy reveals that he’s alive, but so is Billy, who knocks Randy down and is just about to stab Sidney when Gale shoots him, having both woken up and remembered the safety this time. Randy warns them that this is the moment when the seemingly dead killer comes back for one last scare, and sure enough Billy jumps up like the boogeyman, only to get shot in the head by Sid.
Dewey turns out to be alive and is loaded into an ambulance as Gale reports live from the scene, because she knows this is a big moment for her, and the screen fades to black.
As stated in the beginning, this is my favorite scary movie of all time. In addition to how genuinely scary it is, I love how Scream winks at the audience over the familiarity of its set-ups, then adds some twists to genuinely surprise them. I love how it has fun characters who have depth to them. And I love how even though these teens know better from all the movies they’ve watched, they either make the same dumb mistakes as the people in the movies or get forced into a situation they know is no good. It’s important to note that in this movie, no one feels dumb. Well, except maybe Dewey. Dewey has always annoyed me.
While I’m on the Dewey train, I’ve always thought that both this movie and the series that followed would have been better if they had left Dewey dead as originally planned. Aside from how annoying I find him, Dewey is the most disconnected character from the others, which means that each sequel needs to find a way to write him back in.
I’ll concede that it’s manipulative beyond belief that this movie keeps getting characters alone and having them move in and out of the scenes to keep you guessing about who’s throwing on the Ghostface mask, and the sheer number of red herrings it throws at you is staggering, but in this movie it feels clever enough for you to go along with it. In the sequels, it rapidly becomes a cheap and irritating gimmick.
This is such a good movie, but like all of the others I’ve covered so far, I need to add the caveat that it’s unfortunate that the series that follows doesn’t live up to the original.
A case could be made that Sidney strongly benefits from the fact that almost twenty years after Halloween, the final girl iconography had been established enough for her to be written as the ultimate example of the archetype. That’s not necessarily wrong, but it shouldn’t take away from just how great she is. She’s smart, no-nonsense, and resourceful, but she’s also probably the most complex example of a final girl ever written. Even in this movie, she’s struggling with guilt, trauma, and suspicion–and she’s always second-guessing herself. Sid is consistently the best thing about the series, and a lot of that comes down to actress Neve Campbell, who brings all of Sid’s conflicting personality traits to life. She’s probably my all-time favorite final girl.
You could technically also make a case to include Gale in this category since she also survives all of the Scream movies, but even though she’s usually a key figure in the finales her role is always secondary to Sidney. She’s more like an interesting foil that’s an essential part of Sidney: a bad girl to counterbalance Sid’s essential goodness.
Technically, the bad guy is Ghostface, but one of the key attributes of this character is the reveal at the end of who has donned the robes this time. Ghostface himself is fine. The phone calls become gimmicky as the series progresses, and once technology gets more advanced they also become a rather convoluted plotpoint. Still, in this movie it’s played really well. The costume is inherently slightly ridiculous but damn if it doesn’t work.
But let’s get to the actual bad guys! Billy and Stu are the best bad guys this series will ever have. Skeet Ulrich does a great job playing off the familiarity of the genre’s boyfriend roles as Billy (especially the one he most closely resembles physically: Johnny Depp’s Glenn in A Nightmare on Elm Street) while adding a thick veneer of greasy menace that makes his villain reveal plausible. Matthew Lillard always gives it 110% as Stu, who by all accounts should have been a forgettable prankster character. With verve and mysterious motivations, he becomes one of the series most memorable characters. He occasionally pushes over the top too far, but the chemistry between the two friends is palpable and even enjoyable. There are theories out there that there’s something homoerotic about Billy and Stu, and I would listen to them, even if I deem them unnecessary.
As with all movies that begin a horror series, Scream is lighter on kills than its sequels. Seven people die in the movie–two of them bad guys and one because the Weinsteins demanded another victim for pacing. And while there’s a lot of gore and blood, in this movie it feels somewhat less problematic than in the sequels.
That’s it for now, but because evil never really dies, we’ll be back.