I’ve had an interesting relationship with the film Scream over the years. When it first came out on video, dad went out to Blockbuster (it’s what used to be called a “video store”) and rented a copy to see what all the hubbub was about. Naturally, my untrained 11-year-old eyes weren’t exactly expecting what they wound up seeing. The opening murder scene was about the most disturbing thing in the world I’d ever seen (it's still up there, even after all I've seen in subsequent years), and I had trouble sleeping for the next two nights. As I grew older, and Scream grew more popular, I started joining the Scream bashers, the people who hated it because it was popular even though I really had nothing tangible against it. When I became a horror critic for a few years, it was not only popular, but expected to hate Scream for ushering in all the half-assed imitators of the day. Again, though, I had nothing really against it, as I hadn’t seen it since a half-remembered viewing back when I was 11.
Then, as time passed, and I grew older, and I started to build my horror collection properly, I found a copy of Scream at a used DVD store for about $4. Figuring I didn’t have anything to lose, and wanting to get an educated view of what the film was actually like, I popped Scream in and was entranced. This movie was scary, this movie was funny, this movie was insanely well-written. It wasn’t just a deconstruction of the slasher genre, but a multi-layered whodunit that just happened to disguise itself as a deconstruction of the slasher genre. Time and repeated viewings have made this into one of my favorite movies, and a film that was *this* close to making it to the # 1 spot on this list.
The small town of Woodsboro is rocked by the brutal murder of two teenagers late one night, killed by an unseen maniac in a ghost costume who gets his kicks calling up and tormenting his victims with sick games based around horror movies. This hits Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) the hardest, as it is reminiscent of her mother’s murder one year before. The killer soon turns their attention to her, stalking and taunting her with details that only her mother’s killer could know. Aided by tabloid journalist Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), sheriff’s deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and her boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), Sidney works to find the killer before her hometown is turned in to a bloodbath.
This film’s concept (killer in a ghost mask murdering teens in a small town) is about as stale and clichéd as you can get. Sure, the telephone stalking was a fairly novel concept at the time, but When a Stranger Calls did it first decades before, so it doesn’t even have that on its side. No, what made Scream truly unique in its time, was that it was the first major movie where the characters were aware of the existence of horror movies and the clichés that went into them. Films like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Prom Night are quoted freely. Characters acknowledge the “rules” of horror movies only to break them mere seconds later. It’s a high-concept plot device that could have easily exploded in the filmmakers faces, but instead turned into one of this film’s greatest assets. All at once it is a love letter to and a pitch-black parody of 80’s horror movies.
As well, it is a movie that defies genres. At its core, of course, it’s a horror movie, however you can break up the film’s three acts into separate, awesome subgenres. The first act of the film is a traditional 80’s slasher movie, full of masked killers and some of the best horror put onscreen. The opening scene where the killer torments Drew Barrymore over the phone, breaking her down before killing her (a nice twist, given how prominent she was on all the film’s posters) still gives me the chills after all these years. The second act of the film is a surprisingly solid whodunit. We’re given this cast of characters, they are slowly whittled down, and we have to figure out who was where and when, and we get to try to figure out who the killer actually is. It may seem easy at first, but they keep throwing little twists and red herrings in that make it impossible to finger any suspect for sure. The third act, once the killer is actually revealed, transforms this into a near slapstick comedy. Once we know who the killer is, and see how their grand plan is foiled, this turns into one of the funniest damn horror movies ever made.
I can’t say enough how much I love this movie. I love the writing, I love the directing, I love the cast, I love how twisted and bloody the final act becomes. I feel stupid for having not given this film a chance over the years, and am proud to call it one of my favorite movies of all time.
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-- Matt Carter
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