Scream (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Scream is a rarity: a horror movie spoof that succeeds almost as well at provoking scares as laughs. That's because director Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street), in addition to having a genuine affection for the genre, understands how wildly improbable and easy to lampoon it is. And, with Scream, he skewers it at every corner, using self-referential humor and a flood of in-jokes (some subtle, some obvious).

The list of movies mentioned or satirized is amazingly long, and features everything from the 1931 Universal classic, Frankenstein, to Tom Cruise's All the Right Moves ("if you pause [the video] at the right place, you can see his penis"). Craven, never one to take himself too seriously, pokes fun at his own reputation and his movies, at one point calling himself "Wes Carpenter" (an allusion to the numerous people who confuse him with director John Carpenter). References to Carpenter's original Halloween abound; several minutes of footage from that film are used here in a uniquely effective manner.

Scream opens with a 12-minute prologue that introduces us to Casey (Drew Barrymore), an all-American girl who's popping popcorn in preparation for watching a video. The phone rings, and there's a mysterious voice on the other end. He asks her what her favorite scary movie is, and she replies that it's Halloween. He then invites her to play a game, but she gets freaked out and hangs up. When he calls again and she demands to know what he wants, his response is simple and succinct: "To see your insides." The cat-and-mouse game continues until both Casey and her boyfriend (who has the misfortune to stop by) are gutted like fish.

This double murder is only the beginning, however. It appears that the killer's real target is Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell, from TV's Party of Five), a high school girl with a troubled past. One year ago, Sidney's mother was raped and murdered in a highly-publicized case. Now, when Sidney is attacked by someone wearing a Grim Reaper mask and her boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich), is arrested, her life is turned upside down. From the bathrooms at school to a friend's house, the stalking continues. Meanwhile, an aggressive tabloid reporter (Courteney Cox) begins harassing Sidney for a story.

Scream never stops poking fun at itself. Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson allow their characters to make all sorts of disparaging remarks about the horror movie cliches they're living (and dying) through. In describing why she doesn't like slasher flicks, Sidney claims that "they're all the same… Some big-breasted blond who can't act" does stupid things. Another character, a video junkie (Jamie Kennedy), describes all the gory, real-life events as "standard, horror movie stuff… There's a formula to it -- a very simple formula." Then, as a group gathers to watch Halloween on TV, this same guy recites the three rules of surviving a horror movie: never have sex, never drink or do drugs, and never say "I'll be right back."

The most obvious and inventive parody in Scream involves a direct takeoff of the killer- stalking-Jamie Lee Curtis-through-the-house sequence from Halloween. While that scene is playing on a TV, similar events are happening in the very room where the TV sits. In fact, as Michael Myers is approaching Curtis' character from behind, the death-masked killer is sneaking up on the guy watching the video, who is screaming at the TV, "Look behind you!" Since he's so knowledgeable about the genre, he should consider heeding his own advice.

The director doesn't do everything right. The film's self-parody aspects are sometimes too cute, and there are occasions when they dilute attempts at shocks and suspense. There are also a few too many twists and turns in the script, and the ending is unnecessarily protracted. In general, Scream probably could have benefited from a little more tightening up during either the scripting or the editing stage.

Some of the casting choices are unusual. Most of the major roles go to fresh faces. Neve Campbell, who doesn't have much feature experience, finds the right tone for her character, allowing Sidney to be a little tougher than the typical damsel in distress. Courtney Cox, on the other hand, is never believable as the tough-as-nails, career-obsessed reporter. Drew Barrymore and Henry Winkler (a.k.a. The Fonz, as a high school principal) have cameos (Winkler's is uncredited).

Craven couldn't have made this movie if he didn't understand both his craft and what his fans expect. Of all the mainstream horror directors, he has been the one most willing to take chances. In some ways, Scream is an extension of Wes Craven's New Nightmare, which also blurred the lines between motion pictures and real life. This is a horror film designed with movie-lovers in mind. Beneath all the gore and violence (and there's a lot of both), there's a keen sense of wit and intelligence which sophisticated viewers are likely to appreciate. And that makes this much more than a common slasher flick. Have fun, and remember that "movies don't create psychos; movies make psychos more creative."

Scream (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1996-12-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1