Written by Kevin Williamson
Directed by Wes Craven
I do not enjoy slasher movies. Of all the subgenres of horror, I have just never found people running around with knives all that scary. Yes, in real life, if someone was running at me with a weapon, I would be terrified. But when it comes to horror fiction, I am always more disturbed by existential horror and stories with Lovecraftian themes about unavoidable cosmic terrors. The 1980s and 90s were dominated by slasher pictures, most notoriously the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series. The latter film franchise was started by Wes Craven, one of the slasher flick founding fathers, beginning with the gruesome The Last House on the Left in 1972. After almost twenty-five years of making these movies, Craven delivered what I think is the final word on the whole affair with Scream.
Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) has spent the last year coping with her mother’s tragic murder. Now it appears a serial killer is on the loose in her small town, wearing a ghostly mask and black robe. One girl is found hanging from a tree with her innards hanging out, her boyfriend by the pool in the backyard meeting a similar brutal fate. This event has reawakened the media fervor that was almost gone from town, started by reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), who has an upcoming book on the Prescott murder. The killer targets Sidney, who manages to fend him off and suspect her boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), is the man behind the mask. This creates a significant rift between the teenagers as the town grows increasingly paranoid about the next victim. All the while, the teenagers are deconstructing the tropes of slasher movies while living one out.
This was not Wes Craven’s first attempt to get meta-textual about the film genre that made his career. In 1994, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare played with genre conventions by having Heather Langenkamp play herself, the actress who had starred in the first Elm Street picture. Wes Craven plays himself as does Robert Englund. The film is about Freddy entering the real world while playing out as a satire of Hollywood, the studio system, and fame. Scream is not so on the nose satirically, but it still manages to respect and poke fun at the kind of movie it is.
Kevin Williamson, the screenwriter, was inspired by stories he read about the Gainesville Ripper, a serial killer in Florida in 1990. Scream began as a short story that serves as the movie’s opening sequence, a young woman taunted over the phone by a killer. As the story developed, Williamson worked out the tragedy of Sidney Prescott and the people around her, including the killer who was closer than she realized. The result is that it feels like you are joining a story already in progress, which is something I really love in fiction. You get that experience in comic books because they have been going on for so long, and I think it better immerses you in the story.
Craven is very aware of what not to do in this picture, and he has stated that around this time, he was growing very weary of the embedded misogyny in so much of the mainstream horror movies coming out. To compensate for that, we never see Sidney as a helpless victim. There are many moments she is in peril, but she has an incredibly realistic resolve from her mother’s death that she refuses to go without a fight. I personally love the clumsiness of Ghostface, the film’s killer. He has the crap beaten out of him throughout the movie and it makes sense. This isn’t the superhumanly strong Jason or the dream invader Freddy. Ghostface truly is just an untrained, unskilled person in a costume trying to kill people.
The fear when you make your killer so fallible is that the stakes are lost, and the story becomes comedic. Somehow Craven can make us laugh and still keep the tension up throughout the picture. Ghostface has a knife and stalks people when they don’t realize it, so he is a threat. There is always the sense that they could get away, though, because of his imperfect nature. This is such a fine line to tread. I don’t think many other filmmakers could pull it off. Was Craven able to maintain that balancing act for the three subsequent movies? No, they most certainly fell into parody territory by the end. However, this first picture was an immediate iconic piece of horror, capturing the feel of the late 1990s while feeling like a perfect summation of a decades-old subgenre of movie. Scream definitely holds up and remains a fun watch for horror fans who don’t take themselves too seriously.