Scream: A 25-Year Retrospective

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of a film that launched a franchise and revitalized the slasher subgenre. In honor of the occasion, I recently re-watched Scream (a film so impactful that I can still recall the experience of first seeing it in theaters back in 1996). Some thoughts from the perspective of late-2021:

While never allowing the pacing to lag, Scream is an incredibly patient film. That extended opening scene takes its time, toying with the audience the same way the killer toys with Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) on the phone. Suspense is built, but the added effect is that viewers are led to believe they are watching the film’s protagonist– only to have her killed off shockingly.

After the murders of Casey and Steve in the opening, the film then waits quite a while to kill off another character (Principal Himbry). Rather than stacking up bodies, Scream devotes time to introducing the characters and interweaving their backstories (Sidney’s ongoing trauma a year after her mother’s rape/murder). The first half of the film brings the town of Woodsboro to life, giving viewers a sense of the suburban Californian community and its constituents before narrowing down to a single setting (Stu Macher’s house) in the second half.

For a late-20th Century slasher directed by Wes Craven, Scream is, remarkably, not very gory. Yes, there’s an early shot of the eviscerated Steve, and there’s a lot of stabbing, but the knife strikes are never lingered on in graphic detail (Deputy Dewey’s wounding even happens offscreen). Akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and John Carpenter’s Halloween, Craven’s film implies more violence (thanks to judicious editing) than is actually depicted. Perhaps this is the result of being forced to tone down the bloodshed by the MPAA, but Scream does seem willing to allow viewers to fill in the space between the “cuts” with their imagination.

All this is not to say that the movie is devoid of the set-piece kills slasher fans have come to expect. One need only point to the demise of chesty besty Tatum (Rose McGowan), a scene that earns the award for Most Fiendish Use of a Pet Door/Garage Door. Something that did strike me upon this most recent viewing, though, was how silly it was for Tatum’s body to have been left there hanging afterward for anyone to see. For all of Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu’s precise planning, their failure to keep the corpse out of plain sight was fairly careless, and appeared to serve little plot purpose other than have a horrified Sidney (Neve Campbell) stumble across her friend’s murder later.

I’ve seen this film umpteen times, but it wasn’t until this last screening that I noticed that the Halloween-store costume the killer dons is actually labeled “Father Death” on the package. It’s Tatum who puts the name to what would become a pop culture icon, when she teasingly (believing one of her friends is playing a prank on her) refers to the masked/shrouded knife-wielder as “Mr. Ghostface.” Interestingly, the name is not used in the closing credits; much like “Pinhead” (who is identified only as the “Lead Cenobite” at the end of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser), “Ghostface” becomes the unforgettable moniker for the horror villain following the success of the first film in the eventual series.

Scream is renowned (justly) for its postmodern self-awareness and its thrilling action sequences, but arguably its most engrossing element is the mystery of the killer’s (or as it turns out, killers’) identity. As the slasher-savvy Randy (Jamie Kennedy) proclaims, “Everybody’s a suspect,” and the film masterfully casts suspicion upon its various characters. Sometimes this is overt, as in the case of Billy (a seeming red herring), but Craven also makes crafted use of subtlety. When the killer contacts Sidney at the Riley home, Dewey doesn’t rush out of his bedroom until just after the call is disconnected–leaving open the possibility that he was the one calling. Likewise, in another scene the camera offers a quick shot of Sheriff Burke’s boots–eerily reminiscent of the killer’s footwear when glimpsed by Sidney beneath the door of the bathroom stall. As a well-done whodunit, Scream keeps audience members on the alert and primes them to take note of the smallest detail.

The film is replete with witty repartee and wonderful sight gags (after a quarter century, my favorite remains the janitor decked out like Freddy Krueger), but never lets the meta reduce to mere satire or settles for genre-hybrid status. This is first and foremost, a horror movie. That is why my biggest critique to this day is Matthew Lillard’s performance as Stu. The character is spectacularly manic and delivers a slew of memorable lines, but is too over the top for my liking. On the one hand, Stu’s antics are revealing (this clowning kid–unlike the truly sinister and manipulative Billy–doesn’t appear to realize the seriousness of his actions); on the other, they can be jarring, taking the viewer out of the film. A 20% tone-down here might have been perfect, because too much comic relief threatens to undermine the tension.

One ostensibly under-appreciated aspect of the film is the employment of its soundtrack. The musical choices are always spot on, most notably the blaring of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” after Principal Himbry cancels classes. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ominous “Red Right Hand” heightens the mood of anxiety. There’s also a slow, understated (dare I say “ghostly”?) use of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in a scene when Billy climbs into Sidney’s window–in retrospect, a verbal cue that clues us into Billy’s guilt.

Inevitably, certain cultural elements (e.g. the existence of video stores) in the film now feel dated, but otherwise Scream holds up very well twenty-five years after its release. Rather than prop up cardboard standees as photogenic slasher-fodder, the film first establishes characters that the audience cares about and then places them in mortal peril. That is the formula for success in 1996, 2021, or at any other point throughout horror genre history.


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