Let’s be honest. A lot of ’90s movies don’t hold up well for the same reason a good chunk of ’80s movies don’t hold up well: They feel so much like the decade in which they come from. However, 1996’s Scream is the exception. Yes, they talk about cellular phones and the computers and TVs are massive, but that’s the only connection to the 1990s that feels outdated. Oh, and the movie store Randy works at. Ha. sad face
But, you would think for a movie born of the ’90s and that’s been parodied and retreaded beyond belief that it would hit differently upon a re-watch 25 years after its release. Nope. It’s still as great, groundbreaking and intense as ever.
I can’t go further without acknowledging two aspects of this film that blow my mind. First, that Wes Craven reinvented horror in the 1980s with Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare films. Then, he comes back in the 1990s and reinvents horror again with Scream and Ghostface. It’s just an incredible feat. John Carpenter, by comparison, will always have 1978’s Halloween, but he didn’t come back in the 1980s or the 1990s to reinvent horror again. Secondly, Wes Craven had been dabbling in the meta conversation before. He tried it with 1994’s West Craven’s New Nightmare, which was critically successful and I believe in hindsight, fans appreciate it now, but at the time? It didn’t land. Scream is, for all intents and purposes, that film but with a hot teenage cast and more contemporary. Plus, I feel like by 1996, even though only two years later, meta was hitting differently. It’s the same reason why Arnold Schwarzenegger’s meta 1993 Last Action Flick wasn’t a hit. It was ahead of its time! If it had been released a few years later, I think people would have remembered it the same way people remember Scream.
And of course, what can you say about the scriptwriter, Kevin Williamson? Like I said, Craven was a visionary and ahead of his time, but the pairing with Williamson was a match made in … hell (I say affectionately) because Williamson brought that contemporary feel and grounded the characters in real life. You could imagine having friends like Stu (played to perfection by Matthew Lillard) and Randy (played to perfection by Jamie Kennedy) and the friendship between Sidney (played to perfection by Neve Campbell) and Tatum (played to perfection by Rose McGown; are you sensing a theme?) feels authentic and genuine. Even the so-called “bitch” role of intrepid reporter Gale Weathers (played to perfection by Courtney Cox) feels legitimate without being over the top; the same is true of Deputy Dewey (played to hilarious perfection by David Arquette). And of course, there’s Billy Loomis played by Skeet Ulrich. Billy is someone you know is bad news from the jump because Skeet plays him to terrifying perfection. More on that in a moment, though. You just can’t say enough about how well these characters and the portrayals work.
Of course, the legend of Scream is probably four things: 1.) You always need a memorable mask and look in a horror flick and Ghostface is that; 2.) If the killer is going to talk, you need a memorable voice and that works here with Roger Jackson doing the voice (which I never knew until recently was someone doing the voice; I figured it was the actual voice box distortion); 3.) The two killer concept (more on that in a moment); and 4.) A memorable, killer opening.
Drew Barrymore, who aside from perhaps Cox because Friends just started two years prior, was the biggest star and billed as the biggest star of the film, was killed in the cold open, a sort of throwback to 1960’s Psycho where Janet Leigh’s character was killed early on. But even aside from the shock value, the scene is just played to intense, terrifying perfection. The best part perhaps being Casey’s parents coming home just as she’s dying and then them finding her hanging from a tree with her guts spilling out. It’s gross and awful and wonderful stage-setting!
The two killer aspect, where Billy and Stu are the killers is so brilliant. We’ve been conditioned to think in slasher horror flicks that there’s one killer. They even try to throw us off by having Sidney suspect Billy early on, leading to his arrest, but then having another phone call to Sidney happen so it doesn’t seem like Billy. So, the reveal at the end is so dang good and it just ratchets up from there. On one hand, Stu comes across as a dopey follower of Billy, but Lillard also plays him with such manic energy that he’s terrifying all the same. And Billy seems like he’d slit your throat without a second thought. He’s utterly horrifying. It’s the perfect pairing and unfortunately, was three years ahead of its time in an unintentional way, as the Columbine school shooting hit with that same sort of two-killer dynamic.
And another counter-conventional aspect here is that Billy and Stu are scary, but they’re also still just regular, almost bumbling teens. They are clumsy and regular-powered. They’re not demons from the dream world or hell or reinforced with the evil of Michael Myers. So, when Sidney is fighting back against them, it’s believable! And works! Sidney is awesome in this.
If I had one criticism of the film, it’s that it’s unfortunate Dewey never got his moment to show he could be a resourceful, save-the-day cop! Instead, that moments goes to Gale. Which is yet another counter-conventional aspect to the film in that you expect Sidney to survive as the cliché “final girl,” but in addition, Gale, Randy and Dewey all survive, too. The latter two were made to seem like they were killed, though.
One final note: The pacing is incredible. Once you get through the cold open and the other set pieces, the film just flies by. It does not feel like a near two-hour flick.
In conclusion, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen Scream and you’re worried, as I was, that it’s been marred by parodies like 2000’s Scary Movie (which, incidentally, was the original title for Scream), then you’re going to want to give this a whirl again. I don’t think it’s the greatest horror film of all time, but it does have the greatest opening in a horror film of all time and it’s the best horror film of the ’90s. Yep.