It’s hard to fathom how we got about 40 Horror Month reviews in before covering a film by director Wes Craven, one of the best-known horror movie directors, but here we are. Growing up, I mostly knew Craven for his work on Nightmare on Elm Street 1 and 3. But I kept discovering his work all out of order as I grew up. He had his share of clever genre pieces and flimsy gimmick stuff. I was really impressed with Serpent and the Rainbow and Last House on the Left and less impressed but easily entertained by stuff like Shocker. I think his best work was in the final third of his career: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Red Eye and of course, the Scream series. While he flirted with some very meta ideas in New Nightmare, the clean slate of directing Scream provided, in my opinion, his best overall film.
Scream was not just a well-made horror movie. It was such an influential movie that it really restarted Hollywood’s interest in horror. As a genre, it had been less and less respected since the early 80s when most horror was becoming derivative campers getting killed dreck. Nothing innovative was being done. It was a long way from its heyday in the 70s when films like The Shining and The Exorcist could pull in not just strong box office but good reviews from film critics. Scream helped Hollywood realize there were still interesting angles to exploit as well as lots of money to be made.
Scream’s biggest innovation was in taking the stock teenagers from a horror movie and setting them firmly in a world closer to ours. These kids were 100% aware of horror movies including their tropes. They knew that in a dangerous situation, you call 911. You don’t run upstairs, you run outside for help. You don’t split up in a threatening situation. The movie not only took our knowledge of cliches and turned them on our ear, it lampshaded them, giving us witty characters that made jokes about it. And then it frequently upset our new expectations by creating a chain of events that prevented our characters from doing the smart thing. Try to call 911? Phoneline’s already been cut. The killer has prepared. Try to run outside? The killer anticipated it and chases the victim upstairs. And because we know it’s a bad situation and that the character doesn’t want to be in it, it actually heightens the tension.
One of the best things Wes Craven did with Scream was to build a (predominantly) teen cast without making them annoying. That had become a very unwelcome trope. We were used to the stuck up rich kids, the snobby girl cliques, the annoying nerds who didn’t know when to shut up. By and large, that’s eschewed here. Main character Sid (Neve Campbell) is moody but not TOO depressed. Her best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) is a flirt but she is far from dumb. Randy is a nerd but he’s one of the best resources these teens could have because he knows the rules of horror movies and tries to warn people about how things would go down in a movie. Of course, he gets distracted with a horror movie during the climax and ignores his own advice, but it actually doesn’t get him killed. The most annoying character is Gail (Courtney Cox) a tabloid reporter looking for a good story. But then, she has an actual arc where she actually starts to become aware of how awful she’s being and its effect on people.
In fact, while there are some great kills like you want out of a movie with a masked killer, a lot of the main cast ends up surviving. And it’s because they don’t just sit there meekly. They fight back. Big time. The Ghostface Killer gets his ass kicked. But he gets right back up and he has a knife, so the threat is there. There’s nothing supernatural. It’s just a person with a knife and a willingness to kill. That’s plenty of a threat right there.
Craven does some really smart things in the movie. He creates a killer that wears a mask that was then commonly available in every convenience store at Halloween time. And he puts him in a tattered robe so that when the character runs (and he is VERY fast) we can really see that motion. He cast Drew Barrymore as the first person we meet. She was a star so no one was expecting her to die. And he structured the movie as a mystery. Who is under that mask? A lot of masked horror until that point was structured like Ten Little Indians with characters getting dispatched one by one until the Final Girl is left. While that happens, the overarching story is the quest by Sidney and friends to discover who the killer is. And I actually won’t spoil that even though this movie is coming up on 20 years old. You either know it or you’d want to know it so I won’t say. But the reveal is very satisfying because there’s a twist to it that makes perfect sense. It’s building to a reveal, not a twist, so that’s just a cherry on top.
The movie looks gorgeous. It’s well-lit and while the characters are wearing 90s styles, I don’t THINK it’s dated itself too badly. The music is great. It knows to stay quiet when Craven has nice, long shots building up the suspense. There’s nothing distracting us while we slowly scan the deep background or look for doors or objects that could be hiding the killer. The score was by Marco Beltrami who was new at the time, and had studied under Jerry Goldsmith. He was later nominated for Academy Awards for his scores on 3:10 to Yuma and The Hurt Locker. The song “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds felt so iconic it appeared in the sequels as well. Whenever I hear it, I instantly think of Scream. They play a soft version of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” when Sidney and boyfriend Billy have a conversation in a scene right after we’ve seen characters violently disemboweled. That’s dark but kind of funny.
And that’s the thing about Scream. It’s a horror movie but it’s also really funny. The characters have good burns on one another. Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) is a pretty funny bumbling local cop because he’s also pretty kind and likable. Randy (Jamie Kennedy) is not too over the top like, say, Shelly in Friday the 13th 3. Now there was an annoying nerd that you didn’t mind seeing get killed.
While there are diminishing returns in the Scream sequels I enjoy them all, more or less, because they remain focused on the same protagonists instead of the same killer. It’s pretty rare for a horror franchise to do something like that. Sure, you assume that makes the main characters a bit more safe but then again, one of the surviving main cast is killed in a very unexpected and violent scene in Scream 2 and that sticks with you. Regardless, the first movie stands very much on its own and is a solid piece of filmmaking. I wish Craven was still with us to make more movies this good.