‘The most self-aware slasher ever made’: Scream reviewed in 1997

Scream may “rigorously dissect and discuss the formula elements of its sub-genre”, but that doesn't get in the way of the witty parody and satisfying scares, argued this review in our May 1997 issue.

9 March 2023

By Kim Newman

Scream (1996)
Sight and Sound

The initial cinema horror cycle was started in 1931 by Universal Pictures with Dracula and Frankenstein, and ended by the same hands in 1948 with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which lampooned the monsters the studio had nurtured for over a decade and a half and defused them as figures of fear. The slasher-movie cycle which more or less dates back to Halloween in 1978 and Friday the 13th in 1980 yielded far more films than the Universal cycle, and fast-forwarded to its Abbott and Costello phase in 1982, when a run of parodies (Whacko!, Student Bodies, Pandemonium, Saturday the 14th, National Lampoon’s Class Reunion) appeared.

However, the burst of parody did not stem the flow of sequels and imitations, and the form was even revivified in 1985 by Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, which cannily injected a dose of the supernaturally irrational into the slasher film’s cliche-ridden unlikeliness. After a run of Elm Street sequels, not to mention an almost unabated flow of returns to Friday the 13th and Halloween, Craven kicked the form beyond parody into post-modernism with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which was – until Scream – the most self-aware, self-reflective slasher ever made. If anything can Abbott-and-Costello the slasher movie, Scream may be it: though it offers witty parody, in-jokes like the barely-glimpsed school gardener dressed in a Freddy Krueger hat and jumper, and does not neglect to be genuinely scary, Scream is mostly concerned with rigorously dissecting and discussing the formula elements of its sub-genre.

Scream (1996)

Randy, the video store geek, spouts non-stop slasher movie trivia, most amusingly when the teens’ video of Halloween is cut into the film proper, so that Randy’s comment of “and now for the obligatory breasts shot” is applicable to Sidney and Billy’s love scene as well as P. J. Soles’ role in John Carpenter’s film. (Craven rather sweetly avoids showing actual nudity in either Scream and or the extract from Halloween.) Moments later, the scene-within-scene sense of infinity applies as Randy shouts “look behind you” at Jamie Lee Curtis on screen while the madman lurks behind his sofa, a scene simultaneously restaged in Gale’s remote-broadcast van as Sidney and a technician watch a feed from a spy camera planted in the house, shouting “look behind you” at an equally unheeding Randy. This approach allows for likeable cheap jokes, like Randy’s “I never thought I’d be so grateful to be a virgin,” as he survives the climax and Sidney’s quickfire reaction when Randy says, “and this is the obligatory moment when the killer comes back from the dead for one last scare”.

There is, however, a bit more depth to the parody, with former English professor Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson using the self-referentiality to discuss in quite high-flown tones the inter-connectivity of the movies and reality (though the archetypal horror movie town seen here is less convincing as a ‘more real’ level of fiction than the movie business of New Nightmare). The opening sequence, with Drew Barrymore drawn into the deadly game by a phone caller, is an effectively unsettling rerun of the opening of When a Stranger Calls (perhaps significantly not referred to in the dialogue), with the killer’s first appearance eliciting screams from the audience I saw it with. The finale incorporates some thoughts on the imitation debate, when Sidney accuses the murderers of being influenced by too many horror movies only to be told: “films don’t make psychos, they just make psychos more creative”. He then probes for some motivation and they insist: “it’s scarier when there’s no motive… they never figured out why Hannibal Lecter liked to eat people.”

It’s a shame that Williamson’s superior original title (Scary Movie) was replaced with something as generic as Scream, though it’s possible that the archetypal and not inapt title has been as responsible for the movie’s surprise runaway success as its many undoubted assets. Like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street and unlike Friday the 13th and Prom Night (lesser known, but a big influence on the whodunit angle), Scream has a strong junior cast and benefits from Craven’s interest in and liking for the kids. This school body may be convincingly callous about rushing off to get a look at the disembowelled principal and given to acting out tactless jokes with masks and knives, but it’s hard not to like the characters as they flirt, joke and talk movies with a video generation familiarity with the conventions (“how about a PG-13 relationship?”). Neve Campbell makes a strong heroine, and the bright Rose McGowan is genuinely in the spirit of Halloween in the role of the heroine’s about to-be-murdered (but also to-be-missed) best friend.

A Nightmare on Elm Street – “the original was okay, but the sequels sucked” declares Drew Barrymore’s character – had elements of genuine humour that actually boosted the horror, a lesson forgotten in the wise-cracking follow-ups. This is a funnier movie, satirising tabloid television attitudes and offering a sweet performance from David Arquette as a fumbling young deputy, but it doesn’t neglect the shocks and scares. If it never quite revs up the tension as well as it does in the opening scene, it still manages the extraordinarily difficult task of juggling jokes, thoughts and jumps. Craven has never lost his editor’s knack of knowing when to cut on a “boo!” or throw in an eerie image (the scream face reflected in a dead open eye). The real miracle of Scream may be that for all its footnotes and cleverness, it plays as a film its Randy the Nerd would love.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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