Scream (1996) starts with a simple greeting and ends with being gutted-like-a-fish and hung-from-a-tree. I mean, that is how is it supposed to go. Right?
What is your favorite scary movie? I get asked that question a lot, especially since I started writing for Diabolique. Unfortunately, I have not (yet) received any creepy phone calls, with sinister voices trying to frighten me, but I have been on the other end of the line, pranking the shit out of people, especially in high school. I suppose that this explains why my Scream masks were cut up by my father. I am a little disappointed, to be honest. You see, my fellow horror enthusiasts, my favorite horror movie of all time is the 1996 brilliance that is Wes Craven’s Scream. Hey, to each their own, but as a six-year-old, this was the first horror/slasher film I ever put into the VCR, and I never looked back.
Kevin Williamson’s script for what became known as Scream fell perfectly into the lap of Wes Craven. For Craven—who was still scarred by the gas-lit reactions to his previous work, The Last House on the Left (1972)—Scream became a suburban shocker in his trademark style. Looking past the limitations of any moral objections during the mid-nineties, mostly at the hands of the enemy, the MPAA, Scream proved to be a post-modern times-have-changed homage to what was, and what will still be made of the Horror genre. Through the crackpot of the generation X buzz, Craven decided that it was the right time to re-ignite fear in the hearts of Horror fans and the Slasher film aesthetic. He accepted the task of directing the movie, employing a stunning—yet relevant—horror movie structure, with a “veneer of psychology.” With its dark humor and a talented cast at his command, Craven took Scream and unflinchingly stroked a nerve throughout its production. Miramax gave a middle finger to the censors, and to the politics that had fucked the trust of a new generation, and the movie became an act of faith—along with its challenges. As Craven said bluntly, “There were a lot of improvisations and physical staging of scenes.” However, to the surprise of its audience, who saw the chunk-of-change budget of the film, the film instilled fear into the hearts of a contemporary audience—the lasting cultural influence fulfilled by the masterful direction of Craven, and his cast and crew. Woodsboro High School has become an iconic infrastructure. The atmosphere of Sidney’s house differed from the seductive lure of the house with a red door on Elm Street, but memorable nonetheless. The shock factor even prevailed in the characters’ performances. For example, Drew Barrymore did not know who was behind the voice of Ghostface throughout production—a ploy to confuse the actress by blurring the lines between fiction and reality—and to scare the shit out of her. What if this was real? What if a Ghostface serial killer was going on a spree in an ominously serene town somewhere in the middle of the United States of Whatever? The intensity of Scream elevated Craven’s imagination to a place distant from The Last House on the Left. Craven was ultimately prevented from showing the gore, gut-spilling close-ups of certain kills, but the soundtrack of the film also challenged prevailing norms, provoking a head-on collision with the MPAA censors, who found the music as well as the visuals disturbing.
With the death of Kurt Cobain preceding the release of Scream by two years, generation X kids were already trying to find a balance between an ideological context of reliability and massive cultural implosion—generation X needed a new form of modernist perspective. A unique aesthetic approach was devised by Craven and his team, which articulated the widespread distrust of the teens as they faced their fears within the cultural terrain of politics, and America’s “democratic” poetics. Scream shut that down, literally taking this distrust and placing it in the “red right-hand” of Ghostface—reaching out to an audience who felt betrayed, and abandoned in the dumpster of “political empathy.” This was a generation that received its first taste of modern technology, and the franchise found its niche in the sphere of satirical pastiche—with self-awareness. Scream was and is an examination of the moral reflections of disruptive societies, and those who run them. False promises, bloodshed, betrayal, fear of the unknown, and mass-mediated images are all significant elements of Scream’s strategy.
How can there be no Sleepaway Camp (1983 dir. Robert Hiltzik) moments if this film is not entirely based on self-conscious awareness? Scream is self-conscious about its relevance to both fans of the slasher genre and embodies the angst of generation X. Bootleg copies, cassette tapes, and the blood-drenched Ghostface masks—made ever so popular during Halloween—were a feature of the mid-nineties. From a wholesome budget of $14 million (which, let’s face it, is quite a sum of money for a horror film to be made in the mid-nineties), Scream went on to gross approximately $170 million, making it a not-so-bad profit for the ones who were going to enjoy their return- aesthetically and profitably (although, I must give a big fuck-you shout out to Harvey Weinstein, and no, I will not retract that—sorry). Scream established itself as part of the 90s big-profit cult phenomenon, a Tarantino-esque horror rendezvous. With a dash of witty dialogue, aesthetic gore, and narrative shock, Scream endorsed a sharp-cut mental image of amalgamated cleverness. It pigeon-holed an ironic interpretation of the “BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!” dialectic. Yes! I do stand by my claim that it is a certified fucking classic. Besides The Silence of the Lambs (1991 dir. Jonathan Demme)—Scream was the only other psychological-mind-fuck of the 90s-horror count. Most would think that Scream is not in contention with The Silence of the Lambs because of the well-defined features of the horror genre, but the two do not share the maxim—“Everybody is a suspect!”—because the audience of The Silence of the Lambs is well aware of who the killers-killer(s) are. Scream is more than a pastiche of the 70s and 80s campy slasher films, generation X, and the trigger response of the youth to the American cultural movement in the 90s. So, how did Scream contribute to the discourse of this decade? Some say it’s a portrayal of the start of dysfunctionality born of technological “progress” that plays a role in the film. The ubiquitous phrase “Cellular Phone” still makes me chuckle, as pretty much everyone in the movie says it at least once during the almost two-hour fun-fetti. The Internet made an appearance, with Sidney Prescot—I am still not sure how the hell she did it—calling the police using some keyboard antics. The transformation of the media is indeed one of the signatures of the film. We are thrown into the diegetic world of serial killers picking off their targets one-by-one—but not before there is a phone call made to the target. As much as I would like to plunge into the antics of the other Scream movies—especially Scream 2 (1997) and Scream 4 (2011)—I will focus on the iconic first film. There is “much to ado about nothing” in Scream 3 (2000- no offense), although it does have its moments. Scream cleverly uses the “phone call from the cellular phone” strategy. The film would indeed be nada if it had not used this ploy because that’s what makes it distinctive, and so fucking beautiful. Pre-Scream and post-Scream are idiosyncratically justified if you evaluate what the franchise did for the horror genre. Judas assumes the form of a cellular phone as we embark on a seemingly Shakespearian tragedy, with nobody scathed as the film begins.
The ’90s was a decade that had its issues. It was a do-not-fucking-care because of inhibitions and ideological fetishes era. It had its own pop culture monopoly, whose strategy was anti-authoritarian. They were the pre-social-media-havoc days. The milieu was represented by its cinematic genres, with psychological thrillers kicking everyone in the shins. “WHAT’S IN THE BOX!!!?” Can a line BE any more beautiful yet unhinging at the same time? For those of you who do not know what I am referring to, watch David Fincher’s Se7en (1994) starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman (and of course, Gwyneth Paltrow). Films like the previously mentioned The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, The Bone Collector (1999 dir. Phillip Noyce), The Gift (2000 dir. Sam Raimi, the mastermind behind the Evil Dead franchise), and erotic thrillers like Basic Instinct (1992 dir. Paul Verhoeven), Poison Ivy (1992 dir. Katt Shea), and, another Neve Campbell experience, Wild Things (1998 dir. John McNaughton), had the inquisitive cinema-goer on the top bill. Being a temp-heroin fix for teenagers in the mid-nineties, Scream proclaimed itself to the movie-nerds (and then elaborated on this “movie” fixation in its sequel during a film-class sequence), providing a brief-tingling warm sensation that resulted in fans becoming addicted to the franchise. The eye candy was provided by generation X cameos from the already buzzing Courtney Cox, Neve Campbell, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Timothy Olyphant, Jada Pinkett Smith, Omar Epps, Sarah Michelle Geller, Joshua Jackson, Rebecca Gayheart, Portia de Rossi, Heather Graham, Kevin Smith, Marisol Nichols, Tori Spelling, Luke Wilson, and more.
Scream’s opening sequence is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and we know that not everything is as it appears to be. Scream’s opener provides an intense replication of the character of Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins). Anyone can argue that both sequences—Hitchcock’s and Craven’s—put the films on a perfectly spine-chilling dais. Unfortunately, the MPAA’s interference did not allow Craven’s audience to enjoy the full intensity of Scream’s gutting-like-a-fish experience. However, we did get a glimpse of this in a scene reminiscent of 70s-iconography, blended with a touch of bloody convention, when Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) causes the death of her boyfriend, Steve Orth (played by Kevin Patrick Walls), by not knowing who the original killer of Friday the 13th (1980 dir. Sean S. Cunningham) is (watch the movie people, you never know when you might need to kick-ass in a game of killer-trivia). It is here that the audience’s shock is “hoisted through the roof”. The “final girl” formula is manipulated, and our ET-loving friend is not the IT girl. This is a shocking revision of the “slasher and final girl formula” that we were all expecting when the film’s opening sequence faded in, with the sound of screaming and a phone call. Craven’s Scream has all the ingredients of a John Carpenter flick—a quick “slice and dice,” followed by a young protagonist’s friends being picked off one-by-one, followed by a deranged villain(s) (I am still confused about the whole “Freddy vs. Jason” experience) wandering around in masks, and the full attire that comes with the role. The difference is that Jason (Halloween), Freddy (A Nightmare on Elm Street), or Michael Myers (Friday the 13th) never die, but in the Scream franchise, a variety of killers, who come in all shapes and forms, are killable, thanks to Kevin Williamson’s fruitful three-day hotel-room lockdown (less appealing these days), ending with a killer script plus an outline for what would go down in the sequel.
Scream became a cultural movement—it still is. Over twenty-five years later, we are still fascinated by Wes Craven’s projection of psycho-killers slitting the throats of young adults—an unfortunate reality now in the form of mass-school shootings. Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?
Stalked by a few “wrong” phone calls, Casey Becker prepares for a night in, as she flirts with the anonymous caller on the other end of the line—all the teens in these films are enmeshed in the cliché of monogamous relationships. The anonymous caller asks Casey what sound fills the ambience of the background of their call. She reveals that she is about to “watch some scary movie” while the old-school stove-popcorn pops away. Over a decade previously the audience experienced the dream-within-a-dream formula of Inception (2010 dir. Christopher Nolan). Now, Craven’s direction propels us into another barrier where we glimpse the formula of the film-within-a-film, or, life-imitating-art-imitating-life. The popcorn noises, a scary movie, and the mention of a dude with knives for fingers—the first Craven film reference—elicit an uneasy mood during the conversation. The slightly promiscuous flirting escalates as the caller reveals that he “wants to know who he is looking at” after a date proposition. In the space of a few minutes, Scream transforms its ambience, manipulating the mise-en-scene in which Casey begins to freak out. Cue the locking of the doors (remember it was a common thing to leave the doors unlocked, pre-social media, or pre-what-the-fuck-happened-to-the-world). The popcorn begins to burn as Casey grabs a knife and is forced to play a game with the killer—a little horror movie trivia—but unfortunately for Steve, Casey’s boyfriend, who is tied to a chair out in the patio. Casey fucks up, and Steve is disembowelled (bye, Steve). A fight ensues—a little ruff-and-tuff with Casey showing off her athletic ability to fight off our Ghostface killer—but in classic Slasher film dynamics, a slow-mo shows our killer catching up to her, and plunging a knife into her upper chest area, close to the heart. Well, not once, but multiple times, just as Casey’s parents arrive home, and the sound of the smoke alarm plays havoc with the audience’s ears. Craven shows us early in the film that this is a small town, where everyone knows everyone, but their houses are kilometers apart. Classic slasher-campy vibes—God, Satan, and Medusa—bliss.
The film cuts away from the hanging body of Casey Becker to Neve Campbell’s character—the protagonist of the film—Sidney ‘Sid’ Prescott, typing away on her old-school computer (which could easily be mistaken by teens today for some sort of TV speaker–video game creation). A surprise visit from her boyfriend, Billy Loomis (played by Skeet Ulrich), disrupts whatever the fuck she was typing away at—not downloading anything off Napster. Billy is bored, and after watching The Exorcist (1973 dir. William Friedkin) has decided to climb through his girlfriend’s window for an “over the clothes stuff” make-out sesh. This alludes to the fact that besides the lack of “sex” happening—on Sidney’s part anyway—Sidney’s Mother, Maureen Prescott, was brutally raped and murdered by a man named Cotton Weary (played by Liev Schreiber). Sidney was an eyewitness to the killer walking away wearing Cotton’s jacket. However, after the deaths of Casey and Steve,
Monica, Gale Weathers (played by Courtney Cox) questions Sidney and immediately realizes that there might be more to the truth. Of course, Sidney is pissed the fuck off at Gale for writing a tell-tale account of the murder, and we find out that she is not convinced of what Sidney saw that night, and that Cotton was falsely accused.
The beautiful approach to the fountain scene illuminates the characters of Sidney, her boyfriend, and her friends. As the fountain behind them splashes water—like the backdrop of a painting—the interactions among Sidney, Billy, Tatum, her boyfriend Stu, and their misplaced, video-store-clerk, Randy, unfold. They discuss the murders of their classmates the previous night while nibbling on grapes and seeds (quite a choice of snacks, I must say!) We observe how the group (besides Sidney) engages in the clever, yet nonplussing dialogue—which is perfectly written for a post-modern generation X, whose un-apologetic adolescence emerges without smartphones in hand, or the need to take selfies with the backdrop of the fountain. Technology is soon to be weaponized in the film and used to attack the franchise-material girls and boys, not living in a material world.
We are introduced to the infamous Scream prop, the “cellular phone” when Sidney is chased around by Ghostface after she falls asleep on the couch after school. Craven introduces us to his bad-ass IT girl as she gets her psycho-killer cherry popped. As she manages to escape the waving of the knife, she runs upstairs and locks the door (with the help of a teenager-trick of leaving the adults outside in the case of boyfriends climbing through windows). Typing frantically away on her computer, she manages to call the police—a neat, new trick for a slasher film—with the help of her dial-up modem. Behold, the already creepy boyfriend, climbs through the window after hearing some loud noises and comforts Sidney.
To the surprise of both Sid and the audience, Billy’s hug becomes a turning point in the film. His “cellular phone” falls from his pocket. Sidney is creeped the fuck out, backs away from her boyfriend, and runs back down the stairs where she opens the door only to be scared, and to scare, Deputy Dewey holding the Ghostface mask. Later on, as Billy is kept overnight in the station, the calls cannot be traced back to the creepy boyfriend’s phone, and we realize that perhaps he is not the killer. Can Sid be mistaken? Or is she on the axis of a psychotic breakdown, considering all the trauma she has been through? If we have learned nothing from previous “Wes Carpenter” films of the Slasher genre.
Sidney decides to attend school the following day, after receiving a phone call, which confirms that Billy was not Ghostface, trying to murder her. However, she is attacked again at school in the girl’s bathroom after being belittled by tell-tale gossip of the “oh-my-god” mean girls. The curfew implemented by the authorities for the small town conveys the 80’s Satanic-Panic mood and appropriate slasher genre components. This does not faze the high-schoolers and in any typical high-school-oriented film, a party is in order—thanks to Stu. Who cares that there is a serial killer on the loose? Beer, sex, and a horror-film marathon are mandatory—and the possibility of seeing Jaimie Lee Curtis’s breasts. Again, the fast-paced action and dialogue of the film build the intrigue as Gale Weathers, with a slightly overweight camera-man in tow, follows the teenagers to Stu’s house. Ghostface pops-ups right on cue, with Tatum becoming the first victim of the party—in a rather gruesome style (remind me never to go into a garage alone to grab beers, and never to try and escape through a cat door…
As Randy puts it ever so gracefully (and famously) during the party, there are “certain rules one must abide by” These rules are the very definition of the Horror/Slasher formula, which was very evident in the 70s and the 80s—mixing laws of nature with the mirror-image union of character identification. So, here goes (to plunk it down gently for the fellow reader):
YOU MUST KNOW THE FUCKING RULES IN ORDER TO SURVIVE A HORROR FILM!
- YOU CAN’T HAVE SEX (fuck!)
- YOU CAN’T DRINK OR DO DRUGS (…)
- AND, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU SAY “I’ll BE BACK…” ‘cause dude, you are not coming back.
The anti-authority rant of party guests who are abiding by the town’s nine-pm curfew, while running to their high-school football field to see their principal hanging off it, is telling. These teenagers quite simply do not give a fuck. For those who point out the obvious flaws in the movie, with quips about “How on earth is it possible that we see Ghostface in the fucking grocery store and no one else does?” I must point out that even as the Sherriff is smoking a cigarette, and as Deputy Dewey (played by David Arquette- who innocently enjoys an ice cream cone, not suspecting he is about to get a knife in his back, or, that his sister is about to be brutally offed—extinguished under the same type of boots the killer wears) the audience is thrown off the scent of who the real killer is. The dialogue, and the fun—oh- fuck, Ghostface pop-up’s, are perfectly executed. Tatum’s “Please don’t kill me, Mr. Ghostface, I wanna be in the sequel!” sarcasm, before she dies, is one of the most memorable re-framing moments of Scream’s post-modern slasher technique. No one notices her dead body in the garage, and the audience is the only witness—pulled into the cycle of teen-horror stupidity. The “if you do not follow the rules” sanctity upheld in the rulebook of surviving the slasher is tainted. After engaging in unholy-matrimony, Billy gets a little bit of knife action, and it does not stop there. Sidney is now left to fend off the killer as Deputy Dewey also gets a knife to the back, leaving Randy, Stu, Gale and Sid in a Spiderman-meme-pointing position. Who is the killer? The horror-movie fanatic Randy? The eccentric Stu? As a fuck-you to them both, Sidney locks the door on both men while holding a gun. Billy miraculously humpty-dumpty’s down the stairs, and the audience finally gets to witness the climax, and the big reveal—corn-fucking-syrup.
What I love, and personally find so iconic about Scream is the engagement with how kids, pre-social media, entertained themselves by hitting video stores and hiring VHS tapes. As an adult, I still remember those Blockbuster hitting days—except that I was always in the Horror section, selecting films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999 dir. Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez), which made me sleep in my mom’s bed for a whole two weeks because of the hairy-witch that I thought was surely going to come and get me, and Friday the 13th for my high-school sleepovers—pure fucking nostalgia, and adrenaline. I suppose getting on roller-coasters might do the trick for some, but it was all about VHS tapes, the new laser-disc (aka the DVD), and the Nokia brick-phones for most of us. The kids today will never truly understand how amazing it was to enter a store and pick up a tape or find “gold mines” for excavation. Now that everything is streamed, the excitement is gone, but capitalism shines more brightly than ever, and billionaires are rocketing out of Earth on a per-minute-quota basis—forget 1800 numbers—the future will only set you back a cool $20 million, minimum.
This young- right down the middle generation x crew defines the fuck-the-80s-yuppy image, which was soon to be rage by the likes of nu-metal and frat-boy upper-class rage (not until the very late nineties–Woodstock 99, here’s looking at you kid). Scream shocked everyone by killing off the character assumed to be the main protagonist —fresh-out-of-Poison Ivy—Ms. Drew Barrymore. The epic sequence at the start of the film; unforgettable quotes (such as “Hello Sidney”); and references to Wes Craven’s previous films are iconic. The film casting was perfect. There was a buzz around who would star in it from the get-go. Drew Barrymore, Courtney Cox (Friends), and of course, our millennial scream queen—Neve Campbell (Party of Five).
It is quite shocking that Scream was originally rejected by Wes Craven. Imagine a world where this slasher/satire/horror film was not directed by the great (RIP) director who gave us some of the best 70s/80s horror films, memorable villains (Freddy, oh, Freddy), and the original scream queen—Jaimie Lee Curtis. Craven’s filmography is well-established, and besides shooting some porn on the side to get going in the industry, he left us a legacy that not every Horror movie director can achieve—a distinct modus operandi of cinematic consciousness, establishing an effective relationship between pure horror and comedy. His fourty-plus-year career gave us shocking—and completely absurd, surreal moments—such as Freddy’s tongue coming out of the phone. The Last House on the Left was perhaps the first film of Craven’s career to really fuck the viewer up. The remake gave us some hope, but the original was a commitment to the moral justification of “Shock Value”—the “eyes gouged, fingers cut off, teeth knocked out” courtesy celebration (thanks for the quote, Randy). The revelations of the perversion of evil that Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson put together in the cinematic brilliance of Scream are evident in the revelation of the narrative. It emerges from the orgy of gruesome imagery and the moments of “What the fuck is going on?”
Looking back at the achievements of the 90s in popular culture, and conventional constructs of social action, a lot of shit went down. Scream has its place in the pre-digested representations of the 90s. The “horror” of technology, and the consequences, leading to a dysfunctional global society where few spend billions on space travel during a pandemic has conditioned a frightening/scary reality. The rare “cellular phones” are the symbol of our nostalgia for the 90s, and the aesthetics of 70s/80s Classic Horror films are the meta-text of an era preceding the years to come—when everything would get a whole lot shittier. And while one can retrace the meta-text of the infamous “Red Right Hand,” the changing youth culture and its interactions with politics (in all its form, like identity, race, gender, the environment, modern forms of slavery, etc.) — is far beyond the horror genre’s abject aspects and inter-textual references—a modern-day John Milton “Paradise Lost” mixed in with the rapid change of the Ghostface Mask that predicted the future in all its stylistic allusion.