Combustible Celluloid
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With: David Arquette, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Skeet Ulrich, Rose McGowan, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, Liev Schreiber
Written by: Kevin Williamson
Directed by: Wes Craven
MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic horror violence and gore, and for language
Running Time: 111
Date: 18/12/1996

Scream (1996)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Our Favorite Scary Movie?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

On the poster for the recent Body Shots (1999), there is the (paraphrased) line, "one movie defines every decade." Well, it sure isn't Body Shots. But it got me thinking, what movie does define the 1990's? Not necessarily the best movie of the decade, but the one that really grabbed us and made itself into a moment. My colleague Rob Blackwelder suggested that that movie may be Swingers (also 1996) and he may be right. I have yet to see Swingers. But my first guess would be Scream.

Writing about Scream, curiously, offers an opportunity to discuss a brief history of the horror film in general, as it seems to be one of the genre's great benchmarks. Scream came at a time when the horror film had been pronounced dead, for the second time in history.

The first time came in the 1930's after the early success of Universal's monster movies, Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) and James Whale's Frankenstein (1931). Universal commissioned sequels, lots of sequels. And more monsters, new stories. Some of these worked, especially Whale's Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934). Most of them didn't work. The effect was that the monsters became less and less scary. The cycle culminated in 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the true sequel to Dracula with Bela Lugosi returning to his famous role for the first time. It's a fun movie in itself, and one of my personal favorites, but it reduced the monsters to cartoon characters.

Thus the horror film was dead. To the best of my knowledge it was kept breathing through B-movies like Jacques Tourneur's excellent Curse of the Demon (1957), but it wasn't fully resurrected until the British studio Hammer began doing their versions of the monsters, Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, etc. Their most influential film was Terrence Fisher's Horror of Dracula (1958). These new films were more violent, gory, colorful, and sexy than the 1930's pictures dared, or were allowed, to be. And thus a whole new era was born, with more blood and gore: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), the gore factor raised to a maximum by Herschell Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast (1963), Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), David Cronenberg's Shivers (1975), Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976), and culminating with John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Halloween was the highest-grossing independent film of its day (a record it held for many years). It concerned a mad slasher loose on Halloween night. Because of its success, it spawned many copies. More copies than the Frankenstein and Dracula movies. Just as in the 1940's, the 1980's horror films lost their edge through repetition.

But this time the critics stepped in. Anything along the lines of Halloween was bashed by the critics and destroyed. Two movies in particular were attacked by Siskel and Ebert with such venom, I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and The Hitcher (1986), that those kinds of horror movies were immediately frowned upon by all mainstream movie people, press and artists. At the same time, the viewing public adopted I Spit on Your Grave and The Hitcher as cult classics. Being slammed by Siskel and Ebert was a red flag for cult notoriety.

And so the horror film was dead again, with a few notable exceptions keeping it breathing, once again, such as Sam Raimi's wonderfully clever Evil Dead films, Cronenberg's intelligent The Dead Zone (1983), Videodrome (1983), and The Fly (1986), Clive Barker's Hellraiser (1987), and others.

And so came Scream. I read about Scream in a trade magazine during the summer of 1996. It sounded interesting to me, and I planned to see it, but I was sure that it would be around for a week and then die. But writer Kevin Williamson knew better. He had his finger on the pulse of the horror film and knew the fans better than the movie business did. The fans wanted to see the kinds of movies that the critics kept trashing, but they were tired of the same old thing. Why not make a movie in which the characters were these people? They have seen dozens of horror films and know all the tricks. So not only are we not insulted by their stupidity, but the movie must come up with a whole batch of new tricks to fool these savvy characters. The idea worked as a kind of ironic commentary on our society that teens (and myself) bought into. Thanks to a generation of home video watchers, most of us are movie-educated now. And the medium is so addictive that we may not have much education in other arenas. So Scream is a movie-movie; a movie borne out of a thorough knowledge of other movies. (Admittedly, Reservoir Dogs from 1992 and Pulp Fiction from 1994 were the first big movie-movies, but Scream tapped into something more specific.)

Scream starts out with an incredibly clever sequence. Drew Barrymore plays Casey, a teenage girl home alone, about to make popcorn and watch scary movies. The scene calls up memories of When a Stranger Calls when Casey gets a phone call from a mysterious man who seems to know more about her than she is comfortable with. The scene redeems itself by having the man talk about scary movies. Director Wes Craven even gets a dig at himself by having Casey say, "The 'Nightmare on Elm Street' movies sucked. Except the first one," perhaps forgetting that Craven also directed the last Nightmare movie. The stranger asks a basic horror trivia question, one that sounds easy but is really tricky. Who is the killer in Friday the 13th. Horror fans know that Jason Voorhees is the killer in all of those movies, except in the first one in which it was Jason's mother. These fans are in the audience. Some know the real answer and are horrified when Casey gets it wrong. Others are convinced that the answer is "Jason" and are also horrified when they are proved wrong. This sequence lasts ten minutes and then Casey is killed, which also calls Psycho to mind. Alfred Hitchcock had the gall to kill off Janet Leigh, his biggest name star in his movie, before the 30-minute mark. Drew Barrymore is the biggest star in Scream, and she's gone in 10-minutes, almost on the nose. Her getting the question wrong means death because she doesn't know enough about horror films to save herself. Plus she had the disadvantage of knowing that she was actually in a horror film. The image of Barrymore on her portable phone, with her sweater sleeves draped over her palms, in the house with the big picture windows, has already become one of the great indelible images of the 1990's.

The rest of the movie deals with Casey's schoolmates, who now have knowledge of the killer at large. They are played by Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, and Rose McGowan. McGowan's older brother is David Arquette, a dopey local police deputy, and Courteney Cox plays a snooty television journalist. Henry Winkler also stars (unbilled) as the school's principal. Linda Blair (from The Exorcist) appears, and Liev Schreiber plays the wrongly accused man. One of the teens works in a video store. When the school is closed until further notice and a curfew is established, the teens decide to have a party and watch slasher movies. During the party, the "rules" are established. Never run up the stairs when you can run out the front door. Never say, "I'll be right back." Never sleep with anyone when a killer is on the loose--only virgins survive. Of course, all these rules are broken, but not in the way you'd expect. The whole movie works as a thriller and an anti-thriller at the same time.

A good deal of credit goes to screenwriter Williamson, who has a good ear for teen dialogue. He went on to create successful teen television shows, and to write the equally good Scream 2 (1997). Sadly, Williamson has also contributed to the inevitable cache of rip-offs that followed in the wake of Scream, including the less-than-spectacular I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), The Faculty (1998), and Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999). It seems that he has more of a way with smart teens than with horror films.

That's where Craven comes in. Along with perhaps a dozen others, Craven is firmly established as a horror director, having began his career with the successful Last House on the Left (1972). Craven's career continued along those lines, culminating in the extremely popular A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). But from there, Craven's career mirrored the horror film's history, and his films began getting critically trashed and monetarily trounced: Shocker (1989), The People Under the Stairs (1991), Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), and Vampire in Brooklyn (1995). After the wild success of Scream and Scream 2, oddly, Craven felt the need to go "straight" with a rather pedestrian weepie, Music of the Heart (1999). Fortunately, he has also made Scream 3, due out next year. Craven doesn't possess any particular visual motif (save for the blurry figure rushing by in the background), but he does share with Tod Browning, George Romero, and so many of his other contemporaries, a need to deal with demons onscreen. Horror directors must have the most amazing psyches. Either they have much darker souls than the rest of us, or they have much cleaner souls having exorcised their demons creatively.

And so the horror film has been revitalized. Most of them are trying to cash in on Scream, like the stupid teen slasher movies like Idle Hands and The Rage: Carrie 2. But occasionally there comes a piece of inspired work like The Sixth Sense or The Blair Witch Project. Scream has the honor of being a milestone, a savior, and yes, a movie that defines a decade. After only three years in existence, I'm declaring it an American classic.

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