Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Film Review: Scream

"Scream"  **** (out of ****)

This review is dedicated to filmmaker Wes Craven, who died August 30, 2015 at the age of 76.

To fully appreciate Wes Craven's "Scream" (1996) you have to remember the environment in which it was created.

Slasher movies, once popular in the 1980s thanks to "Halloween" (1978), "Friday the 13th" (1980) and Craven's own "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984), had fallen on hard times. Mainly because of those very movies and the endless amount of sequels which were created. There were not a lot of memorable horror movies being made in the early 90s. Nothing had managed to find its way in the pop culture as those movies made a decade earlier. And then came "Scream".

"Scream" was made on a modest budget of $15 million and was not considered a mainstream Hollywood film. No one really saw its success coming. The movie, which did generate positive reviews from movie critics (sheep) survived largely because of word-of-mouth. A buzz was created. "Scream" became the movie to see among teenagers and twenty-somethings. It also rejuvenated the career of Wes Craven and introduced him to a whole new generation of movie fans.

Besides rejuvenating the career of Wes Craven, "Scream" also kick started the career of screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who would go on to write "I Know What You Did Last Summer" (1997) and create the television series "Dawson's Creek". He and Craven would work together on the following "Scream" sequels as well as on "Cursed" (2005), though nothing seemed to match the quality of "Scream".

What made "Scream" such a success was it was something different. It took the teen slasher movie and turned it on its head. "Scream" knew the genre of horror movies. It understood the rules. It became part satire while still following the conventions of teenage horror movies. It had a self-referential, hip attitude which made it refreshing. It set a new standard for horror movies. There were countless imitators which tried to copy its style. For a few years afters its release, teenage horror movies were all the rage and gold at the box-office. That is both the blessing and the curse of the success of "Scream".

"Scream" starts off with a both brilliant and violent introduction. We are in the home of high school student Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) as she is waiting for her boyfriend to arrive so they can watch a movie. Her phone rings as she is preparing to make popcorn. She answers the phone but doesn't recognize the voice. The person on the other end is flirty and they discuss movies and horror movies in particular. Things soon escalate and the situation becomes grisly. This all happens before the beginning credits and helps set the tone for the rest of the movie. The characters have causal conversations about movies and then someone dies a violent death.

The rest of the movie is a reaction to the incident which happened to Casey as the small town of Woodsboro believes there is a serial killer lose. Casey's fellow high school students seem to be the killer's targets. They include Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), whose mother was raped and murder exactly a year prior, Sidney's boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich, who looks an awful lot like a young Johnny Depp, who was in "A Nightmare on Elm Street), Sidney's best friend, Tatum (Rose McGowan), Tatum's boyfriend Stu (Matthew Lillard) and their friend Randy (Jamie Kennedy) a movie geek who works at the local video store (remember thoses?).

Randy becomes the character that informs everyone of standard horror movie cliches, in order to help everyone survive and not fall victim to the Ghostface killer.

The movie also adds humor by having a dim-witted deputy, Dewey (David Arquette) investigate the murders with a TV news anchor, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), whom he has a crush on. She uses him in order to get closer to breaking a big story. I suppose the character is a satirical look at "entertainment reporters".

Watching "Scream" you will notice something quite interesting and unusual for a horror movie. How quickly the movie introduces "Ghostface", the name given to the serial killer running rampant in the movie. Most movies take their time before showing the killer. They slowly lead up to it, building anticipation. That approach was taken in "Halloween" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street". But not "Scream". Sometimes I prefer the anticipation. That is more scary than seeing the serial killer. Being on edge, waiting, looking over your shoulder, listening for every sound.The "Scream" approach works too because while the method is different the result is the same. The viewer is constantly on edge waiting to see when the Ghostface will strike again.

One could argue one of the themes in "Scream" is the influence horror movies have on our psyche and their ability to promote violence and provoke dangerous behavior in us, the viewers. Nearly every character in the movie talks about movies. Some openly say they love horror movies. The Ghostface killer always asks his/her victim's what is their favorite scary movie. Do we live in a society where life imitates art?

Detractors of the movie will argue Wes Craven and "Scream" want to have their cake and eat it too. You can't make a horror movie with gruesome scenes and make satirical observations against the genre. I can see their point. First and foremost I would argue "Scream" is a horror movie and is a satire for those that want it to be. However, the satire is not dominate and could have went further to make its point and make a great comment on society. But it doesn't because it is content to be a horror movie, which is fine with me.

When news had spread of Wes Craven's death many remembered him as an influential horror filmmaker. A modern master of the genre. Many believe his movies re-imagined the horror genre. Unfortunately I was never much of a Wes Craven fan. His "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Last House on the Left" (1972) were disappointing to me. For me "Scream" was his best picture. There is no way someone can deny its influence and the new standard it created for the horror genre. However outside of the "Scream" franchise there were few movies he directed that I enjoyed. His "Red Eye" (2005) was slight but entertaining. The final movie he directed was "Scream 4" (2011). Not the best movie in the "Scream" franchise but one I enjoyed watching nonetheless.

Wes Craven will be missed.