Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Scream Review - Bloody, Perfect

The start of Wes Craven's Scream seizes your attention, like dirty words spoken at the moment of orgasm. A calm and familiar scene is made uneasy, then horrible - and most of the work is done through a series of phone calls and the bland voice on the other end of the line. Over that 13-minute stretch, I had one of my most tense and terrifying film experiences. It's why I go to the movies - to feel exhilarated.

With this harsh tone set, what follows is simple atmosphere: we move on to Sidney Prescott, a smart high school senior. After some sexy times with Billy, her boyfriend, Sid goes to school the next day. Only then does she learn of what happened the night before - the town is now buzzing from the worst act of violence since her own mother's murder one year ago. What will Sidney do now with violence all around and unwanted memories rising to the surface?

This 1996 pic was box office gold for Mr. Craven, and my 3-paragraph MRQ entry didn't do it justice, so I'll correct that now. He took a $15 million budget and an R-rating, then went on to earn over $103 million in the US from his work. Although it was so bloody and filled with so much malevolence, Scream did better than his previous 5 films combined. The secrets to its success were simple...

As with A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven's most-famous effort, Scream focuses on a group of teens living in a quiet California town where hidden dangers come out through vicious antagonists and gruesome violence. But the similarities end there, since Wes didn't simply repeat himself: the kids were smarter, the threat wasn't supernatural, and the humor was even stronger than before.

The movie's cold open gained my admiration, but I fell in love with Scream because of an early 3-minute sequence that showcases the protagonist's majestic home. It presents an amazing vista, conveys some needed exposition in a natural way, and - by thoroughly-establishing a major location - does wonders to make the world of this film feel more credible. It's clever of Wes to first set the mood for horror, and then to establish the overarching atmosphere.

On the commentary track, Mr. Craven relates a perfect anecdote about the MPAA. In essence, they wanted to give the film an NC-17 due to the film's violence. However, Craven notes that the ratings board was mostly bothered by his killer getting up close to victims and stabbing them to death. A guy handling a machine gun and mowing down people is apparently cartoonish enough for the MPAA - they just don't want people seeing something more realistic.

I find this amazing, because realistic violence is both scarier and should actually turn people off from glamorizing or glorifying it...

In any case, Craven had a solid premise, yet he got quite lucky in terms of casting, too. The film's main figures - Neve Campbell (Sidney), Skeet Ulrich (Billy Loomis), and Rose McGowan (Tatum Riley) - are all in fine form. These then-rising stars neatly exhibit the sarcasm, crassness, uncertainty, and emotional turbulence of teenagers. You feel Sid's intelligence and strength, you laugh at Tatum's bluster and snark, and you get tingles from Billy's rawness and intensity.

In turn, they get exceptional support from some skilled adults: David Arquette, Courtney Cox, and Henry Winkler. Arquette's boyish Deputy Riley displays the actor at the height of his goofy charm. Cox is letter-perfect as Gale Weathers, the goal-oriented, narcissistic reporter. And Winkler is excellent as Principle Himbry, the authority figure who cares excessively. From his first PA announcement to his final scene, he's brilliant.

Jamie Kennedy (Randy) and Matthew Lillard (Stu) round out the players, lending more overt comic relief to a film where the whole cast gets at least one funny line. I know many can find both to be grating, but the writing plays to their strengths, and they're really quite good here - Lillard, especially.

The script does well by all of the actors, getting you invested in them and developing opinions about each one. This is exactly what happens when you give characters enough time to make a real impression on the audience. Yet Scream's storytelling genius lies in shifting so smoothly between all of them.

While the picture focuses most on Ms. Prescott, the narrative moves around so much that the audience can't help but be engaged. Everyone is set up as a suspect, keeping the viewers guessing. Sudden outbursts, crude remarks, and obsessive behavior are matched by shots of boots - and, since the killer favors footwear which is so common, a furtive eye is cast at a dozen potential murderers. Whether through humor, characterization, or tension, Scream does a lot to suck the audience in, and it all works.

The screenplay probably deserves much of the credit here. Kevin Williamson makes each teen seem distinct and authentic. Best of all, these are all kids who are very familiar with pop culture and film. It not only serves to make them seem smarter, but it allows younger audiences to relate, as well as bringing in people who grew up on Halloween, aNoES, and Friday the 13th.

Throughout, Williamson lives up to expectations based on his work in Dawson's Creek by making Scream a veritable checklist of youth genre scenes: lockers, bedrooms, school bathrooms, the local video store... Film and video are as big a presence here as they are in the lives of actual American teens, and their savviness is both realistic and infectiously fun.

Seriously, you can't write a better scene than one where a fierce description of "the rules" of horror films than to have someone recite them while the killer in Halloween is paused, knife aloft, just behind the speaker:

But, excellent scripting aside, the film is also directed brilliantly. Violence and gore are appropriately disturbing and well-used. No scene feels too long, grows dull, or gets weighed down by awkward exposition. At one point, we see the events of one location through two different viewpoints, and it is nothing short of effective and arresting.

The humor helps take the edge off a picture that is macabre and grisly. Gone is the cartoonish violence of a guy with huge weapons. Here, all you need is a knife, a mask, and one creepy voice-masking device. In fact, you will - like I was - be on the edge of your seat every time a phone rings...

Even better, the lead (a female lead treated well!) has a genuine character arc, and the movie itself manages to say something about violence - a perfect validation of the horrors that viewers are forced to witness.

I suppose one can't discuss this pic without talking about the killer's popularity as a horror film character. Well, for one, I think that Ghostface is a (semi?)stupid name, unless you're one specific rapper or are a different rapper who appears on Curb Your Enthusiasm. I love the mask - it's very unsettling and scared me the first time I saw it, although it's clearly an homage to the Edvard Munch painting called Scream. And, hell, no one should be scared of Norwegian painters.

The bad guy in this pic works well, but I dislike granting any iconic status because of the sequels. Scream was great, if a bit nasty, but this fine story shouldn't have been made into a franchise. I really didn't enjoy the resulting Screams 2-4; they all had a bunch of actors I liked and felt over-written, under-written, or poorly-written. As with Cursed, 9 years later (and, ugh, The Following), Williamson has proven himself to be clever and talented as well as dumb and hacktastic. I mean, who else would want to call their horror film "Scary Movie?" (See the 2nd to last paragraph (and Craven liked that title, too!))

Clocking in at almost two hours, Wes Craven gives his picture lots of breathing room, which is used well. You get a real feeling for the locations and characters and the world of the fictitious Woodsboro, California. As a horror film, Scream is a true stand-out, and I would recommend it to anyone who's willing to go along for a rough-but-terribly-fun ride.


  1. "The start of Wes Craven's Scream seizes your attention, like dirty words spoken at the moment of orgasm" - Wowsers! That's some opening line.

    Nice review. I have only watched Scream twice, the first time when I was too young and therefore too scared and the second time when I did appreciate its cleverness more but perhaps not enough. I do like it enormously though. I remember loving Lillard.

    This review also reminds me that I need to watch Nightmare on Elm Street already. HUGE blind spot on my film watching.

    1. Thank you! I've been working on this review for a while now =) it was so much fun, and I really wanted to show my affection for it...

      Nightmare on Elm Street was sooo good! You must see it soonish. I want to read what you think about it...

  2. I agree with Nikhat, nice opening line there! Scream was one of the better game changing films in the horror genre and still holds up nicely in the scare department. Scream 2 was a decent follow-up(loved the opening sequence at the movie theater,so skillfully done and even scarier when you actually watch in a theater for the first time like I did!).

    The third movie is on my rotation for Bad Movie Month this August and yes, I paid good money to see that mess on opening weekend*grumble,grumble*

    Scream 4 redeems that one somewhat with a sly meta-twist on instant celebrity and a killer performance by Emma Roberts(pun definitely intended) but there doesn't need to be any more of these sequels. Granted, Scream didn't really need a sequel in the first place but hey, that's Hollywood!

    1. Thanks for the compliment! Tell all your friends!

      I didn't like that the people in Scream 2 seemed less developed (But Dewey was so funny!), and I hated the killer's motive. Scream 3... ugh

      And Scream 4 had some nice elements - again, a great cast - but it has some holes in the plot that don't work for me, and... Anyway, just because it wasn't terrible didn't make it any more necessary, yknow?

    2. It wasn't necessary but at least it was well done,which is more than I can say for Scream 3(and will be saying this August). My favorite scene in Scream 2,apart from the opening kill, was the fate of Randy-sometimes, a nerd has to stop ranting,you know?:)

    3. I was a big Buffy fan at the time and i hated what happened with SMG's role. You're right that Dewey was a great (although the film students' debate ending with everyone in agreement was bs), and you're right that the opening to S2 (in a screening of Stab) was very good.

  3. I've seen Scream only once, and I'm not sure I want to revisit it -- it's been parodied so many times that I'm not sure if it could possibly hold the same appeal it did for me back in 1996. However, I can tell you that the first time I saw the opening, I was chilled to the bone. I don't think the rest of the film ever lives up to the opening, but it doesn't need to when it's that good.

    Just curious -- what was your inspiration for reconsidering this movie in 2014?

    1. I'm glad we both had such visceral reactions to the film! that's a mark of having a great time in a horror film. If you're right and the movie loses steam over time, I'd say that it'd be tough to maintain the intensity and effectiveness of the opening...

      It's true that it became a go-to for parody, both within its own franchise and as part of that Scary Movie nonsense. I don't know that the parodies would impact my enjoyment as much as knowing what will happen and how the sequels will turn out...

      Honestly? I (1) saw that I'd barely reviewed any Craven here, (2) realized that all the Scream films and Cursed were on Netflix Streaming, and (3).wanted to take a closer look at Williamson.

      I don't know if you ever saw The Vampire Diaries, but the first two seasons are improbably good. Then he does The Following, which is like a successful argument that TV is objectively worthless and harmful...

  4. Good review Thaddeus. It's a bit dated here and there, but still a whole bunch of fun to watch. Especially if you like your horror movies cheeky-as-hell.

    1. Thanks, Dan! Yes, I can totally see audiences now taking Scream to be a "very 90s" movie. Hell, they have a cast member from Friends in the film!

      But yes, Scream offers up a good story with interesting characters, and it is both (a) fun and (b) has a great sense of humor. "Cheeky" might even be exactly the right word...


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