The 90s were a transitional period for horror again. The endless sequels of the 80s slashers were dying out, major directors were doing “not really horror” films with themes and imagery that seemed awfully close to those of horror films, and the first waves of horror renaissances in Asia and Europe were starting up. But mainstream, mass-market horror film didn’t really have a coherent voice. And then Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven made Scream and, for good or ill, a new mainstream horror cycle began.

The plot for Scream is actually quite unremarkable; it’s a bog-standard slasher film, with stupid teens in an isolated area. The film is at its best during it’s opening act, as a young girl is tormented by mysterious phone calls before she and her boyfriend are brutally butchered by masked assailants. This is the movie’s most effective and chilling scenes, and it’s still a high mark for horror films. But, soon after, we’re introduced to Sydney, our ostensible heroine, and her creepy boyfriend and disagreeable friends. These are typical, ironic, snarky 90s teens (and I say that as someone who was one of them at the time), and they take the brutal murder of two of their classmates in stride, Sydney too busy mourning the year-ago murder of her mother and the repeated suggestion that she fingered an innocent man for the crime and her friends making snide and tasteless jokes, with comic relief provided by a comic sheriff Deputy and a conniving, ambitious tabloid reporter. It soon becomes apparent that Sydney is the real target of the killers, but the police show an odd laxness in allowing Sydney and her friends to attend an unsupervised party at an isolated farmhouse. Guests are picked off one by one, and the killers are eventually revealed to be the, yes, obvious suspects with extremely muddled motives.

Much of what Scream gets praised for is its knowing, post-modern winks at the audience, its self-awareness and willingness to acknowledge the tropes and cliches of the genre. The problem is that all it does is wink at the audience, it still follows slavishly the tropes and confuses making jokes about “final girls” and horror movie rules with actually doing something original and transgressive with the genre. It’s still an effective slasher horror film, but much of this is due to Craven’s effective direction. The script is remarkably trite, overly concerned with referential jokes, and the acting is abysmal. One of the more regrettable aspects of Scream‘s success is that it kicked off the “basic cable stars in peril” school of horror films. These are teeny-bopper television stars through and through, and apart from their characters not being likeable, they simply over-act horribly through the entire thing. The obvious suspects are too obvious, mostly because both Skeet Ulrich and Matthew Lillard over-play the “creepy guy” angle. There is absolutely no ambiguity to their villainy, and even the fake-out “death” of Ulrich is unconvincing. While Scream felt remarkable and special at the time, its flaws have only become more apparent with age, and the shadow it cast over horror, spawning countless gimmicky, ironic imitators providing a secondary income source for unremarkable television actors, has been mostly detrimental.

4 Responses to “Scream (1996)”
  1. I never liked Scream.

    For that matter, I don’t care much for Wes Craven. I frankly consider him to be an overpraised hack.

    So. There.

  2. Mojo says:

    Have you seen “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon”?

  3. Dorian says:

    Mojo–Yes, and while I enjoyed it, I think it suffers from the same problem that Scream does; it acknowledges the tropes and cliches of the slasher film, pretends that it is transgressive for doing so, but still slavishly follows them.

  4. Is it sad that I found the twist of “Scary Movie” that the Sheriff was behind everything to actually be more clever than what “Scream” had going? I mean “Scary Movie” was spoofing stuff and was more clever, that’s saying something.

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