Scream ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Horror of 1996 / Horror of the 90's

One look at the Letterboxd page of this movie, a wash in 4 and 4.5-out-of-5's, you'd think I have nothing to fear giving this film as much praise as I have over the years. But, in case you didn't know, I wouldn't be on Letterboxd today if it weren't for my years commenting on horror movie pages over at Slant Magazine. And, finding an actual fan - let alone defender - of this film on that site is hopeless. They don't like it. I can't tell you how deeply I have obsessed over this. Other than to confirm that I in fact have. I can literally tell you almost every article in which the film is mentioned. Typically as a means of saying Scream's style of horror is inauthentic and the writing was smug or masturbatory. That it best represents, much as I personally might say it only opened the door for this trend rather than fully embody it, horror without guts.

Horror is kind of a punk film genre. And in this case, I think Eric Henderson (in his introduction to Slant's terrible list, "25 best horror movies of the aughts"), expects that great horror is like a call to arms. That it energizes your activist side, reflects the purest anxieties in a given time of the outcasts and the underdogs or the people who aren't being listened to / aren't given a voice to scream out their injustices, and gives us a better idea of what the truth is. Well, the former 2 out of those 3, Scream most certainly is not. It's definitely a movie about petty, snotty teenagers who say a lot without saying anything and who have the kinds of "problems" that typically make them impossible to relate to. It's a comedy where laughing makes you feel guilty. It's a drama where the only characters who cry are kind of intensely stupid. And, objectively, it's a stalker movie about friends who hate each other and are only able to express it by spilling blood. In short, Skeet Ulrich isn't kidding when he says "it's all one great big movie."

But: I'll be damned if it in fact doesn't give us a greater understanding of the truth. See, while Scream name-dropped what was going on in the heartless media and with opportunistic politicians claiming wiping violence from entertainment would make violence in schools disappear, I'll be the first to admit in tapping into the voice of a generation- this speaks for the "youth of America" who don't care. The very last song in the film which plays over the end credits is titled, "I Don't Care". If that's not a statement, I don't know what is. I've long been an admirer of horror as a genre to communicate the darkness of apathy as much as it communicates fear during the chase scene, pain during the torture scene, panic during the hiding scene, and the slow build of tension in a scene where you realize you're conversing with someone who has no grasp on the value of human life.

In pinpointing exactly what makes Scream such a masterwork, you're guaranteed to lose the support of a key percentage of horror fans. Whether their beef is a lack of gore (and I am intimately familiar with the unrated director's cut, so I can tell you it's a bit bloodier than you've seen), or the insane amount of hype it scored in the 90's, or its one true flaw- Marco Beltrami's music score, or just how obnoxious and antagonistic the characters are. The film's centerpiece scene of meta commentary hinges on teenagers at a movie-watching party describing things in John Carpenter's Halloween that are not happening. "The blood is all wrong. Why do they do that? It's too red!" #1: There is no blood in Bob's murder in the film. #2: Michael doesn't stab him 3 times, as Craven shows the teens responding to. He only stabs him once. Later, they begin talking about "the obligatory tit shot." And, I've seen both widescreen and full frame versions of Halloween- you can't see P.J. Soles' nipples.

But is the movie's black heart and soullessness really in the meatheaded teenagers' whooping at some boobs on a television screen? Or is it in the next scene where a telephone call informing the party that their school's Principal is dead is met with laughs and cheers which inspire the drunken hormonal douches to pile into their car and almost run over David Arquette and Courteney Cox for sport? On the audio commentary, infamous screenwriter Kevin Williamson says he wanted this to be a "wicked" film. Undoubtedly in my mind, he succeeded. The film's most revealing, inspired line of dialogue, "don't you blame the movies- movies don't create psychos, movies make psychos more creative," is not only spoken by the film's killer but was so brilliantly on-the-pulse of what was wrong with the 2nd half of the 90's that the MPAA initially told Craven that it had to be removed from the R-rated cut of the film. The only cut that went to theaters. (They later had a change of heart. Probably after they neutered that amazing shot of blood drops smacking the floor, dripping from Matthew Lillard's soaked sweater.)

Considering that the line comes right after Neve Campbell says "you sick fucks, you've seen one too many movies," there's no question this is what mainstream conservative America wanted us to think. As a reaction to this, specifically, the killer's speech in Scream 2 name-checks both Bob Dole and the Christian Coalition as figures who sought to turn entertainment into a political weapon and demonize audiences (though at this time, directors like Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone were much more in the line of fire than horror). Meanwhile, Scream is also a lot more clever with character than just stuffing them full of dialogue that was treated as punchlines in Clueless. Why do most of the teens talk like college students? "Ahw, well, this is a really good school." Not as likely as Serial Mom's take on America. Which suggested that teens of the 90's actually paid attention to the media. And what was hot in the media in the mid-90's? Oprah, Ricki Lake, Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer, and an endless string of investigative report shows analyzing the behavior of famous killers, criminals, and cult leaders.

So, basically: talk shows, tabloids, and crime TV. With a mix of cultural influences like that, it's no wonder why starry-eyed, color-coked, Slimer Hi-C fueled, McDonalds' milkshaken-not-stirred 80's kids hated the 90's. And I'm here to say we didn't just eat that stuff up, it was being spoonfed to us. Schools were adding A&E programs to their curriculum (back when it was primarily dedicated to documentaries and high-brow British mystery shows), getting us all hyped up on the O.J. Simpson's of their day: Bundy, Dahmer, and the Manson trials. More relevantly, whatever was "in the wind" during the 90's, it made teenagers arrogant, self-absorbed, and jaded. I could see Election's Tracy Flick easily being a real person. As well as every character in Welcome to the Dollhouse. And if that doesn't scare you... well... just remember what Disney was putting out at the time. Theme song for the next generation of Republican voters right there.

One of the things that made horror itself so passe around 1995 was just how self-righteous mainstream culture had become. Movies like this didn't create the mold for young people being too "savvy" for films which challenged viewers to contemplate meaning behind formula. They were a reaction to the attitudes of snot-nosed moviegoers who thought they'd seen it all. Enter: Sidney Prescott. Who, over the course of 3 of these films, sort of became a heroine by default. Eventually earning the right to demand respect. But who in this film is one of those kind of stupid people I alluded to earlier. I admire the backbone it takes for a movie posing as a drama to use a victim of familial grief as an example of narrow-mindedness in her generation, though she's basically just another brick in the wall. Except: she's a mouthpiece for the holier-than-thou teen who when push comes to shove wants something she can be superior to. Maybe the movie made her this way so it could literally drag her through the mud. But, again, Williamson wanted a "wicked" film. And I did in fact know girls like this in school; I think we all did.

That in mind, while other people continue to cite the movie-referencing scenes as the essence of Scream, the one that's really at the center of everything, pumping the film's lifeblood is the bathroom gossiping sequence where a cheerleader gives a nasty, judgmental lecture on how Sidney's mother being loose probably makes Sidney a whore and, even more insulting, that coming from a family like that means that being confronted with her mother's murder makes her likely to cope with it like a savage. While the gay touch on this dialogue is clear as crystal, this is actually one of those classic Wes Craven moments of human behavioral commentary. Where we see that the offspring of the whitebread upper-class institutions are just as vicious and misanthropic as the kids we assume only come from the chain-fenced, metal detectors at the front doors, inner-city schools. (And did we ever have a plague of "very special episodes" on our TV shows about the epidemic of teens shooting each other over shoes, jackets, etc - usually Status Symbol clothing - in the early 90's.) Of course, thanks to schoolkids using internet social media to bully each other leading to highly publicized suicides- we know that all too well these days.

The film very shortly reaches a beautifully high-pitched anarchy in its portrayal of the teenage characters. Which creates an interesting effect with the killer- a black cloaked figure who is clearly too tall and too wide to be either of the crazed mini-psychos revealed at the end to have called each of the victims before they were murdered. The mask and cloak are thematically treated almost like party favors: everyone gets their turn to wear it (giving both the Cast Orgy poster, which replaced the much better image of just the wide-eyed woman's mouth covered by shocked hand, and the line "everybody's a suspect!" some much needed resonance). Not everyone will do the same thing with it, use it to kill innocent people, but the choice to make it expand / blow up into a real hulking boogeyman regardless of who's wearing it once the knife is in hand makes perfect sense to me. Sort of like the film's groundbreaking use of cellphones as a powerful weapon- it's everywhere You are. Powerful because it's prevalent, deadly because it goes unnoticed. Like the little hints throughout the movie which are pretty obvious now on repeat viewings: Skeet Ulrich is so clearly the killer. This is handed to you on a silver platter during the "how do you gut someone?" discussion with the teens sitting in front of a water fountain.

And yet, the more you look at the film, the more you notice: every last person has the crazy eyes. Stu, the Cheerleader, Dewey, the blond-haired boy in Principal Himbry's office, Gale, the Sheriff, and Randy in addition to Billy. The film proves to be creepy in ways that help it rise above that hopelessly clunky music score (though it does have a few effective moments; Sidney on the porch, Billy and Stu stabbing each other, Sidney alone in the girls' room). There's little in the way of atmosphere and the Dutch angles aren't much help, though certain scenes are shot like Craven wants this to be his going-out-with-a-blast in the genre. Especially the opening, which I admit is the film's weakest scene and probably turned a lot of people off right on the spot (except for the killer literally ringing her doorbell, she has zero cause to get so hysterical since the caller could clearly be anyone who knows any mutual friend-of-a-friend). But in a film already tilted so deftly so that everything feels more like a movie than reality (again, watch for those little details scattered around- they really add up), I can't under-emphasize just how creepy Skeet Ulrich negotiating with flower frilly-nightgown clad Neve Campbell in-ponytail for a groping session is.

For all its intelligence and rich social subtext, I champion its lack of subtlety. I still believe people who write it off as empty cleverness and self-serving, dead-end convention-flipping have read it completely backward. But, I'm still amazed at how deeply the film sticks the fork into the audience after so many absurdly staged chase scenes. I think I even managed to spot a bedroom with one of its walls completely open which leads right to the hallway. And the house's attic is next door to a bedroom. There's no higher floor for it, nor is there a door connecting it to the hallway. That makes no sense. It's at this section of the film, beginning with a perfect Skeet moment ("you don't still think it was Me, do you?") that the film transforms into a glorious horror farce. Which all too effectively continues to remind you that this is Only a Movie. The amount of people running upstairs, downstairs, into the house, out of the house, into the Sheriff's car, out of the news van, down the street, into a field, up the street, out of the field, up the porch, out of the window, and getting trapped in the doggy-door of the garage... Good luck catching your breath, you're going to need it.

Even more impressive is that the climax of the film, which has to wrestle with the question of what possible motivation a couple of raging high school boys could have to be raging over in the first place, decides that after over 90 minutes of the dutch angles and hysterically superficial telephone calls and chase scenes and now giving Matthew Lillard his own stand-up comedy routine (every last one-liner is hilarious too) while he and Skeet stab each other until the house is littered with broken dishes and feathers from torn pillow cushions... that it's finally time to rip the scalp off the movie and start poking its brain matter with pins. Either Stu is gay and in love with Billy who in turn is manipulating him to carry out his murderous wishes (which could work on a Movie Level, Billy is one of those perfect composite characters- Johnny Depp looks, Leo DiCaprio shouting intensity, Jared Leto silent brooding). Or all the California meathead-bro obnoxiousness and we-cool surf-skate-boarder prattling on we've been watching with the male characters was a hint at a more sinister systematic pattern indicative of Williamson's worldview. Namely that: any of the guys in the film could have been the killer. But not, necessarily, for just any reason.

It can't be overlooked how rough characterization is with the male characters. Especially in the video store scene, where Jamie Kennedy begins screaming at the top of his lungs just talking movies, apparently unaware that he is attracting a lot of unwanted attention. This is more than one toke over the line in making him look suspicious. As are Lillard's equally loopy-eyed reaction shots. One of them literally is oblivious to how he sounds to others, the other clueless to how he looks. Then there's the utter "huh?" with Skeet somehow turning into a chick magnet after spending the night in jail, suspected of committing homicide. A lot of this movie has thus far reflected bits of reality, the characters having traces of human attributes belonging to people I personally recognize. But this one is straight out of John Waters-land. Meanwhile, every male character in the film could be characterized as being oblivious of their actions to one degree or another. The Principal fondles Neve's face in front of 2 police officers, the deputy practically suggests to Gale that the killer should kill more people, there's a literal parade of jerkish guy stunts: jump scaring people, belching, shouting things like "kill your girlfriend" and "(she never) showed her tits," pranking people in school with the killer's costume, drunk driving, etc.

After all this and the previous decade's spate of Apatow aimless-adult frat comedies that are so stupid and riddled with potential homophobia they spiral into being arguably progressive or emotionally level-headed (not an argument I would personally make though I also think there's little need to see them burned at the stake), it would be refreshing to think of Scream as a bit of anti-male entitlement, anti-teen as receptacle for society's garbage venting. Either way, I can say with complete confidence (even when considering what he moved on to professionally after Scream 2) that people have misread Williamson's intent with the film. He obviously took issue with teens thinking they were so clever. And after the boot camp of insanity final girl Sidney and movie nerd Randy are put through in the name of forcing them to think more carefully next time, I remain as impressed by this film as I was when I was a less discerning teenager. The characters are as archetypically irritating here as they have been in the Cabin Fever era of horror but it feels like there's a thoughtful, worthwhile reason for them to be. Whatever your interpretation of the film is. Whether its the Decay of America's youth or just a good, old-fashioned case of the "I wouldn't do that if I were you"s.

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