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Wes Craven's 1996 Slasher Film Scream - The Test of Time

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must-see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY WES CRAVEN

STARRING NEVE CAMPBELL, SKEET URLICH, MATTHEW LILLARD, JAIME KENNEDY, ROSE MCGOWAN

“Movies don’t create psychos...movies make psychos more creative!” - Billy Loomis

Twenty-five years ago this Christmas, hall of fame horror maven Wes Craven all but single-handedly resuscitated the moribund slasher subgenre with the modern meta-horror classic Scream (WATCH IT HERE/OWN IT HERE), an intelligently reinventive and self-reflexively riveting cinematic salvo you can tell was made by genuine fans of the format. The film not only launched a successful franchise and countless imitators that made mainstream horror flicks popular again, it also revitalized Craven’s sagging career at the time, reminding ardent and casual fans alike what an instrumental figure he is in the pantheon of all-time horror greats. F*ck, it still sucks that he’s no longer around to bless us with more nightmares!

Since Scream has remained in the collective consciousness due to the undying spate of sequels and spoofs - including another reboot coming in 2022 - it’s almost unfathomable to think the film turns 25 years old. Yet here we are, on the brink of Ghostface’s 25th birthday! Now, as we examine how well the film has endured over the past quarter-century, we’re not just looking for serious signs of senescence. We’re also going to place close attention to how the underlying mystery of the movie - the identity of the killer(s) - is hinted at, clued towards, and inferred throughout the story. So pop some corn, pour a shot, pack a bowl and roll up...it’s Wes Craven’s Scream vs The Test of Time below!

THE STORY: In one of the smartest, most trenchantly observed first horror screenplays ever written, Kevin Williamson’s story is one of the movie’s biggest assets. Loosely inspired by a series of real-life student murders in Gainesville, Florida in 1990 in which the suspected killer was dubbed “The Gainesville Ripper,” Williamson wrote an 18-page treatment consisting of what eventually became the opening scene in Scream - a woman, home alone, tormented on the telephone, before being attacked by a masked murderer.

Under the title Scary Movie (ironically the name of the serialized spoofs), Williamson hunkered down by himself in Palm Springs and hastily penned the rest of the full-length script in just three days, doing so out of financial necessity. The script became such a hot item in Hollywood that it created a bidding war, with Bob Weinstein and Dimension besting Oliver Stone for rights to the screenplay. After initially declining the project, Wes Craven agreed to direct once he learned Drew Barrymore had signed on to star. Craven had also grown sick of fans saying he’d gone soft since the halcyon days of Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes.

As for the actual plot of the film, Scream tells the story of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), a strong-willed high school teenager reeling over the unsolved murder of her mother one year prior. When a psycho killer dressed in a Father Death robe and Ghost Face mask begins slaughtering people at Woodsboro High School in a copycat fashion, Sidney becomes the target of the mysterious murderer. With her father out of town and only her closest friends and dick-headed boyfriend Billy to protect her, Sidney must avoid danger at all costs. Alas, she has no idea of the deadly and devious duplicity dashing at her doorstep.

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Having just seen the film for the umpteenth time, it’s honestly difficult to find a single dull spot, much less a glaring weakness. Craven’s direction is perfectly tailored to Williamson’s meta-horror references and winking in-jokes without ever spilling over into outright parody or lampoon. The single greatest achievement of Scream might be the equilibrious tonal balance between genuine horror and germane humor, never teetering too far in either temperament. It’s one of the reasons why Williamson claimed such esteemed horror-comedy directors as Sam Raimi and Robert Rodriguez “didn’t get it,” when offered the script, as they misperceived the film as an outright comedy on the page. As a former college English professor, Craven knew better. But beyond the pitch-perfect mastery of dual tones is the unassailable brilliance of the opening scene, the novel idea and splendid execution of having two killers working in tandem, and the inspired casting of the central characters are what qualitatively stand out the most in 2021.

As a self-contained short film, the opening sequence of Scream is nearly perfect across the board. Craven once admitted that if the opening of a horror film is scary enough, the audience will grant you leeway until the end of the film. Understanding this, Craven pulled no punches in the breathless opening assault of Casey Becker (Barrymore), at once peppering her, and us, the vicarious audience, with a jarring combo of slight jabs, hard hooks, looping crosses, blinding uppercuts, and horrifically heartstopping haymakers. The way the camera stalks Casey through the house and the skillful manner in which Craven sadistically plays the audience is a virtuosic symphony of suspense, tension, terror, and bloodshed. The screeching popcorn burning on the stove is a metaphor for our emotions as the ultra-violence Craven ends the scene with is palpably vicious and genuinely terrifying. It was in 1996 and still is today.

Since Craven largely waits for the bookended party scene - which lasts over 40 minutes and took three weeks to film - to duplicate the level of violent terror of the opening, the casting becomes imperative to ensure the middle of the movie remains entertaining. Fortunately, one of the strongest aspects of the movie is its cast, led by the atypical final girl played by Neve Campbell, who is strong-willed, independent, and intelligent. Despite big-name auditions for the supporting cast, the decision to hire Jamie Kennedy as virginal horror film buff Randy, Rose McGowan as the sassy and sexy Tatum, Skeet Urlich as the mysterious boyfriend Billy, Matthew Lillard as the endearingly goofy Stu, David Arquette as the impish Dewey, and Courtney Cox as the bitchy Gail, really contribute to the movie’s lasting entertainment value. Williamson’s fresh, stylish dialogue and iconic improvised lines from the actors go a long way in keeping the characters hip, especially when mentioning the vast slew of horror movies of yore.

But in retrospect, the biggest aspect of Scream that still retains its impact is the final reveal of the two murderers. This simple conceit was not only a shock to the system when first seen in 1996 - an absolute jaw-dropper and chest-pounder in equal measure - but seeing the film again with the killers in mind makes for a fascinating exercise. In addition to the red herrings Craven casts out - the Sheriff’s boots, Dewey’s weird behavior, principal Himbry’s psychotic activity, etc. - Williamson and Craven deftly lay out clues and hints as to the killers’ identity without tipping their hand too much. Like the tonal balance, the subtle blueprint laying out who the killers are is just as durable.

In the very opening phone call, there’s a moment that indicates two speakers. After the killer asks who the killer is in Friday the 13th and Casey answers Jason, one voice says “afraid not” while another immediately follows with “no way!” Listen to the registers of these voices...the first goes up (Stu?) and the other goes down (Billy?) in rapid succession. The fact that neither voice is spoken by Lillard or Ulrich brilliantly adds to the subtle misdirection. Later, when the students eat grapes in the school quad, Billy can be seen trying to stop Stu from talking about the murders (“it’s called tact, you f*ck rag!”), which, in retrospect, is quite telling. The same goes for the scene in the video store, where the clearest evidence is presented that Stu and Billy are working in tandem. And again, just as Billy has sex with Sidney, notice how he looks at the door to ensure Stu has clear entry to stage his death moments later. It’s there.

But by making Bully such a strong suspect early in the film, including his arrest and prison phone call, our suspicions are tamped down by the end. By the time Ghost Face slashes Billy’s midriff in the bedroom, we no longer have reason to believe Billy is involved in any way. Despite the subtle hints and clues laid to support the eventual revelation, Williamson’s script is so well written and Craven’s direction so well-suited to the material, that the big twist ending still registers as an apoplectic jolt to the senses. The point here is that the plotting of the film is so well thought out that the ending is neither too easy to guess nor too forced or unnatural to be believed. This sleight of hand remains Scream’s crowning achievement.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Frankly, outside of some dubious mid-90s fashion statements - Randy’s suede lime-green and ruby-red shoes and Stu’s oversized Cosby sweaters - the only thing about Scream that feels tiresome today is perhaps the Ghost Face mask itself. In 1996 the mask was still fresh and frightening. However, due to the countless spoof movies and general ubiquity of the mask ever since, the ghostly facade feels more farcical than frightening nowadays.

THE VERDICT: No doubt about it, Scream is the most seminal slasher movie to come out in the last 25 years. Helmed by a true master of horror cinema, Wes Craven restored glory both to his own filmmaking namesake as well as a horror subgenre that was on life-support at the time. In a perfect marriage of material via Kevin Williamson’s sharply written screenplay, Scream deftly toes the line between skin-crawling horror and side-splitting humor without ever tipping into eye-rolling parody. Eye winking, sure, but even 25 years later, it’s hard to take your eyes off of or turn a deaf to ear to Scream.

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