Some of the best horror movies released in the last two decades owe a debt to Scream.
Scream’s commentaries on the rules of the horror genre is given a more satirical analysis in Cabin in the Woods while It Follows takes a more nuanced look at how sex in horror is a mark of death. Yet Scream makes this connection two decades prior, even if it’s delivered by, of all people, Jamie Kennedy. Just a year after Scream’s production, German-arthouse giant Michael Haneke plays with similar fourth-wall breaking tricks and audience expectations in his film Funny Games.
As dated as Scream is, and it is very much a product of the 90’s, it’s had a lasting impact on the film genre and an entire generation raised by the smartasses on MTV.
It opens with perhaps its best scene: a high-school student Casey (Drew Barrymore) is at home about to watch a scary movie when the phone rings. A nefarious voice asks her questions about Halloween and Friday the 13th before murdering her boyfriend and then herself in a grisly fashion.
This is essentially the premise of the entire movie: teenagers who’ve watched too many scary movies are murdered while commenting on how they’re living in a scary movie. “What are the rules?!” Name drops abound to classic and less-than-classic horror films of the 70’s and 80’s, which makes sense because Scream is directed by the late Master of Horror, Wes Craven, who’d already made stone-cold classics like The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Following the set-piece of the first scene, the movie introduces Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), its version of the plucky, virginal female protagonist. Campbell is the secret weapon of the film, delivering some of the ridiculous lines screenwriter Kevin Williamson has given her with a natural 90’s tone just before Buffy Speak would become a thing.
Sydney’s backstory is already it’s own scary movie: her mother was murdered the year prior, and she testified against the supposed killer. This typical bit of self-mythology is another worn trope in horror movies, but is done so on purpose to add to the meta commentary of the whole thing while tying it back to the movies killer at the end of the film.
The rest of the cast is a cornucopia of 90s actors: Rose McGowan is Sydney’s sarcastic blond-bombshell best friend; Skeet Ulrich is Sydney’s unsettling 80’s Johnny Depp-lookalike boyfriend; Matthew Lillard is the class clown; Jamie Kennedy is their horror-movie obsessed friend; Courtney Cox is a tabloid journalist trying to cover the murder spree. Finally, David Arquette is the town’s deputy sheriff trying to keep the peace, playing a dopey and infantilized remix on the grizzled lawman trope.
The movie unfolds like a “whodunit?” murder mystery.
Each character loves to talk about who’s the killer using their knowledge of horror movies and 90’s culture to support their theories. This self-awareness climaxes with a big rant by Randy on the “rules” of surviving a horror film intercut with a sex scene and a murder scene, while Prom Night plays on TV behind him. Oddly, out of all the horror movies Scream takes from, it’s Prom Night that is the most explicitly referenced and most similar, as the movie continues to play in the background during the final confrontation between Sydney and the killer. Once the killer is dead, everyone for Sydney of course goes back to normal, just like in all horror franchises.
Yeah, just kidding.
Shit goes bad again for Sydney in Scream 2, a pretty-good follow-up that has some more clever jokes and commentary on horror and sequels specifically. Then shit keeps going bad in Scream 3, which is when the franchise disappears up it’s own ass and becomes the same silly mashup of cliches it once made fun of.
Even though Scream as a franchise cratered just like others before it, its first film came out at the right time to inject new ideas that would germinate into even better films a few years later. It certainly will be remembered as a horror classic that did something new and that’s why it’s on our must-see list of the 31 Days of Halloween.