Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Film Appreciation - Do You Like Scary Movies?

Cody Hamman looks back to his teens to find Film Appreciation for 1996's Scream.

My opinion on Scream has cooled a bit in the twenty-one years since I saw it opening weekend, but at the time I was completely blown away by it. Here was a movie from master of horror Wes Craven that seemed to share the same sensibilities I had as a horror-obsessed 13 year old. It's a slasher movie that knows slasher movies, is quite aware of all the clichés, is happy to throw out references to the horror films that came before, and displays a strong reverence for Halloween.

The killer in this film even calls his victims before striking to have conversations with them about scary movies. It begins with a celebrity cameo by Drew Barrymore as teenager Casey Becker, and the fate of Casey's boyfriend depends on how well she does at horror movie trivia. Unfortunately, Mrs. Voorhees being the killer in the first Friday the 13th instead of Jason trips her up. The fact that Barrymore doesn't survive the opening sequence was meant to be shocking to viewers at the time, like Janet Leigh exiting Psycho halfway through.

With Barrymore out of the picture, it's one of Casey's Woodsboro High classmates, Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott, who is quickly established as our actual heroine. Sidney has a tragic past - her mother Maureen was raped and murdered the year before, and she believes the killer was a man named Cotton Weary (Liev Schrieber). The legal system agreed, and Cotton now sits on death row... But when Casey's killer starts killing more people around Woodsboro and terrorizing Sidney with attacks and phone calls, Sidney starts to wonder if she may have sent the wrong man to jail.

I remember being hyped for Scream when it was coming out, and would try to get a good look at the mask being worn by the cloaked killer in promotional materials. While the Ghostface mask has become iconic, there was a small window of time there when it was tough to get a good look at the mask on the killer's face. My first look at that image came when I paused a shot that was in a trailer or a TV spot. This Edvard Munch-esque mask does a good job of concealing the identity of the killer, but I can't say I find it all that impressive otherwise. It's a little silly, and the performance of  Ghostface within the film doesn't do a lot to elevate it toward being badass. Ghostface is not tough to hurt or knock around, and the killer bumbles their way through some of the attack scenes.

The "who is the killer?" mystery is really one of the best parts of watching a Scream movie for the first time, and Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson present plenty of potential suspects. Sidney's boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) especially draws a lot of suspicion, so much so that he is even arrested for the crime at one point. Also on the list: Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), a fame-seeking reporter who is a strong supporter of Cotton Weary. Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard), Billy's oddball friend and the boyfriend of Sidney's best friend Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan). Could Tatum's police officer brother Dewey (David Arquette) be hiding something dark beneath his awkward nice guy exterior? What about that guy Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), who is always talking about horror movies?

Randy is a character I really connected with when I was first watching Scream. He's much more boisterous than I am, but he shared my love of horror and worked a job I intended to have but never did - being a video store clerk.


While some of the dialogue lampoons slashers, it's clear that Williamson also had an appreciation for what he was picking on, and he did some good work trying to make Scream stand out from the pack by really making sure the characters had personality and, at least some of them, depth. There aren't really any fodder teens in the group, and the more we know them the more we can be suspicious of them. Campbell, Williamson, and Craven especially made sure that Sidney was a strong character. She's up there with some of the best horror heroines.

At 111 minutes, Scream is a little long, but there are never too many minutes that go by without some kind of Ghostface activity, and there's payoff to its build-up. Most of the second half of the film is set at a house party where the teens are hanging out, Gale Weathers is spying on them, Deputy Dewey is keeping an eye on things in the area, and Ghostface is picking off characters.


The '90s look and feel of the movie doesn't appeal to me so much at this point, characters who annoyed me then annoy me now even more, and I'm not as enamored with the dialogue, so Scream isn't a movie I revisit very often anymore. In the second half of the '90s, though, I watched it over and over. I watched it with my mom, my brother and his wife, had a viewing of it in my paternal grandmother's house that she walked out of as soon as she saw Casey's boyfriend's guts spilling out. I even watched the movie with my father, who would almost never watch horror, and he got invested in the mystery of it all. I introduced friends to this movie and to some of the slashers that came out in the wake of its success. While I never did like those '90s slashers as much as I loved the slashers of the '80s, I was glad the sub-genre got a resurgence for a while. It was a good time.

When I was 13, Scream was one of the best things I had ever seen. It's a movie I have largely left behind in my teenage years, but I do appreciate the impact it had on my youth and it does still hold up as a good slasher.

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