Scream smashed on to our screens in 1996 as a complete subversion of the horror tropes we had come to know for the past 20 years. Not just your typical stalk ‘n’ slash flick, Scream was notable for its postmodern spin on the slasher genre tropes, paying both homage at the same time as acknowledging the flaws.
The slasher film was pretty much dead in 1996, as Jason and Michael had ensured that the critical and financial appeal of these films had dwindled into nothing. But behind the scenes Kevin Williamson was working on a script that, with the help of veteran director Wes Craven, brought the genre firmly into a new era.
Originally titled Scary Movie, the film told the story of a killer that stalked its high school victims, teasing them with sadistic phone calls that referenced classic slasher films. The killer also wears a mask giving it the nickname ‘Ghostface’ due its comparisons with Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The use of horror film references and minor homages is just one of the many postmodern tools that Williamson uses to revitalise this once dead genre.
The opening scene of Scream is now one of the most infamous in movie history and has actually won accolades and ‘Top 100’ spaces on many polls. The mega star Drew Barrymore is seen home alone making popcorn and preparing to watch a scary movie when she gets a phone call that is the wrong number. Despite hanging up, the wrong number calls back and so she does want any sensible teenager would do – engage in conversation with a complete stranger about their favourite scary movies. The tension crafted in this scene could (quite literally) be cut with a knife, edging in slight increments from mild goosebumps to hairs-on-end as the scene progresses quickly from a harmless conversation to a life-or-death situation. The moment she asks what the caller wants, to which the response ‘To see what your insides look like!’ pierces down the line – we know shit is about to get real.
And get real it certainly does. We watch in pure horror as our intended heroine of the film, the blonde beauty Drew Barrymore, is brutally murdered in the opening scene just inches from salvation. We’re now left wondering just who the hell our saviour – our final girl – is meant to be. We’re soon introduced to Sydney in much the same vain as Craven’s earlier classic A Nightmare On Elm Street. Sydney is just like Nancy – she is beautiful, smart, intelligent and has her wits about her when it comes to the wondering hands of the high school boys. She is clearly upset at school as the news of her classmates’ macabre ending is discussed whilst the news cameras and police cars rove around the school.
What ensues from this point on throughout the film is a balls to the wall slasher film with an invigorated appeal for the stalk’n’slash tropes we know so well. The fact that the characters are so knowledgeable on horror films that they can almost predict the direction in which their story is headed is one of the things that makes this film so appealing: just how well will the characters fare when they know what they’re up against? Randy, the geeky film fan that can spell out the entire sequence of events from his wealth of knowledge of films past, is able to tell from the first victim that this is going to play out with more bodies falling before the final curtain.
Sidney’s first call and survival of her first (but certainly not last) attack gives us no other motive to think that she is our eponymous Final Girl – the one that will see this through to the bloody end. Her waxing on horror films, about girls having large breasts running up the stairs when they should be running outside, is another indicator of the postmodernism rife in this film. So it’s no surprise to see that when she is attacked by Ghostface she heads for the door, only to be directed up the stairs. Her suspicion of her boyfriend leads to her arrest, a physical confrontation with the nosey reporter who worked on the murder of Sid’s mother some years ago, and then more phone stalking when is at her friends later that night.
With more attacks imminent and the whole of this sleep town’s police force out in full searching for this masked killer, a curfew is imposed on everyone in the town. So what do they do? Decide to have a party, of course. This self-referential masterpiece continues its homage to classic horror films as the teens at the party watch Halloween, the pioneer of the slasher film. As they discuss the film and how to survive, Randy reads off his list of how you survive a horror film. Up until this point we’ve been revering in the self-referential attitudes of our characters, but it’s not until this scene that we see the true extent of the films we have watched all these years and how, because there have been so many, we recognise the trends that spell survival.
#1 – Never have sex. Sex = Death.
#2 – Never do drink or drugs = it’s an extension of the first.
#3 – Never say I’ll be back.
Just as Randy is saying this, Sid is in the bedroom with her boyfriend about to have sex. Despite Randy’s warnings, we never see the sex happen and we never see any skin so we’re left wondering whether – because we the audience who are moderately more receptive to the events of the film than the characters (for once) – Sid has been tainted by the horror brush. It turns out not so much, as she survives the most shocking reveal in horror history. Yes – reveal. We actually see underneath the mask, and what see are the little breadcrumbs we have been fed for the entire film: the only ones capable of such barbarity, with only a mild motivation behind them, are the ones that love horror films the most. Their plan is almost ingenious as we see characters not willing to succumb to their fate or glorify their actions but would prefer to blend into the background as innocent bystanders. It is a superb twist that is worthy of being studied over and over. And just as every great horror film does, it doesn’t end without one last attempt by the killer to come back and finish what they started.
Scream is a masterpiece. If not for the fact that it so joyfully plays on the genre tropes of a now classic sub-genre of horror, it’s a masterpiece because it doesn’t make a mockery. It pays respect and homage to its ancestors whilst forging a new path for this marmite genre. It creates a strong female character that rivals the final girls of Nancy and Laurie; it creates an iconic antagonist in Ghostface, an antagonist that only requires the mask. It is superb horror, as even though we think – as digesters of this genre – we know what’s going to happen next we often don’t, and even when we do – well it’s just as scary as we were expecting.
TOMORROW: It’s the final day! Day 13 – The Zombie Sub-Genre