A phone ring. A bizarre phone call. A flirtation. A threat. A quiz. A display of violence. A chase. An end. A discovery. Finally, a scream. And all the while, the Jiffy Pop burns...
Thus begins Scream, possibly the best film in the hit-and-miss oeuvre of Wes Craven. A re-imagining of the stalk 'n' slash genre, which up until that point had been fairly stagnant, it was marked by both a reverence for its predecessors as well as a willingness to make up some of a few of its own rules.
Somebody's killing students at a Woodsboro High School, and he is using his literacy in slasher film conventions to achieve his ends. In the middle of all of this is Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who's just recovering from a personal life trauma. She and her friends have to avoid being sliced and diced by the sicko in the ghostly Halloween mask - but every one of them is a suspect in the grisly proceedings.
With a good-looking cast whose members were either plucked from relative obscurity (Jamie Kennedy, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich), supporting roles in cult flicks (Matthew Lillard, David Arquette), or television (Campbell, Courteney Cox), Scream set a new trend for actor-marketing in horror flicks. It's one that, unfortunately, seems to be the only thing that's been repeated with any success in the numerous following clones (and "success" is a term used lightly).
Part of Scream's notability is that it worked in certain modern conveniences, like portable phones and the Internet, and made them work for the plot rather than against them. In previous slasher outings, such technology would have been difficult to incorporate without opening the narrative up to numerous plot holes and inconsistencies.
The script, by Kevin Williamson, is chock-full of references to horror films both obvious (Halloween, When a Stranger Calls) and not as easily apparent (Suspiria, Wait Until Dark). The characters are mostly versed in the genre, especially Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), who delivers the now-classic speech on the Rules of Horror Film Survival (don't drink, don't have sex, don't say "I'll Be Right Back"). It's recursive terror at its finest. Williamson even pokes some fun at the director, by futzing up his name (Wes Carpenter).
This is not to say that Craven doesn't throw in his own clever ideas. Listen to the background music during an early make-out sequence. It's a slow version of the only rock song in Halloween, and it also provides a clue as to who the killer might be. Also, check out veteran helmer's cameo as a janitor named Freddy (who wears a red-and-green striped sweater).
Sure, it's easy to accuse Scream of being nothing more than a series of "pop-up" scares and telegraphed murders, but it's difficult to deny its effectiveness the first time around. It loses some of its steam with repeated viewings (something that can't be send of many of its influences), but try enjoying it for what it is: mass marketed teenybopper terror. It's not deep, it's not making veiled commentary about the state of the world - it's just a damn fun movie.
Plus, much like Halloween and Friday the 13th before it, Scream has inspired legions of inferior clones, such as I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, and Halloween: Resurrection (the latter title is in monumentally bad favor with me) and sequels (Scream 2 is actually nearly as good, Scream 3 is a waste of good celluloid). It's also been the basis of two parodies, and has launched a response of creepy, subtle films that go for slow chills up the spine rather than quick, sharp shocks to the system.
I will never argue that Scream is a perfect film - not for a second. However, it's difficult to be a teen horror fan and look at the film and not see yourself as one of the characters. It's certainly stirred up a lot of controversy - the number of anti-Scream websites (even one of the staffers here at Classic-Horror used to run one) easily matches the number of pro-Scream sites. Despite all of that, the film is a great little thrill ride that is required viewing for the modern horror fan.