On the anniversary of her mother’s murder, Sidney Prescott must fend off a killer dressed in a ghost costume intent on taking her out as well.
The Scream franchise comes from the DNA of horror film royalty: Wes Craven. He created innumerable classic and cult horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, The People Under the Stairs, and The Last House on the Left. The entire series is self-referential, genre-bending and defying, meta-horror, and it paved the way for the horror movie renaissance of the 21st century.
Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is the focal point of the four-film series, and she gets her start right here in this first instalment. One year ago, Sidney’s mother, Maureen, was murdered, and Sidney was able to identify her killer. Now, someone is after her, and they’re killing just about everyone she knows to get to her. The cast of characters is a virtual who’s who of 1990s TV: Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) is a reporter trying to hunt down the killers for her own fame and glory; Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan) is Sidney’s best friend, and her brother Deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette) is assigned to protect Sidney. Meanwhile, Sidney’s boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) is jailed as a suspect until a call comes in from the killer while Billy is in jail. Finally, everything comes to a head when Randy (Jamie Kennedy) begins outlining the rules for surviving a horror movie, and it becomes clear that the killer knows these same rules and is using them as a how-to manual.
Kevin Williamson (known for Dawson’s Creek, The Faculty, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and numerous other 1990s and early 2000s teen dramas) penned the script. His writing voice lends an intelligence to the characters that, while not always being completely real, makes them incredibly engaging, really making the audience think and analyze the movies. Despite being a commentary on the history and impact of horror movies itself, it doesn’t lose focus: each film is unpredictable, carefully crafted, and filled with gore. They’re slasher movies, after all.
One of the most memorable scenes in movie history, in my humble opinion, is Scream‘s cold open, featuring Drew Barrymore. Its roots can be found in Psycho, and in many other classic horror films (even the first Friday the 13th), because of its sheer audacity and ability to pull off a bait-and-switch on an audience who has been trained by lesser films to expect predictability and rote, thoughtless structure. Scream is nothing if not thoughtful.
As I said before, while Scream wittingly plays into tried and true horror tropes: you have sex, you die, etc, it also pokes good fun at them. For example, the killer gets beat up, tripping and falling from time to time, in contrast to Jason and Michael, and others who lumber inexorably on toward their victims, sometimes transporting themselves magically despite their established speed. This both grounds the series in reality, despite the elevated nature of the writing, and adds a good bit of humour to the inherent darkness of the slasher subject matter.
In both good ways and (incredibly) bad, Scream significantly impacted the horror genre. It, of course, spawned spoofs, most notably Scary Movie and its interminable, dreadful sequels. Most of the other sequels were much less fun and had much more hair gel, highlights (even its own sequel!), alt-rock soundtracks, and inferior writing and directing. From I Know What You Did Last Summer to Urban Legend and even Halloween H20 (and many others), slashers of the late 90s and early 2000s can quickly and easily trace their origins back to Scream and the shot of adrenaline and (attempted) wit that it gave the genre.
I watch Scream every year, usually on Halloween night (I know I should be watching the Halloween series, but it’s too long for one night!). It’s a blast–funny, scary, intricately crafted, and it brings me right back to high school, watching it for the first time and having my mind blown.
This review is part of our #31DaysofHorror feature which is running all throughout October. Check out the other entries.
Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.