Like the blood staining Lady MacBeth’s hands, Scream’s influence has permanently imbrued American horror. The last 30 years can be neatly split into the pre-Scream and the post-Scream age. Before Scream, slashers slashed, killers killed, pretty young things ran up the stairs when they should have been going out the front door. Boobs were big and blood was red. You knew who would die, who would live, who would end up naked. There was a formula, a very simple one. After Scream, the rules changed. Now people knew the rules. Now the pretty young things picked up the knife before investigating the strange noise in the darkened hallway. They were going to die regardless—it’s their sole purpose, really—but at least they displayed a modicum of intelligence.
With the unparalleled success of A Nightmare On Elm Street, former English professor, one-time pornography director, and lifelong horror aficionado Wes Craven—who died earlier this week of brain cancer—presented a new vision of American horror, one that channeled the gothic spirit of Edgar Allan Poe and James Whale through the ferocity of the slasher age. A dozen years later, and after a string of inexplicably awful movies, he transformed the subgenre anew. With Scream, Craven reinvented himself by gazing backward while moving forward. Working from a script by Kevin Williamson, he made a horror movie thesis in the form of a horror movie, a sort of self-vivisecting examination of his own obsession with fantasy and reality intermingling, bleeding into one another. The trailer for Craven’s debut, Last House On The Left, infamously tried to comfort viewers by advising them to repeat to themselves, “It’s only a movie… only a movie.” Here, Craven offers no such reprieve. Serial murderer and movie buff Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) philosophizes that life is just one big movie, and “movies don’t create psychos; movies make psychos more creative!”
The opening scene of Scream, which lasts an unlucky 13 minutes exactly, can comfortably exist as a coherent (if sadistic) short film. It has more tension, and character development, than anything Eli Roth has directed. But as a prelude to the rest of the film, an introductory lesson that sets precedents and offers clues, it remains one of the best scenes of American horror. It opens with haste, the film’s terse title flashing in a graphic that could only come from the mid-’90s. A telephone rings. “Hello?” Drew Barrymore answers. Her character’s name is Casey, but that’s irrelevant at this point. Barrymore’s presence, and her face, is what matters: She was the purported star of the film, adorning the promotional material, the posters, the trailer. She was at the advent of her career comeback after her post-E.T. problems. Less than 10 seconds in and we’ve already been played.
Horror has long taken perverse glee in using the seemingly innocuous act of receiving a phone call in wicked ways. The urban legend of the babysitters and the man upstairs, in which a man calls from within the house and murders children (not always in that order), has been the stimulus for terror in numerous films: Black Christmas, When A Stranger Calls, Are You In The House Alone?—even Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, made a movie about diabolical phones, the better-left-forgotten 976-Evil. Craven had at least one great phone scene already, so he’s working in familiar territory in Scream, revising an old anxiety for a new generation.
The stranger on the phone asks Barrymore what her favorite scary movie is, a simple but significant moment in the same vein as Steven Spielberg putting Star Wars action figures in E.T. Making the characters cognizant of culture grounds them in a sense of reality, establishes parameters to which the rest of the film adheres, and situates them in the same world as us. Craven isn’t blending reality and fantasy, he’s lacing reality with awareness of fantasy, a twist on the main motif of his career. This could be us, sitting at home, getting ready to watch a movie. (Though today it would be Netflix instead of a VHS and we’d probably be less attractive).
As the stranger inquires about Barrymore’s nocturnal activities, Craven follows her around the house with a Steadicam, establishing the layout, the geography. The big, empty house is rife with places where someone could kill you. Once the stranger sheds his niceties and starts threatening to gut people, Craven comes in for closer, tighter shots, framing Barrymore with windows and walls. The tinfoil pocket full of popcorn swells as tension rises, suspense builds. When she asks the stranger what he wants, he responds honestly: “To see what your insides look like.”
Barrymore takes refuge behind a TV that’s displaying the Blue Screen Of Death. Trapped between a bookshelf and a VCR, she fields the killer’s trivia questions. The writer and director are working with postmodern pulp here, referencing not only Jason Voorhees but Jason’s mother, Pamela; not only Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween but Jamie Lee Curtis in Prom Night. When “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” plays, culled from John Carpenter’s original slasher, it’s not Blue Oyster Cult but Gus Black’s acoustic cover that sounds painfully, quintessentially Gen-X. (It later appeared in Smallville and The Howling: Reborn.) Craven delivers murder to the living room, as if it were a Blockbuster tape. These are kids who have seen horror movies and ostensibly know the deal. They’ve seen that movie “20 goddamn times.” Randy (Jamie Kennedy) later breaks it down very simply, lecturing a gaggle of guys who just want to see some titties. Craven punishes people for not paying attention.
Once the chasing and fleeing starts, nine minutes in (almost four minutes longer than it takes Michael Myers to kill his sister in Halloween), the horror becomes more conventional, but the buildup and self-knowing menace has left us shaken. Craven and Williamson played mind games on us. From here until her death, whenever Barrymore tries to wrest her role as horror movie victim number one, Craven foils her. She grabs a kitchen knife (schiiiiik!), but the killer takes it away from her. She runs outside instead of upstairs, but the killer catches her. Craven hadn’t been this brutal in years. He teases us with fleeting glimpses of escape, as Barrymore manages to kick, punch, and push the killer away several times, accruing injuries. She gets stabbed in the chest (without a cutaway), strangled, stabbed a few more times, gutted, and strung up from a tree for her parents to see. It’s not just the blood and gore of the scene that make it hurt, but the verisimilitude of it, the feeling of helplessness it evokes. The histrionic sound effects pair uncomfortably with the somatic violence. Most horror movie teens don’t know their death encroaches while the audience does. Here, we’re both equally aware of the inevitability.
Scream also plays with gender roles in interesting and subtle ways, starting with the opening scene. (Rose McGowan literally says, “That is so sexist” to her boyfriend-cum-serial-killer, a phrase that rarely appeared in prior horror movies.) In most run-of-the-mill efforts, the women serve two purposes: be sexy, then be dead. The men serve two similar purposes: be heroic, with sexiness an optional quality, then be dead. Everyone in Scream is admittedly really sexy, but none of them ever gets naked, even though Randy mentions the “obligatory titties,” and the men are so not heroic. We meet Barrymore’s football player boyfriend, Steve, after he’s already tied to a chair. He never says anything beyond “Casey” and “No,” never fights back, never does anything. The most he moves is when he tilts his head back as his innards fall outward. Dewey (David Arquette) tries to be heroic and he gets stabbed—in two movies in a row, actually. None of the male victims puts up much of a fight. Neve Campbell’s Sidney, the series’ heroine, manages to thwart both killers, receiving some assistance from Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox). Sid drops a television on one’s head and stabs the other, her boyfriend, with an umbrella. Gale subsequently shoots the latter when the umbrella doesn’t suffice. He gets back up, for one last scare, and Sidney promptly shoots him in the head.
Drew Barrymore’s 13-minute scene is essentially a metaphor for the entire film, the entire series. With Scream, Wes Craven dragged horror kicking and screaming into a new age, dragging its cold, rigor mortis-rigid body through the damp grass. He strung it up and cut it open and let us see what its insides looked like.