Hello horror fans and slasher stans, it’s Slick Dungeon here! I’m gearing up to go see the sixth installment of the Scream franchise soon but before I do that, I wanted to review all of the previous movies here. For these reviews I plan on going in-depth so if you have not seen the movie, I advise you not to read this review yet. Scream is a great slasher franchise but the best parts of it are surprising events and reveals so definitely have a watch first because reviewing without spoilers is never easy with these movies.
When I do review Scream VI, I will have a first reaction spoiler free review followed by a spoiler heavy review. For the rest of these, watch first or risk the fun of the movies being taken away by reading. I’m going to be talking about individual scenes, characters, and themes so it’s all fair game in these reviews. I will only spoil things from the first movie in this review so you don’t need to have seen all the Scream films to keep yourself spoiler free, just the first one.
Scream in Historical Context
In order to understand Scream, it’s important to put it into historical film context. In the 1980’s and 1990’s there had been a glut of horror films. Friday the 13th had already put nine films in the can, A Nightmare on Elm Street was up to seven films, and both franchises were waiting for the crossover of the two killers. Halloween was up to its sixth film and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had three films out as well. And these are just slasher films. Probably the most innovative horror film in the decade before Scream came out was Silence of the Lambs and an argument can be made that film is more of a psychological thriller than out and out horror. And all of this doesn’t even take into account the huge number of other knock off and imitation films, some with merit, but mostly derivative and boring. This is all to say, the slasher film was about as dead as can be imagined in 1995. No one wanted to see one because no one thought they could be surprised by them anymore. But, like a good slasher film, this type of horror had one last gasp before it was gone for good. Enter one of the masters of horror, Wes Kraven, who was matched up with an aspiring screenwriter named Kevin Williamson.
Scream came out on December 20th of 1996. It was the kind of film where there wasn’t much buzz around it, other than who directed it and was starring in it. While horror fans certainly knew Wes Craven, and Drew Barrymore has enough star power to draw anyone to theaters, most of the rest of the cast were less well known. All of the main cast had been in other films but they were not necessarily the icons of the 90’s they would go on to be. The film stars David Arquette, Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, Mathew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, and, of course, Drew Barrymore.
The film had enough going for it that there would be some fans in the seats no matter what. What it really had going for it was a smart story making a statement about horror, and slasher films in specific, with completely unexpected twists guaranteed to get word of mouth going.
The first weekend box office only earned the film $6 million but the next weekend it started to outperform expectations and ended up making over $100 million total. By any horror film standards, that’s a huge success.
So, why did Scream do so well? What’s the big deal with this movie? Let’s dig into it by breaking it down.
Spoilers Follow below!
The beginning of the twist in horror
One of the original “slasher” films was a little film made by Alfred Hitchcock called Psycho. I’m about to drop a spoiler for that movie here so if you haven’t seen that one, go watch it! (You really should have seen it by now anyway). Psycho had a neat little trick where we follow Janet Leigh around for about a quarter of the movie. She was a major film star at the time and she was why people came to see the film. But, in a shock to audiences, she is killed in the famous shower scene at around the 20 minute mark. It changes the tone of the film entirely, not just because the main character we had been following died, but also because the major star in the film was suddenly gone from the story. It then becomes the Norman Bates show.
If Wes Craven films know anything, they know film history. Kevin Williamson took notes from Psycho. This attention to what worked in slasher films of old paid off immensely.
Scream starts with the sound of a scream and the ringing of a phone. It sets the tone for a horror slasher film with perfection. We know something horrible is coming and whatever it is, will come from one end of that phone call. There are enough urban legends, and scary stories involving phone calls, we know this can’t be good.
The first conversation is with Casey Becker (Barrymore) answering the phone and having the kind of conversation we all used to have before the days of cell phones. Seems like an honest mistake, no hard feelings, wrong number. Casey hangs up. The phone rings again. The audience is already getting uncomfortable by this point. Casey picks up again and again politely but a bit more annoyed, hangs up. She goes to make popcorn and yet again the phone rings. The caller gets a bit more creepy but Casey keeps talking to him, telling him she’s about to watch a scary movie. This is where we get the famous line, “Do you like scary movies?” Seems like an innocent enough question, except we’re watching a scary movie where someone is bringing up scary movies so we know it’s not at all innocent.
This phone call is where we start getting some references to a whole bunch of slasher films, including Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Scream is self aware about horror films and as a horror fan, you’re probably already hooked. The phone call seems like it might get a bit flirtatious until the caller asks who he is looking at.
At this point Casey is on her guard. And as an audience, we all know, with certainty, they would not kill Drew Barrymore in the first few minutes. She must be the final girl because she is all over the marketing campaign and is a major Hollywood star. Casey goes into panic mode but keeps answering the phone because there isn’t much else she can do. The caller asks to play a game and things get serious.
Casey, already off kilter hangs the phone up a few times, but then the doorbell rings. She says, “Who’s there?” and the phone rings again. The caller tells her saying, “Who’s there?” is a death wish if you know the rules of scary movies. So, for the audience we get some rules established right away and we know breaking them is bad. This will be huge in not just this film but all of the Scream films to come.
In a desperate move, Casey tells the caller her boyfriend will be there soon. But, the caller gets the upper hand by asking Casey if her boyfriend’s name is Steve. This caller obviously knows way too much about Casey and it’s safe to say we, as the audience, are completely unnerved. When Casey is told to turn on her porch lights and we see her boyfriend already taped to a chair we know things are getting serious.
The caller offers to play a game with Casey. Movie trivia. If she can get the answers right, her boyfriend lives, if not he dies. We know we’re dealing with a twisted person here. Casey gets a questions right. One any horror fan and even most movie fans know. But then she’s thrown off by not remembering a twist in the first Friday the 13th film. Scream is signaling here that twists are important and should be paid attention to.
Casey watches in horror as her boyfriend is killed right in front of her. The violence is bloody and disturbing. The killer stays on the phone but he makes it into Casey’s house. From here the scene is your typical killer vs. prey situation but we’re still expecting Drew Barrymore to survive on star power alone.
She puts up a good fight and knocks the killer around a bit but ultimately she dies. The violent imagery doesn’t hold back and to make it even more terrifying, Casey’s parents come home but she’s unable to scream for help. It’s too late for her and for Steve. Casey’s mom even picks up the phone and has to hear her daughter’s dying breath.
The scene is brutal and horrifying and surprising and ends with Casey’s mother screaming, as any mother would.
This scene is the first reason why audiences latched onto this film. If Drew Barrymore can be killed in the first 12 minutes of the movie, all bets are off. That’s true, even if there are rules to follow. The movie itself already broke a cardinal rule, don’t kill your money making star until the end.
It’s still one of the most terrifying scenes in all of slasher horror and easily memorable for any horror fan.
One of the ironies of this scene is that Drew Barrymore was actually originally cast to play Sidney Prescott but she really wanted to play Casey Becker. The filmmakers realized what a good move it was and while Neve Campbell is certainly a star in her own right, Drew Barrymore was way more famous at the time.
The switch worked in everyone’s favor, including delighting the audience by surprising us.
The star is dead, what now?
If you kill off your major blockbuster star in the first twelve minutes, you not only need a good reason to do it, you have to have somewhere for the story to go. Otherwise no one would keep watching. We move to Sidney Prescott’s (Neve Campbell) bedroom where her boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) startles her by climbing through her window. There’s a moment where Sidney’s father checks on her and Billy has to hide. Pretty typical teen romance stuff. But we do find out Sidney’s dad will be out of town for the weekend.
Next, Billy starts talking about The Exorcist, giving the audience yet another horror reference. He is basically saying he wants their relationship to get more intimate than Sidney has so far been comfortable with. Sharp eared listeners will also hear the song Don’t Fear the Reaper playing in the background. It’s a clever clue because it could be interpreted either as a young couple in love who want to be together forever in eternity or mean the grim reaper is coming for one or both of these characters. Either way, the song implies death is coming for someone and perhaps one of these characters will be causing that death.
This establishes our next main character, signaling to us that at the very least we should care about Sidney and Billy in this film. It’s a small but significant scene trying to establish who we should be able to trust.
Enter the Suspects
We next meet a group of high school students and reporters. Woodsboro High is abuzz with reports of Casey’s murder. We see the principle of the high school and meet a few of Sidney’s friends. Randy (Jamie Kennedy), Tatum (Rose McGowan) and Stuart Macher (Mathew Lillard) all hang out at lunch and talk about the gruesome details. Stu and Randy particularly make fun of the situation. It also comes up that Stu used to date Casey Becker. None of the group, other than Sidney and to some extent Tatum seem overly upset a girl in their school died. We get the impression Casey was someone they knew but didn’t know that well, otherwise there would have been more of a reaction. There are definite clues as to who the killer is in this scene but you have to be really sharp eyed to figure it out.
We also see Sidney get interviewed in the principle’s office with Deputy Dewey and it is established they are old friends.
This sets us on the road to the mystery of who could be the killer. There were hints in several of the scenes we see but on a first viewing the mystery is particularly hard to guess.
We come away with a group of kids, a reporter, a principle, and a deputy who all could potentially be the killer. Also, a lot of slasher movies do have just a random person who is killing strangers so the possibility for that as the reveal is still open at this point in the movie.
When the violence is depicted on the screen, it’s taken quite seriously and it’s uncomfortable to watch. But as soon as we are away from the violence, most of the characters seem fine making a joke out of the situation. It’s all like a movie to them.
One other bit of information we start to gather here, if you’re paying attention is something bad happened recently in this town, and it somehow involves Sidney, or at least, someone she knows.
The past gets dredged up and the stakes are raised
After school, Sidney goes home and makes arrangements to stay the weekend with Tatum, figuring she’d be safer with someone else since her father is away. She flips on the television and we see Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) bring up the rape and murder of Sidney’s mother.
It seems like a quick detail but it’s clearly an event that haunts Sidney to this day and explains a lot about how she behaves toward her boyfriend Billy. We won’t learn until later Maureen Prescott was actually the first victim of the ghost face killer. It’s the kind of detail a movie fan might easily miss when playing trivia with a deranged killer on the phone.
The second phone call goes to Sidney. Right away the voice on the other line calls her by name. Since we’ve already seen this play out once, it seems like there is a good chance Sidney will be victim two and may not survive. Remember. all bets were off by this point already.
Sidney thinks its a joke Randy is pulling on her and Sidney sort of points out how dumb people in horror movies can be. She’s attacked but she puts up a good fight and survives. Billy comes into Sidney’s room through the window and drops a phone. This is back before everyone had a cell phone so it was definitely suspicious.
We also find out Tatum is Dewey’s sister. Billy is taken away for questioning while Gale tries to get more of the story.
The horror continues
After a bit of a scene with Billy locked up in jail and a confrontation with Gale Weathers, Sidney does end up at Tatum’s house where she gets another phone call. It’s the killer once again. This is supposed to make the audience assume there is no way Billy could be the killer since he’s locked up without his phone at this point. But if not Billy, then who could it be?
We gain a bit more vital information the next morning when the news shows a report about Sidney’s mother. A man named Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber) is awaiting execution for the rape and killing of Maureen Prescott.
Billy is also released as his phone records are cleared.
One interesting thing about this movie is how they portray the media coverage of the violence. Sure, horror movies are violent and bloody, but the reporters surrounding this story seem to be drooling for gory details of all the real life horror that happens. I think the movie is trying to draw the distinction that while horror films can often be blamed for violent acts, the widespread news coverage of horrible acts in reality could just as easily get the blame but tends to be ignored. After all, there is plenty of money to be made in Hollywood depicting fictional violence, but there is also a lot of money to be made reporting on actual violence.
We get some scenes in the school and outside of it where we pick up new potential murderers. This includes the principal who is extremely harsh to a couple of teenagers who were playing a prank. Gale Weathers is another potential suspect who certainly seems to be interested in the story but is just extreme enough to make the audience wonder if she is causing the story in the first place. Also, Gale is convinced Cotton Weary was falsely accused by Sidney. It seems Sidney herself even has some doubts at this point over whether or not she was right.
Sidney is attacked again in the restroom at school but she again escapes. The threat to kids in the school is so serious the school is closed and everyone is sent home. While this should be a solemn reminder to be careful, the teenagers in the movie treat it as I think most teens would, an unexpected holiday from school. Stu even decides to throw a party. He says it will be a small gathering and it sort of makes sense because you definitely feel safer in a group.
In the empty school, the principle is attacked and killed, eliminating a potential suspect. The scene has a great easter egg for horror fans. The principle goes out in the hall, cursing under his breath and the janitor who is wearing a brown hat and an old red and green striped sweatshirt pops up. The principle says, “Not you Fred.” It’s an obvious reference to A Nightmare on Elm Street. This again proves the film is completely self aware about horror.
At the video store, Randy gets more established as the expert on horror films. He references deep cut horror films and he has a freak out over Billy being there. Randy even admits in a horror film he’d be a prime suspect. But he’s convinced Billy is the killer and Sidney’s father who has been missing for the last couple of days, is the red herring of the situation.
The party gets started and the rules are solidified
As night draws closer, Dewey is convinced it really could be Sidney’s father who has done all the killings. The motive seems to be the anniversary of his wife’s death but the police need a little more evidence and to find him before they can confirm him as the killer.
Sidney and Tatum go to Stuart’s house for the party and Gale bumps into Dewey. There’s a definite attraction between the two of them.
The next victim is Tatum who goes down to the basement to get more beer. Her death is utterly brutal. She gets a couple hard knocks in but the way she dies, stuck in a garage door, is absolutely unforgettable.
With Tatum gone, there’s one less suspect. Billy shows up to the party and Sidney goes off alone with him. Meanwhile, Gale is able to get a camera feed into the party and watches it from her van.
Up in the room where Sidney and Billy are, Sidney tries to apologize for being distant with Billy and he immediately makes a film reference to try to understand the situation. This time it’s Silence of the Lambs. Sidney says it’s not a movie but Billy disagrees. More than any other character in this film, Billy seems unable to distinguish reality from film. He also isn’t as empathetic as one would expect when Sidney brings up the death of her mother. Billy instead compares it to when his mom left his dad. Any kind and caring person would understand there is a huge difference between someone leaving and them being murdered.
In the main room of the party, Randy finally lays down the rules of horror films as they watch Halloween. These are as follows:
- You can never have sex.
- You can never drink or do drugs.
- Never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, “I’ll be right back.”
Everyone laughs at this but these are all common tropes in horror films. Not all of them are actually true if you did a statistical analysis on horror films but these are things most horror movie fans assume are true in horror films. Stuart makes a big show of saying he’ll be right back and Randy retorts by saying, “I’ll see you in the kitchen with a knife.” It’s great foreshadowing. And it makes us suspect both Randy and Stu of being the murderer.
Outside we hear Gale also say, “I’ll be right back,” to her camera man. And upstairs we know Sidney is awfully close to breaking rule number one.
Randy gets a call telling him the principle was found dead and most of the party leaves to go see the body. These people leave in a bit of morbid glee where they do seem to be celebrating real world violence. Most people in reality would want to stay far away from a sight like that if they had the choice. It’s hard to sympathize with these people who go to see even more violence but those that do leave are the ones guaranteed to survive the night. I’m not sure there was intentional subtext here from the filmmakers but it feels like there might have been. Is it more callous to stay in and watch horror movies or to go out and see someone who has been brutally killed? Scream sides with the horror fans but also acknowledges the violence in such flms.
The Final Act arrives
After this group leaves, our suspect list narrows rapidly. First, Dewey stumbles onto Sidney’s father’s car. He could still be the killer at this point. Next, Sidney realizes Billy could have used his one phone call to call her from prison. But, he’s seemingly exonerated as he’s attacked by someone in a ghost face costume. Sidney gets away only to be traumatized by seeing Tatum stuck in the garage door.
Inside, Randy is yelling at Jamie Lee Curtis to turn around as the killer is about to strike in the movie, just as ghost face comes up behind Randy. And while this happens, Sidney ends up in Gale’s news van where the cameraman is telling Randy to turn around. And we as the audience are also yelling for Randy to turn around. It’s brilliant in its simplicity and just ratchets up the terror to an intense degree. The cameraman goes out to alert Randy and is instantly killed. The cameraman was never really much of a suspect but in case there was any doubt, it’s now gone. Sidney proves to be a true survivor by getting away once again.
Dewey realizes things are not going well by this point and rushes into the house. He investigates screaming only to find the movie playing on television. Gale finds blood all over the news van and tries to high tail it out of there but crashes the van. Sidney rushes back to the house to find Dewey who opens the door and falls over with a knife stuck in his back. It wasn’t the deputy.
Sidney gets into Dewey’s car and calls for help but is yet again attacked. She grabs a gun and races back to the house. Randy and Stuart both show up, each one claiming the other is the killer. She plays the smart card and locks them both out. Billy then falls down the steps, hurt but alive. He tells Sidney to give him the gun which she does. Billy lets Randy in.
At this point in the movie it’s really hard for the audience to tell who to trust. The only person we know can’t be the killer (out of the ones still living) is Sidney. She’s obviously not attacking herself so it has to be someone in the house.
It’s down to the end where we see if Scream can truly surprise horror fans. If the film blew the ending or made it unbelievable, all the good will up to this point would evaporate and horror fans would eviscerate this film with bad reviews.
the final twist of the Knife
As soon as Randy is inside he says Stuart has gone mad. Billy looks up and says, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” It’s a perfect call back to Psycho and Norman Bates as the deranged killer no one suspects. The audience now knows with certainty, Billy Loomis is the killer. And we’re reminded again of Psycho which was signaled at the beginning of the film with Casey Becker’s death. We’re ready for the final showdown and all of us are rooting for Sidney, Stu and Randy to survive Billy. Randy gets shot and Billy admits the blood on him is just corn syrup. Sidney turns and runs right into Stuart. For a fraction of a second the audience feels some hope. But Stuart is holding the voice changer the killer used on the phone.
This is where Scream goes from good to great. There were two killers the whole time. You might have guessed one but you had to be paying a hell of a lot of attention to guess there were two. And not only that, these guys framed Cotton Weary. Billy says he didn’t have a motive to kill Maureen but then he admits Maureen was why his mother left him. Billy is blaming reality for his problems and calling that out for why he’s a psychotic killer.
Stuart can’t seem to help but brag and he pulls out Sidney’s father taped to a chair. Just like Steve was in the beginning. Stu and Billy plan to make it look like they were the heroes who stop Sidney’s father after this killing spree. To make it look real, Billy and Stu take turns stabbing one another. While they are doing this Sidney says they have seen one too many movies.
Billy’s reply sums up the whole attitude of the film when he says, “Don’t you blame the movies! Movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative.” Billy keeps stabbing Stu and then tells him to grab the gun. It’s missing because Gale grabbed it and she’s pointing it at them.
There’s a struggle and Gale gets knocked out but there is enough time for Sidney to get away and untie her father.
Then, in a sweet twist, the phone rings. This time it’s Billy and Stu’s turn to be frightened. Stuart starts to really bleed out and on the phone Sidney asks what his motive is. He just says peer pressure and then worries about how mad his mom and dad are going to be. Stu was clearly more of a follower here.
In a bit of serious irony Billy gets attacked by Sidney because he was watching the horror movie playing in the living room. This is actually a call back to Halloween when Michael Myers is distracted by watching a movie playing on television.
Stuart has one last burst of energy in him but he goes down when Sidney drops the television on him. There are a few more last gasps from Billy and Stuart but in the end, Randy, Gale, Dewey, Sidney and her father, all live through.
It’s an action packed and bloody ending all taking place in a fairly confined space. Most good slashers have a lot of these elements and Scream is no exception. One difference is the movie feels more real because of how self referential the film is. The so called “meta” layer of it actually adds to the fear because you could imagine someone getting the wrong idea from watching a movie just like Scream.
The lasting impact of Scream
So, a film with great twists, meta references, a fair amount of blood and gore and a surprising box office take must have had some impact on the horror genre. In fact, it did. This movie can be credited with literally saving slasher films from being completely forgotten. It spawned several sequels but it also elevated horror to a new level. Now, to be a good horror film, the story had to make sense, have decent action, good jokes and decent performances from the cast and it had to surprise audiences.
Scream was not only a good horror film, it made other horror films try harder. Without Scream we wouldn’t get something like Midsommer because no one would think that kind of a film could work. If you watch horror films now, you’ll often find them ripping off Scream in one way or another. Most often these rip offs do the easiest thing which is become self referential. This was a new thing in horror when Scream came out but now doing that could be a trope in and of itself.
A few notes on the film
You might think from reading this review I think Scream is the best slasher of them all. I don’t. I still love Halloween and Friday the 13th the most but I cannot deny Scream is one of the smartest slasher films ever made and the whole franchise is great at what it does. But there are some problems with Scream and I just want to discuss those a bit.
First, the amount of damage some of the surviving characters take in the action scenes seems cartoonish and unbelievable. While a lot of slashers give this treatment to the villain, this one seems to give that quality to the heroes. There are scenes where one definitely must suspend disbelief to buy that the character can keep fighting.
Second, while the violence itself is treated as real and difficult to watch, the portrayal of how callous people are as they see friends, classmates and relatives die feels less than real. I’m not expecting this to become a melodrama where everyone is mourning the whole time but I wouldn’t expect an entire house of teenagers to cheer at the death of their principle, especially not after several of the students have been attacked and/or killed. The primary emotion on hearing that news would be fear by any rational mind.
Finally, Scream attempts to make the commentary that watching fictional violence shouldn’t be blamed for people becoming violent. It’s fine if they want to make that statement but doing it in the medium of fictional violence seems like less than the ideal forum in which to do that. I obviously agree watching horror films doesn’t automatically turn people towards violence but it feels a bit heavy handed here and seems like something more to be debated in politics rather than on film. I’m not taking anything away from the film making this statement, I’m just saying there are other places where this argument might be more effective.
Neve Campbell is a legend
While Scream plays into and plays around with a lot of horror tropes, one it keeps without really commenting on is the “final girl” trope. For those who don’t know what that is, it basically means the last survivor of the film. Usually it’s a woman but there are films where the final girl is actually a guy. For the most part, Jamie Lee Curtis can be thought of as the final girl in the horror films she appears in. But Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott gives Jamie Lee a run for her money.
Sidney is a tough survivor who is kind an caring and one of the most relatable characters in all of the Scream films. She might just be the best final girl in history. She makes smart moves, she thinks fast, she defends herself and she helps others in trouble. She is, of course, traumatized by all the death around her but she is such a badass you can’t help but respect her. Neve plays the character perfectly, never for a moment making the audience doubt her authenticity and I can’t say enough about how fun she is to watch in this series.
Scream is not a perfect film. It’s not a perfect horror film. But it did so much right, it’s hard to blame it for anything it gets wrong. It holds a unique place in film history for being one of the few films you can directly point to that saved a whole sub-genre of film. Without this film we definitely wouldn’t have had the end of the Halloween franchise (no matter if you loved that or hated it) and we wouldn’t have seen a renewed interest in horror with a smarter viewing audience. If you are a horror fan you have to watch this film. There’s no getting around how important it is. And if you’re like me, you’ll have a good time doing it too.
Do you remember the first time you watched Scream? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see you when I review Scream II next time!