“This isn’t a movie,” says heroine Sidney (Neve Campbell) midway through Scream. “Of course it is,” says her boyfriend (Skeet Ulrich). “Everything is one big movie.” An exchange like that could destroy a lesser movie. But the people in Scream know they’re in a horror movie — in fact, they’ve seen all the movies that Scream copies, dissects, and parodies. They know the “rules” (don’t have sex, don’t go off alone), but they goof on the rules and promptly get killed for it.
I’m surprised it took this long for a postmodern slasher movie to be made (if you don’t count outright parodies like Student Bodies). Slasher movies, of course, were big in the early ’80s; we saw a hundred rip-offs of Friday the 13th, which in turn ripped off the heavyweight champ, Halloween. After a while, the slasher craze petered out. Then, in 1984, came the movie that gave horror a new face — A Nightmare on Elm Street, directed by Wes Craven, who has now made Scream.
Is Scream a revolutionary horror breakthrough on the level of Nightmare? I don’t think so. But it is witty, tightly structured, and often effective as a straight horror film. The script, by Kevin Williamson, turns our I’ve-seen-it-all jadedness against us. The teens in Scream laugh at horror videos, yelling at the screen (“Turn around! Don’t drop the knife!”). Then they go off and do the same stupid things they’ve been laughing at. This conceit is nasty and plausible — we’re saying the same things while we’re watching the movie.
Scream faithfully reproduces every stock slasher cliché. There’s the Traumatic Anniversary: Sidney’s mom was raped and murdered a year ago. There’s the Creepy Crank Caller. There’s the “Boo! It’s Not the Killer!” seat-jumper (I lost count of how often Craven uses this). There are enough red herrings for five movies, including a touchy-feely, scissors-wielding principal (Henry Winkler!), a dorky police deputy (David Arquette), and a virginal horror-movie expert (Jamie Kennedy).
The killer, who goes around in a dime-store mask (like Halloween‘s Michael Myers), taunts Sidney while her friends die around her. She’s being saved for last, like Jamie Lee Curtis. One nice twist is that, unlike Curtis in Halloween, Sidney loses her virginity — and still survives. The script subverts and critiques the Victorian morality of these movies, which (like most horror stories) equate sex with violent death.
Neve Campbell, one of the appealing misfit witches in last spring’s surprise hit The Craft, carries her first starring role gracefully. She makes Sidney brave and smart but also convincingly haunted. It’s a performance to match Heather Langenkamp’s in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven’s touch with the other actors is less adept — he lets Matthew Lillard (Serial Mom), as a wacky teen geek, overact all over the place. And Craven’s dialogue scenes, as always, are as flat as Wyoming.
I’m a horror buff, so I enjoyed Scream, and I wish it well; the genre needs a hit. Yet I suspect it’s a movie for fans only.¹ If the horror genre is to recapture the public imagination, it needs more than an in-joke movie. It needs new blood — it needs a new face. Where is the next Wes Craven?
¹Boy, was I wrong about this.