ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jim LaMotta is one of Pittsburgh’s premiere wrestling announcers, as well as a great writer. This article originally appeared on Steel City Underground. You can follow Jim on Twitter.
After I penned an article about the Robert De Niro directed, “A Bronx Tale” and received some positive feedback from it, I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about the horror genre, the film category that has a lot of coverage on this site. The decision for this was partially a coincidence, as for whatever reason, the Showtime channels on Comcast have shown this franchise on a semi-regular basis for the past few months, and I found myself finding different layers within the film, as random viewings accompanied recent insomnia.
However, the decision to actually write this analysis was made because the film was based upon a spoof of the cliches that littered horror films of that era. Directed by Wes Craven, Scream’s 1996 release mocked and outright defied the rules of the previous generations. While Wes Craven will always be famously linked to the Nightmare on Elm Street series, his work spanned decades, as he wrote and/or directed projects as far back as the 1970s with the original Last House on The Left and The Hill Have Eyes or something as recent as the latest installment of the Scream franchise. Point being, Craven knew the horror playbook and also knew how to manipulate the perceived cliches of the genre.
Wes Craven had his status solidified before Scream was ever green-lit for production by Dimension Films, but writer Kevin Williamson, who later went on to write for the WB’s Dawson’s Creek and more recently a TV Scream spinoff, got his break with the teen slasher production. Williamson was able to weave an unpredictable tale of suspense that hadn’t been seen in quite some time for horror films when Scream hit the big screen, and Craven’s flare to build tense moments made for a successful combination.
Despite Scream’s intention to spoof the stale cliches of horror flicks, the opening scene was key because it told the audience immediately that regardless of its ability to mock the overused tactics of previous eras, this was definitely not a comedy. As is often seen in teen slashers, the typical beginning of the film found Casey Becker, played by Drew Barrymore, watching TV as she made popcorn on a Saturday night while her parents had plans for the evening. The phone rings, a foreshadow of sorts for what becomes a red flag later and when Becker answers, an almost distorted voice seemingly tries to charm her with a series of questions, including the famous, “what’s your favorite scary movie” inquiry that becomes a theme of the film. As the unknown caller continues to prod away at the teen, who forgets the popcorn on the stove, the conversation escalates to become more aggressive. Eventually, the teen is shocked to see her boyfriend duct taped to a chair on the patio as the mysterious voice insist she play a game to save his life. When she incorrectly guesses Jason as the original killer in the Friday films instead of Mrs. Vorhees, the athlete bound on the patio is gutted. In typical horror fashion, a struggle ensues as the Ghost Face killer stalks Barrymore’s character. After Becker makes it outside, the place where the audience usually tells intended victims to run to escape, she’s stabbed and strangled before a well-placed kick gives her a final chance of survival. As Becker’s parents return home, she’s within distance of them, but can’t scream for help because of the damage to her neck. The emphasis on the brutality of her death reinforces that this movie isn’t designed to be a comedy. As the flames from the stove rise and smoke surrounds the living room, the Beckers frantically try to find their daughter in the house. When Mrs. Becker picks up the phone to call for help, she can hear the final moments of her daughter, who still clutched the cordless phone prior to her murder.
That opening scene implied that the known star, Barrymore was one of the main characters of the movie, but the death of a familiar face in the opening scene sent the message that none of the cast was guaranteed survival.
In contrast, the next scene finds Sydney Prescott, played by Canadian actress Neve Campbell, who worked on the Party of Five series both before and after Scream’s success, pecking away at the keyboard in front of a very-90s clunky computer screen as she finishes her homework. How Sydney is presented in this scene really sets the tone for her character and how it evolves throughout the narrative. She’s dressed in a white nightgown with a ponytail that almost emphasizes her innocence and naive nature. She hears a noise outside her window and background music makes it appear that she might be the next victim, but instead, her boyfriend, Billy Loomis springs up into the window to visit her. Syd’s father, who planned to take a business trip that week, nearly catches this impromptu meeting before Sydney deflects him. Loomis is a rebellious type because his mom left the family quite some time ago, and his edgy nature somewhat conflicts with Sydney’s concern for his visit. Loomis is an obsessed horror fan and mentions the lack of excitement of movies edited for television before he implies that he wants to get physical with Sydney. Loomis’ comparisons create a rather odd vibe around his character, but Syd trusts him and agrees to a kiss with a sense of enthusiasm. As the teens land on her bed surrounded with stuffed animals, another aspect of her innocence, Loomis quickly progresses from kissing to an attempt to put his hand up her nightgown before she halts the interaction. As the two kiss again, Billy plans to scale back down from the window before Syd quickly opens her top for brief flash and a short laugh, as it was her way to express intimacy.
The following day when Sydney makes her way to school, the fictional town of Woodsboro is buzzing with the news of the two slain teens. News cameras and reporters surround the school as Syd and her friends discuss the gory incident. This conversation introduces the viewers to a portion of the main cast, which automatically translates to possible victims for the killer. Loomis is there with Syd, his best friend and fellow horror enthusiast, Stu sat next to Tatum, Syd’s best friend, and finally, Randy, the film buff that works at the local video store. Remember those? Upon Stu and Randy’s speculation on the grisly details, Sydney leaves after she became uncomfortable with the situation, and Loomis looks at his pal in disgust.
When Sydney makes her way home and confirms her plans with Tatum that night, which will see her spend the night at her friend’s house so as not to be alone during her dad’s business trip, she tunes into news coverage of the murders. This scene reveals that her mom, Maureen Prescott was murdered nearly a year earlier after an affair with Cotton Weary, played by Liev Schreiber, who is known for his work in the lead role of Ray Donovan. Sydney saw someone leave her house the night of the murder and her testimony led to Weary’s conviction in what was assumed to be a closed case. When the phone rings, Syd is greeted by the same voice that called Casey Becker and the conversation lures her onto the porch, again the place the audience typical tells a possible victim to run to safety. The voice on the phone claims to know details about her mom’s death, and the infuriated teen slams the front door in a rage as she returns to the house, locking the door behind her. The irony of what transpires next is that while she was outside, she actually allowed the killer to sneak in and her only option when confronted with the knife-wielding manic is to run upstairs to her bedroom, where she successful barricades the door and send a message for help using the previously mentioned clunky computer. The killer disappears from view and almost instantly, Billy Loomis jumps into view through her window again. There wasn’t enough time for him to ditch the costume and get up to the window, right? But, a cell phone, also a bulky device at the time, drops from his pocket, making it at least possible that he was the one on the phone a few minutes earlier.
Sydney is so shaken that she doesn’t know what to believe so she bolts to the front door and when she opens it she finds local officer, Dewey Riley startled with the evidence of the Ghost Face mask he found outside. Loomis is detained and questioned, proclaiming his innocence, as Dewey tells Syd that there’s no record of her dad checking into his hotel for the business trip. Before she and Tatum can leave the police station, “cut-throat” tabloid reporter, Gale Weathers storms Sydney for an exclusive quote. Weathers received a right hook for her troubles after an offer to send the teen a copy of her upcoming book, which doubted if Cotton Weary actually committed the murder of Maureen Prescott. Dewey is Tatum’s brother and escorts them home, where she commends Syd for her right hook. A call for Sydney takes her to the phone where the ominous voice informs her that not only was Loomis not responsible for the earlier struggle, but also that Weary was the wrong suspect. With Loomis still detained at the police station, he couldn’t have made the call so who was the voice on the phone?
Sydney was terrified with the revelation and hangs up, prompting the lovable dork, Dewey to storm into the hallway in his underwear with his gun to protect the family. After Loomis’ cell phone revealed that he didn’t make the call to Sydney, news of the attack made the rounds at her school and some students were running around the halls with the Ghost Face costume. This outraged principal Henry Winkler, who threatened to expel the students, cutting up the mask in the process of his verbal reprimand. Sadly, the same scissors were used to murder the principal when The Fonze had an encounter with the Ghost Face killer later that day.
As Courtney Cox’s Gale Weathers tries to flirt with Officer Dewey for possible information on the murders, Randy is visited at the video store by Stu and the two discuss the status of the case. Randy rants about the rules of horror and how those in Woodsboro are ignoring the patterns that have emerged in the case. Stu defends Loomis, asking why he would want to murder his own girlfriend, and suggests that Neil Prescott could be responsible since his location is unknown. Randy is confronted by Billy and the cleared suspect lists the reasons that the film buff might be the killer, creating his own scenarios based on the movies that he’s a fan of at the video store. In yet another example of foreshadowing, this scene was referenced toward the conclusion of the movie.
The unsolved murders cause the police to enforce a curfew and with the students’ earlier exit from school, Stu plans a party for his friends. The house party brings a few dozen friends together to watch Halloween, and Gale stakes outside in her news van, hoping to get a tip so that she can be the first to report the story. With Tatum there with Stu, Sydney attempts to enjoy some time with her friends and Dewey parked outside the party to guard her. During the viewing of the John Carpenter classic, Randy (Jamie Kennedy) rants again about the rules of horror, including that sex can make someone a target as it eliminates a character’s purity. In the middle of his public service announcement, the phone rings and Randy receives the news that principal Fonze was hanging from a goal post at the school stadium. Most of the party rushes from the house to witness the gory spectacle, leaving only the main group of friends still there. In the commotion of the group exit, Tatum is murdered by the killer in the garage, hanging from the dog door in the garage door. Unaware of this, Randy continues to watch the film as Stu tells his guests goodbye at the door. Almost on cue, Billy shows up at the door and asked to talked to Syd since the two haven’t spoken more than a brief conversation at school since her accusation landed him in the interrogation office at the police station. The two go upstairs to talk and Syd feels bad about wrongly accusing her boyfriend of the previous attack.
Up in the room, Loomis comforts Sydney as she expresses her frustration with the circumstances of her mom’s death. Eventually, Syd tells Billy she wants to be intimate with him and as the two undress, Sydney is wearing a white bra, a final sign of her innocence. After she sheds the bra, perhaps her only shield against becoming a target, Dewey and Gale find Neil Prescott’s car abandon down the street from the house. After Syd’s intimate encounter with Loomis, it’s almost as if her naive nature was relinquished, as she questioned who he called when he was at the police station, prompting him to claim that he called his dad, but Sydney explains that she saw the sheriff call his dad. Billy backpedals to explain that he didn’t get an answer when he called, but for the first time throughout the film, Loomis looks thrown off by the unexpected line of questioning. As the two finish getting dressed, the Ghost Face killer emerges and stabs Billy, who collapses in a heap on the floor.
Without the wall of virginity to protect her, Sydney is fair game for the killer and a chase ensues through the house and down the street. When she escapes a close call with the blade, she finds herself back in front of the house, with both Randy and Stu claiming that the other is the murderer. She slams the front door, leaving both of her friends outside as they both plead for her help. In the chaos, Dewey is injured, and Gale crashes her news van. Billy, who was thought to be dead just minutes earlier, stumbles down the stairs and takes the gun from Sydney to protect her from the possible killer outside. Loomis lets Randy in before he shoots him, sending the movie aficionado crashing through a table in the entryway. Loomis then reveals that his injuries from the earlier attack are phony and quotes a famous line, “We all go a little mad sometimes” from the Hitchcock classic, Psycho.
Stu went through the side entrance of the kitchen and as Sydney asks for help, Stu uses the voice altering device to tell her about the surprise. In the final scenes, Loomis explains that his mom left his family because Maureen Prescott had an affair with his father. As a part of a plan for revenge, Billy and Stu murdered her and framed Cotton Weary, who she also had an affair with after Mrs. Loomis left the family.
These scenes reveal just how cleaver Williamson’s writing had to be to plant enough seeds along the way for the revelation of the killers to be a surprise and this conclusion also logically ties together the events of the movie. There had to be two killers because it allowed for the Ghost Face to be in the same place as Billy, and created questions about what a motive would be for each character. In that early scene when Syd thought she heard a noise and it was Billy at the window, she was unknowingly letting danger in the house. When Stu suggested Sydney’s father as the killer at the video store, it was because that was his plan, as the pair of psychotic teens plotted to frame Neil Prescott the same way they framed Cotton Weary. While Billy was motivated by revenge, Stu simply wanted to play out the scenarios in the films he idolized, further stirring up the question, do films cause violence?
Stu brings Neil Prescott in the kitchen where he’s duct tapped and plans evidence in his pocket. Billy and Stu begin stabbing each other to stage their story of unintended survival, but they become too focused on their demented plan to realize that Gale survived the news van crash and was back to attempt to help. After her rescue was halted, another struggle takes place with Loomis trying to strangle Syd, who eliminated Stu just minutes earlier when she dropped a TV on him. With Billy as the only one left to finish his plan, he raises the knife to kill Sydney, but he’s intercepted by a bullet from Gale Weathers, as the reporter remembered to take the safety off this time. Ironically, the reporter was the one to save Sydney, who tends to her father still duct tapped and the wounded Randy on the floor. As the sun rises, Gale is back to her job, on location of another blood bath, while Dewey is wheeled to an ambulance. Sydney and the majority of the main cast survived despite a film that manipulated the perceived rules of horror.
As much as Scream mocked the stale cliches that saw the decline of the genre in the previous era, it also rejuvenated slash films as well, earning $173 million at the box office to become the most successful slasher movie at the time with just a $14 million budget. Ironically, similar to the franchises it mocked, Scream had its share of sequels, with the latest installment of Scream 4 in 2011. There’s news of an eventual Scream 5 release, and the argument could be made that the Ghost Face killer carved its own niche alongside other horror icons like Jason, Michael Meyers, etc. While ironic, it probably shouldn’t be all that surprising that Scream, the movie that was meant to point out the recycled storylines of horror, became somewhat of the things it mocked, as the franchise still plans to release a film nearly 25 years after the original. One of the most interesting things to note is that horror sequels are often panned by the critics for flimsy and unoriginal plots, but the audience still flocks to the box office. The 2018 release of Halloween didn’t offer much in furthering the story of the deranged Michael Meyers, but it raked in nearly nearly $255 million dollars. So, the horror genre might find itself lacking the depth of a Humphrey Bogart performance, but from a business perspective, it’s still successful.