How much better would Scream have been if a better, funnier, more knowledgeable screenwriter had stumbled across the idea sooner? A Dan Harmon or a Joss Whedon or even a Steve Franks (“Psych”)? Scream, after all, was inevitable. Self-referentialism is the first stage of a genre’s journey toward eating itself, followed by sequels, knock-offs, remakes and reboots. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson just got there first, and Scream had the good fortune of landing the director partially responsible for mainstreaming horror for teen audiences before it, which gave the original Scream that added bit of meta. It also resurrected Wes Craven’s career, which had been given up for dead after Vampire in Brooklyn and mediocre sequels to his own more successful films. It’s fitting that, 15 years later, as Craven’s career is once again on the decline, that he’d relaunch the series with a third sequel.
Rewatching the original Scream for the first time in 15 years, however, it becomes quickly apparent that the film was largely the beneficiary of great timing. It didn’t succeed because it was a particularly original or inventive film. It differed from the typical teen slasher flicks before it in only one respect: It announced those horror movie conventions before following through on them. Somehow, the horror movie tropes and cliches in Scream were magically absolved with a wink to the camera and the casting of a television icon in Henry Winkler. Add a Drew Barrymore cameo for big-screen legitimacy, and the original Scream essentially boils down to a cinematic hoodwink, a brightly lit slasher knock-off starring two television stars and a bunch of nobodies being directed by a revered horror director on the downside of his career. But, hey! it makes references to other horror movies! How clever!
Now, of course, Scream is itself now considered a classic (to 20-somethings who have never seen a movie made before 1991), despite the fact that the references in Scream aren’t particularly clever or sly, just regurgitations of a few classic titles and a line from Psycho. The reality, however, is that Scream is little better than its first knock-off, I Know What You Did Last Summer, only Scream was first. But first counts for a lot in Hollywood, so screenwriter Kevin Williamson (who actually wrote his own knock-off) should be congratulated for watching ten or 12 horror films during those summer hiatuses from “Dawson’s Creek” and mashing them up with an almost smart Edvard Munch reference.
But the other reality is this: Despite mediocre writing, by-the-numbers directing, terrible performances (especially that of Skeet Ulrich) and an ending that should’ve been far more predictable than it was, Scream is a fun movie to watch. Just not a very good one, and certainly not deserving of both the accolades it received upon its release and the three sequels, including a fourth Scream film coming out this Friday. As an example of an ironic, self-referential film, Scream doesn’t hold up well in this post-racial, post-ironic Obama America. But as an entertaining slasher flick with pretty people and a few decent chase sequences, it’s alright, and definitely easy to revisit ahead of the sequel.
If you were born in 1997 or otherwise somehow avoided the original Scream, the plot is fairly basic: A year after the murder of Sidney Prescott’s (Neve Campbell) mother, the ghost face killer begins picking off teenagers in a manner similar to that in other horror movies. The identity of the ghostface killer is unknown, but the murders seem to revolve around Sidney, which makes any of her surviving friends a suspect, including the boyfriend (Ulrich) trying desperately to get into her pants and his best friend, Billy, played by Matthew Lillard, who was — and still is — my favorite character in the original Scream. Gail Weathers (Courteney Cox), a tabloid reporter who had exploited the murder of Sidney’s mother, is also involved, initially as a bitchy bystander but later as someone who gets pulled into the murder spree along with Dewey (David Arquette), the boyish and bumbling town deputy.
As murder mysteries go, it’s hard to say because you can never get the first viewing back. On the rewatch, the ending seems telegraphed in every other scene, but I do remember that the 1996 version of myself was surprised by the identity, though at that time, I hadn’t been as educated by the influence of Scream sequels, its knock-offs, and the handiwork of M. Night Shyamalan. Perhaps for 1996, the twist didn’t feel like the work of a novice screenwriter.
Watching it again, I was also dismayed with how thin those allusions were, how uninspired. Even Jamie Kennedy’s famous “rules” scene seems trifling today, when you can catch 142 pop-culture allusions in any 22-minute episode of “Community.” But maybe, in 1996, it was announcing those rules that concretized them, that made us all the more aware, although it’s difficult to imagine that they weren’t already apparent to anyone that had seen four or more slasher flicks. But that’s the genius of Scream, I reckon: Not that it was clever, but that it was first.