Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #114
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: December 20, 1996
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $173,046,663
Running Time: 111 minutes
Director: Wes Craven
Producers: Cathy Konrad, Cary Woods
Screenplay: Kevin Williamson
Special Effects: Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman, Gregory Nicotero
Cinematography: Mark Irwin
Score: Marco Beltrami
Editing: Patrick Lussier
Studio: Woods Entertainment, Dimension Films
Distributor: Dimension Films, Buena Vista International, Dimension Home Video
Stars: Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Rose McGowan, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, Liev Schreiber, Henry Winkler, W. Earl Brown, Joseph Whipp, Kevin Patrick Walls, David Booth, Carla Hatley, Lawrence Hecht, Lois Saunders, CW Morgan, Frances Lee McCain, Roger Jackson, Linda Blair and Wes Craven as Fred the Janitor
Suggested Audio Candy:
Soho Whisper to a Scream
Eventually it is inevitable that everything will travel full circle. Fashion is the perfect example of this point as there comes a time when every conceivable design has been used and the only thing left to do is recycle; place a spin on a well-oiled formula for a new generation of clothes-junkies. I’ve never been a big follower of fashion as why adhere to someone else’s template of what looks good? That’s not to say I sit around in a string vest, garish Bermuda shorts and a pair of brown Jesus creepers; but I have never been one to follow a template calculated by another. Being one of the flock never particularly appealed as I’d rather walk my own line than one already pre-ordained, regardless of whether or not that is considered current.
In a way, films are not dissimilar to fashion. Slasher took an alarming nose dive towards the end of the eighties as it appeared that filmmakers had simply run out of ideas for scaring their audiences. Auditoriums emptied out and, with the video trade beginning to falter with the introduction of Sky television, the sub-genre became something of a poison chalice. That said, while the nineties were somewhat barren with regards to slasher, with the emergence of a new generation of thrill-seekers came the opportunity to reinvent the wheel. Of course, things would need to change significantly as audiences were no longer so quick to accept the carbon copy approach as goalposts had moved considerably during the interim. Slasher had long since become set in its ways and it needed someone to shake up the soda some in order to make such a transition. Enter Wes Craven, a man only too familiar with how to negotiate boundaries.
In 1984 he had done precisely that when A Nightmare on Elm Street entered the arena. Jason Voorhees was busy making life hell for co-eds and everyone else seemed content just to dance to his one-note tune. Freddy Krueger adopted a different approach by opting for the dream world to start his panic and it provided just the shot in the arm that the ailing genre so desperately needed. Craven hit pay-dirt and cemented his status as one of the industry’s premier players in the process. However, even he couldn’t halt the eventual slide and, with the Elm Street series squandering its early momentum and the likes of Deadly Friend and Shocker failing to generate much interest, was forced to return to the drawing board once again. It needn’t be a complete overhaul as certain elements had been proved to yield results and, with the leafy suburbs roving such a lucrative stomping ground previously, he had himself a tried and tested framework to build around.
1. You will not survive if you have sex
2. You will not survive if you drink or do drugs
3. You will not survive if you say “I’ll be right back”
4. Everyone is a suspect.
What would need particular attention was the rule-set which had been rigidly adhered to during the slasher craze’s first foray as it was seen as being a little long in the tooth and in dire need of a rethink. Thicker skins were forming by the nineties and audiences demanded more than a simple retread to part with their hard-earned cash. Thus, he elected to pitch from a more self-aware vantage, poking fun at past endeavor, while updating the formula for the new crop of thrill-seekers. He timed it to perfection, to the tune of over $170m in box-office receipts and placed Scream firmly on the map in the process. Granted, with the floodgates now open for the inevitable franchising, subsequent entries began making the same grave errors that the original attempted to signpost us away from. However, credit where it’s due, Craven was pretty much on the money when he set out to shake things up.
He knew he would be required to hit the ground running so as not to squander his captive audience and did precisely that, courtesy of an opening scene that is widely regarded as one of the highlights of modern horror cinema. With more than a tip of the hat to Fred Walton’s 1979 suspense thriller When a Stranger Calls, it pitted A-lister Drew Barrymore against its unknown quantity before swiftly and mercilessly pulling the rug from beneath her feet. Barrymore (who was originally intended to play the leading role) was a massive coup and we envisaged such a recognizable name to be provided safe passage. However, this was Craven’s first masterstroke as, having ingeniously plastered her face all over his promotional campaign, he then proceeded to lob a fox amongst the livestock.
Amusingly, Barrymore was a self-confessed animal lover, so he resorted to telling her anecdotes about animal cruelty to coax the sheer distress from her performance. Whatever he did worked a treat and Casey Becker’s untimely demise was made all the more startling by the nature of her dispatch as, after being repeatedly perforated, she was promptly disemboweled and left as a most unwelcome coming home present for her horrified parents. With hearts in mouths worldwide, Craven’s cunning ploy had worked a treat and he now had the full undivided attention of his audience. However, his work was nowhere near done yet as he now had the unenviable task of following up such a crowd-pleasing prologue and, as When A Stranger Calls had already proved, this was far easier said than done. Seconds out for round two then.
With Barrymore now consigned to the dug-out, it was time to introduce us to our players, three of which would become permanent fixtures as the series rattled on. While tormented teen Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), unscrupulous reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and dim-witted deputy sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) were all integral to proceedings, it was fringe characters such as self-confessed horror junkies Stu (Matthew Lillard) and Randy (Jamie Kennedy) that afforded Craven the opportunity to continue messing with our heads. Instantly relatable to any film aficionados amongst us, their vast knowledge of their chosen major was put to constant use as they tested one another with all manner of slasher trivia, thus suggesting that said rules were unlikely to apply here. With Sidney’s best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) and brooding beau Billy (Skeet Ulrich) making up the numbers, we were all set for a good old-fashioned whodunnit with a twist of lemon.
“Don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!”
Craven had evidently done his homework and, having teamed up with Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson, had the ideal wingman to craft characters that appealed to the film’s target audience. His screenplay managed to avoid edging towards parody, affectionately jabbing at numerous slashers from yesteryear, while never overplaying its hand and looking to revolutionize the old slasher staples in the process. Admittedly, Scream did teeter somewhat precariously on occasion, by being perhaps too self-referential, and shoe-horning in a little too much trivia just to appear smart, while suiting up school caretaker Fred in his namesake’s filthy red and green sweater was a decidedly cheap move, but mercifully moments such as these were few and far between. Ironically, the original title Craven’s film paraded under was actually Scary Movie and, as implausible a mantle as that may appear now given the long-running spoof franchise that aped it to within an inch of its life, in retrospect it was actually rather fitting.
As already touched on, Scream was predominantly a whodunnit and all the customary red herrings were present and correct. Indeed, it threw them in by the trawl load, before doubling back with the hope of hoodwinking its audience right up until the closing act reveal. Now, I’m going to take a punt here and presume that we’re all aware of the kicker, hence my use of past tense for this appraisal. The whole double-pronged revelation was novel and, while the idea of Billy and Stu as calculated killers wasn’t entirely convincing, their bumbling exploits provided moments of pure cinematic plutonium, particularly with regards to the latter whose quick-witted quips made the very most of Lillard’s unquestionable comedic timing. By the time the end credits rolled, it was unanimous that a good time had been had by all and, while its charm begin to wane on subsequent views, the “grab some beers and buddies” factor was never in dispute.
To surmise, I have somewhat mixed emotions when recalling this particular piece of celluloid. Granted, it proved executive producer Bob Weinstein wrong after he accused the Ghostface mask as being idiotic and provided the shot in the arm that slasher desperately needed when nobody else was prepared to touch it with a barge pole, but Scream hasn’t so much matured with age as slightly stagnated. Let’s not get it twisted, for its precision timing and influence on a long-since expired sub-genre, it is more than deserving of our warmth. But, regardless of the overall score it garners and moreover justifies, I will never quite see fit to include it in the elite list of movies it lovingly name drops. That said, to adopt its own approach in typically knowing fashion, it’s a scream baby.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: The jewel in Scream‘s crown would unquestionably have to be the premature expulsion of Barrymore as the manner in which Craven’s lens quick zooms to survey Ghostface’s handiwork had more than the desired effect. While never aspiring to match this flavorsome entrée fillet, with KNB EFX Group at the helm, we were provided with plentiful gristle to keep things ticking along nicely. This included numerous stabbings, a throat slice, ironic electrocution and a rare chalked up numeral for a particularly overlooked murder weapon – the old remote garage door. Speaking of which, while our T&A needs weren’t catered for per se, one delightful display of peanut-smuggling courtesy of ample-chested McGowan provided welcome consolation. Had she not rubbed ice on her areola prior to attempting her tight-squeeze getaway, perhaps she would have made it through that crawlspace in tact. No complaints here that she didn’t. That reminds me, shall we check how Drew is getting on?
Keeper of the Crimson Quill
Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2016)