A teenage girl becomes the target of a killer who has stalked and killed one of her classmates. A tabloid news reporter is determined to uncover the truth, insisting that the man who raped and killed Campbell's mother one year earlier is the same man who is terrorizing her now. Campbell's boyfriend becomes the prime suspect.
The audacious, much-parodied prologue of Drew Barrymore's home alone Casey making chatty with a mystery caller, popping corn and being subjected to escalating torment lasts 12 tortuous minutes. It serves notice that this self-mocking teen slasher flick wears its gore with a difference.
Such a disreputable genre has invited spoofing — usually limp, crude and undistinguished — but not since 1981 's An American Werewolf In London had a full-blooded horror film delivered its bona fide frights along with a snappy sense of humour. Scream is a scary movie, but it is also a clever, witty, and stylishly adroit movie.
Wesley Earl Craven has had a major impact on horror films since, as a holder of a Master's degree in philosophy and a onetime humanities teacher, he turned his hand to the utterly repugnant with Last House On The Left in 1972. He got better (The Hills Have Eyes) and wildly successful at creating a perverse phenomenon of popular culture (Nightmare On Elm Street's outrageous, razor-fingered Freddy Krueger). But his intentions have always been expressed in one prevailing theme: the subversion of the safe middle-class American ideal and its expectations of normality. His preoccupation is playing on the distinction between sanity and insanity, reality and dreams. By the late 80s his feel for the fantastique added on-screen discussion of mass media, violence and censorship, and led to his playing on the distinction between reality and screen dreams (hence the sophisticated film-within-a-film scenario and intellectual defence of horror films articulated in Wes Craven's New Nightmare).
It was a perfect meeting of minds when Craven filmed new boy Kevin Williamson's hip, flip script, stuffed with irony, in-jokes and knowing references drawn from an encyclopedic knowledge of the teen slasher genre. He went on to deconstruct it and affectionately send it up while giving it an ironic shot in the arm. The heroine of Scream is Sidney Prescott (Campbell, a pert brunette practiced at giving good ingenue anguish in the TV melodrama Party Of Five, inheriting Jamie Lee Curtis's scream queen crown). In an isolated house (aren't they always?) on the outskirts of Northern California small town Woodsboro, Sid is left home alone (aren't they always?) to brood on her mother's supposedly solved murder exactly one year earlier, just when a senseless bloodbath gets underway. The stock company of characters include boyfriend Billy (Ulrich), confidante Tatum, class cut-ups Stu and Randy (Lillard and Kennedy), and aw-shucks deputy Dwight "Dewey" Riley (Arquette). After the first double murder a media invasion brings in tabloid TV reporter Gale Weathers (Cox) whose interest is summed up when she crows excitedly to her cameraman:
"An innocent man on Death Row, a killer still on the loose; Kenny, tell me I'm dreaming! If I'm right about this I could save a man's life! Do you know what that could do for my book sales?" Barely glimpsed (in a newscast) but neatly set up for the sequels that were already on the cards is Liev Schreiber's Cotton Weary, convicted of killing Sid's mom.
The characters in Scream certainly know their horror movies — enumerating the cliches, shocks and delights of Halloween, Prom Night, Terror Train, Hellraiser and the Nightmare cycle as well as more legit cinematic terror as Frankenstein, Psycho, Carrie, The Silence Of The Lambs, The Bad Seed and The Exorcist. The characters — better drawn and less naive than in routine cullings of a town's teens fare — also understand the conventions and dynamics of these pictures, and can't resist commenting on them with both ridicule and a kind of reverence throughout to draw parallels, predict behaviour and scorn red herrings. Not that all this awareness helps anyone elude the psychokiller. Craven himself, incidentally, gets half a name check in the referential roll call, Tatum (Rose McGowan, the busty blonde best friend who gets caught in the cat flap) genetically cautioning Sidney "You're starting to sound like some Wes Carpenter flick." He also gets a cameo as the high school janitor, dressed in Freddy Krueger garb, who lurks in the hallway while the principal (an uncredited Henry Winkler) buys it in a time-honoured, expertly handled look-behind-you set piece.
Randy, who works in a video store and reports "a run in the Mass Murder section" springing from the killings, is, ironically, an archetypal horror buff and the obligatory virgin nerd. To him falls the celebrated dissertation on The Rules Of Horror Movies, rules to survive by, delivered in exasperation at the climactic party that takes place in a large and remote house (natch) where the parents are absent (natch) and where the body count will eventually tot up to seven completely dead and several of those essential not-dead-after-all and not-dead-yet rebounds. "Number One: You can never have sex. Big no-no. Sex equals death. "Number Two: You can never drink or do drugs... "Number Three: Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, say Til be right back', 'cause you won't be back."
Williamson became his own follow-up industry with credits including the I Know What You Did Last Summer films and Craven oversaw the successful expansion through sequel to trilogy.
Hit spoof Scary Movie confirmed Scream as the most popular, influential, supercool, definitive scary movie of the 90s.