There has been a fair bit of horror movie deconstruction in recent years, thanks to the genre’s long-running tendency to adhere to strict, but unspoken, storytelling rules. This, mixed with a generally low level of quality thanks to market-saturating production schedules (it is really inexpensive to film a slasher movie) and a nearly terminal case of sequelitis makes it so easy to steal the playbook on any given slasher flick even a child can do it. This pretty well killed the genre after a 20-year run through the 1970s and 1980s. But by the mid-90s the slasher came back in the unlikely form of a meta-sequel that makes a doctorate thesis out of its own obituary. The result is Scream, a movie that is a clever and darkly humorous self-criticism that never becomes so self-aware or serious that it can’t succeed on its own merits as one hell of a fun horror movie. Just don’t answer the phone while you’re watching it.
The story begins as high school student Casey Becker gets a mysterious phone call one night while she is preparing to watch a movie with her boyfriend. The call quickly turns ominous, as the caller reveals that he has Casey’s boyfriend held hostage and will kill him unless she can answer a series of trivia questions regarding horror movies. Nobody bats 1.000 at trivia forever, and soon both Casey and her boyfriend are dead, putting the entire town on notice that there is a scary killer on the loose. For fellow teenager Sidney Prescott, the timing of all this could not be worse, as she is coming up on the anniversary of her mother’s murder at the hands of local boy Cotton Weary, a case that still feels like justice was never really served. Meanwhile, ambitious reporter Gale Weathers is hellbent on making her bones off of this story, and shows that her superpower is showing up at the worst time to ask traumatized people inappropriate questions about whatnjust traumatized them. Eventually, the whole town goes on lockdown, and a large bunch of Sidney’s friends and fellow students gather at a house for a night of beer, movies, and shenanigans. For Sidney—who is convinced the Ghostfsce Killer is Cotton Weary and that he is coming after her—it should be the perfect refuge. There are safety in numbers, right? But this is really just a target-rich environment for Ghostface. And even though the kids inside all know the classic rules for surviving a night with a knife-wielding madman, they don’t know that Ghostface is about to change the rules. By the time the sun rises, the question won’t be whether there will be a last girl standing. It’ll be whether anyone is left at all.
Scream is the kind of movie that only could have been made by somebody like Wes Craven, whose horror bona fides have earned him a permanent spot among the pantheon of great horror movie directors. Sure, his films might never have been high art, but they worked well enough for Craven to have made a career out of them. But they also positioned him to be the guy who would run a self-referendum on the genre conventions he helped to build, if only so he could then have the creative permission to tear them down and redefine them. Today, this kind of approach isn’t so unusual. But at this particular time, this sort of genre takedown was revolutionary. Occurring as it did right before the serious rise of internet culture, Scream benefits from the throttling of information among its audience members. The rules of slasher horror, as they were—don’t have sex, don’t split up, the killer always dies twice—remained a kind of earned lore by those willing to be scared so many times that they became immune to it. It takes a lot to admit to one’s hand in destroying one’s own genre. It takes even more to realize just how fertile scorched earth can be and decide to plant something a bit different in it.
What makes Scream work so well as a straight-up horror movie, then, is the degree to which its own characters are aware of how horror movies run, and the degree to which they don’t fully seem to realize that they have entered a horror movie of their own. Is Ghostface motivated by the tropes of a million direct-to-video slashers? Or do people just lose their brains when they find themselves in survival situations? If having sex dooms you to die in a slasher movie, then why would you sleep with your boyfriend while a killer is on the loose? If splitting up ensures both parties die, then why would anyone go to the garage alone? We know these kids should know better, so to see them defy their own wisdom is both frustrating as hell and creates a delightfully sense of tension. Who among them will finally figure out that this is a sick case of life imitating art? How many of them will have to die before they stop pretending that this isn’t real life, but a movie? And how meta can a horror movie get before we the audience begin to wonder what our part in all of this really is, too?
There are all kinds of fun twists, turns and reveals in this movie that in any other film might be a moment of truth. But here, none of them amount to more than table stakes. This is a movie that knows we know its secrets. It knows we think how this is going to go down already. All it has to do to gain freedom of movement is to sidestep a narrow strip of narrative territory. All it’s going to take is an opening scene over a sadistic game of phone trivia to give us a real moment of truth: Nobody is safe. And for the first time in years, we are powerless to disagree.