Published May 1, 1997
Scream by Wes Craven seems already to have become a cult hit, presumably because Wes is as knowing about the fright-film genre as his jaded audience and likes to play with their expectations. At one memorable moment while a crowd of teenagers are gathered to watch yet another horror film they have all seen before, Randy (Jamie Kennedy), the video store clerk, explains to the others “the Rules” for getting out of a horror film alive. “You can never have sex. Sex equals death. . . You can never drink or do drugs. . .Never, never, never, under any circumstances, say ‘I’ll be right back’.” Well, it’s a new, postmodern approach to horror (which everyone now seems to admit is now a subspecies of humor) which works best where, as here, you have the hip kids commenting on horror film conventions unaware of the horrors (that may or may not prove to be conventional) happening all around them.
Of course postmodern horror has the added side benefit of making you forget about how wildly implausible the plot is. As the plots of most horror films are wildly implausible, this may seem a small thing, but it is rather paradoxical that Craven’s satire of horror movie conventions makes his own sins against verisimilitude less noticeable. For example, the masked killer stalking the heroine, Sidney (Neve Campbell), lays waste half the town, killing with a hunting knife and reckless abandon, but somehow he can’t seem to get Sidney. At first she seems to survive by defying the horror film conventions. An interesting idea. But by the end she is just another kid in jeopardy whose deliverance to or from the slasher will depend on similar if not identical conventions.
Early on in the film, Sidney’s boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) is taken is as a suspect. When the young cop, Dewey (Matthew Arquette) asks the chief if he thinks he did it, the chief replies: “Twenty years ago, I’d have said, not a chance. But these kids today? Who knows?” There in a nutshell is the premiss of the film. Horror films are really about outraged innocence. But too many horror films (and too much leisure in which to watch them) have drastically depleted the supply of innocence. Its natural possessors, children, are knowing and jaded earlier and earlier in life, to the point where there is no more innocence to outrage.
These are kids who seem to do nothing but watch videos or Ricki Lake, and when their school principal (Henry Winkler) fulminates about how “you and your whole whoring, thieving generation disgust me,” he only marks himself out as an obvious suspect. As one high school pupil says to another, “You can only hear that Richard Gere-gerbil story so many times before you’ve got to start believing it.” Everything is true, so nothing is. Instead, it’s all a performance. Sidney keeps imagining the film that will be made of her life, which she wants Meg Ryan to star in. Billy keeps referring to specific episodes in the horror movies he watches. “But this is life; it isn’t a movie,” says Sidney to him at one point.
“Sure it is. It’s all a movie. One great big movie.”
Later, when the killer is unmasked and also has obviously “seen too many movies” he objects: “Don’t blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. They just make them more creative.” Doubtful as that proposition may be in general, it sounds a little more convincing — if that’s of any comfort to you — when applied to Scream.