Lionsgate // 1996 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // April 4th, 2011
"Life is like a movie. Only you can't pick your genre."
When a film genre grows stale, writers and directors get self-referential. Sometimes that leads to cynicism, other times a healthy dose of meta-parody. Scream is somewhere in between all that, and its success reinvigorated the "slasher movie" sub-genre...for better or worse.
A small town is sent into a frenzy as a masked killer (armed with a knife, a generic ghoul mask, and an encyclopedic knowledge of scary movies) starts terrorizing high schoolers. His main target is Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell, Party of Five), whose own mother was murdered a year prior. Now it's up to Sid and her band of film-literate friends to unmask the killer before the credits roll.
The formula of the slasher movie has gone largely unchanged for decades; through various incarnations of masked knife-wielders, giggly slumber parties, and startling sound cues, the genre has held fast to the idea that moviegoers will forever be satisfied with seeing some annoying students get their comeuppance. So it just makes sense that two of the genre's stalwarts, director Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and screenwriter Kevin Williamson (I Know What You Did Last Summer), would produce a movie that deconstructs the entire genre while playing within its silly rules.
Scream manages to be a campy horror comedy, filled with cartoon characters and melodrama, while also maintaining a layer of legit fright. It's a fine balancing act made possible by Williamson's intelligent script: nothing is out-and-out comedic, but its insistence on cliches and one-note characters makes it so. The opening scene, featuring a cameo from Drew Barrymore, establishes the wink-and-nod mood of the film almost immediately. This attractive, blonde student is home alone, getting ready to watch a scary movie. She's a sitting duck. So when that phone rings and she's tortured with film trivia by a voice-boxed psychopath, you know right away that this girl's done for and that Scream is more self-aware than HAL 9000. Throughout the movie characters define the rules of horror films, some that get subverted and others that play out to the letter.
A movie this steeped in tropes has to also be filled with broad caricatures in order to maintain that level of homage and irreverence. Sidney, played dutifully by Campbell, is probably the straightest arrow of the bunch. She's a modest, fragile teen not only affected by her mother's murder but also strengthened by it. Her creepy boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich, Jericho), and his aggressive pals Stuart (Matthew Lillard, Scooby-Doo) and Randy (Jamie Kennedy, Ghost Whisperer) are like the three stooges of '90s high school dramas; they chew the scenery, cackling and dropping Tarantino-level movie references to an annoying degree. The highlights, though, are reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox, Friends) and Deputy Dewey (David Arquette, Hamlet 2), whose romantic subplot adds just enough distraction from the faceless-killer stuff to keep things from getting stale.
In the end, the film's only real problem is that its ending isn't terribly surprising or original. You could probably argue that Craven and Williamson are just playing by genre conventions to the bitter end, but it had one too many twists and false conclusions to be anything but ridiculous. Still, Scream would go on to re-energize the slasher genre, bring about remakes, sequels, and a handful of new franchises...most of which stunk, and fell into the same traps that this film pokes fun at.
In honor of the fourth installment of the Scream franchise hitting theaters, the original gets an average Blu-ray release. The audio/video is more than adequate, with a decent DTS-HD Master Audio track and a sufficiently grainy film transfer. Craven shot the film with a bright, clean color palette, almost giving it the vibe of a '70s teen horror film, and the transfer doesn't diminish that -- but it really doesn't come off as being anything more than just a high-resolution transfer. All of the supplements on the disc are holdovers from the Collector's Series standard definition DVD release from 1998. You get a commentary track with Craven and Williamson, production featurettes, cast interviews, and some trailers.
The original Scream is a smart, funny riff on the slasher genre that Wes Craven sort of mastered. It's easy to forget how enjoyable this movie is thanks to the wave of sequels and also-rans that soon followed its release. That said, the Blu-ray is fairly unremarkable, so you'll be safe as Sidney if you decide to stick with your old DVD copy.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R