I first saw Scream (1996) shortly after it came out, with my friend Fiona. I was eleven and she was twelve, so no, we didn’t see this 18-rated film in the cinema – she got her mum to rent it from a video rental shop, which was a thing that existed in the 20th century. It was the first slasher movie I ever watched.
The opening sequence with Drew Barrymore is infamous – she promoted the movie like she was its star, so filmgoers expected her to be the final girl, but instead she turned out to be the girl who gets butchered in the first ten minutes. As Halloween is referenced continually throughout this film (Barrymore’s character, Casey, identifies it as her favourite horror film in the very first scene), we’ll say she’s the Judith Myers rather than the Laurie Strode.
When the stranger on the phone says A Nightmare On Elm Street was scary, Casey opines, ‘The first one was but the rest sucked.’ Apparently director Wes Craven didn’t want to include this line because he felt it would come across as him slagging off the Nightmare films that he wasn’t involved in! Screenwriter Kevin Williamson persuaded him to go with it by explaining that ‘the rest’ included Craven’s New Nightmare.
The trick question about Friday the 13th is inspired – I bet nobody ever gets that one wrong in pub quizzes nowadays!
When I was younger I absolutely loved the trope callouts in this film, but nowadays I find it a bit too knowing – maybe just because the film has been dated by its slew of late ’90s imitators that formed the ‘postmodern slasher era’. It was hugely original at the time though, so I will try to look at it without the twenty-two years of hindsight.
‘Get in the car, drive down to the Mackenzies, call the police,’ says Casey’s father to her mother, which is an almost verbatim copy of what Laurie says to Tommy towards the end of Halloween.
We’re introduced to real main character Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) now, who is using very old-fashioned computer software for 1996 – you’d think she’d at least have Windows! Sidney’s dad, Neil, is conveniently going out of town for a few days, which is a bit strange given what is revealed later in the film. Sidney is visited through her bedroom window (major ’90s flashbacks to Clarissa Explains It All and Dawson’s Creek!) by her boyfriend Billy, who is not super happy about Sidney not wanting to get too physical with him recently. Billy can’t even complain about not getting sex without using a film analogy, which is a bit of a theme in this film and is part of the reason I find the characters and dialogue a bit awkward and unrealistic sometimes. We get a cover of Don’t Fear The Reaper (by Gus) playing during this scene, which is another callback to Halloween, in which Laurie and Annie listen to the original song while driving to their babysitting jobs.
(A quick ’90s note: after watching Halloween 6 and Scream, it’s settled in my mind that curtains were the worst, ugliest, most greasy-looking ’90s hair mistake ever and I can’t believe I used to have posters of boy popstars on my wall sporting that look. Wash your hair and put a bit of volume in it, for the love of God!)
The backstory is that Sidney’s mother Maureen was murdered a year ago, which is why it’s weird that Neil is going away on a business trip – you’d think they’d want to support each other during a difficult anniversary.
Marco Beltrami’s score is gorgeous! Really evocative.
Reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) appears here, and her skirt suit is insane – bright neon green and ridiculously short, like the Spice Girls going to a business meeting. In other words, it screams 1996 (no pun intended).
I think this is the only role Rose McGowan, who plays Sidney’s friend Tatum, ever did as a blonde – she dyed her hair in order to contrast with Campbell and Cox.
Yet another example of a high school not shutting down even though two of their students have been brutally murdered! However, it means we get some quality time to appreciate the brilliance of casting Henry Winkler (the Fonz from Happy Days, if you’re not aware) as the principal, Mr Himbry.
Sidney’s friend group – Tatum, Billy, Stu and Randy – are mostly idiots who don’t seem to care about what’s happened, instead making jokes about horror movie tropes. It’s kind of difficult to like the characters in this film. Sidney is perturbed and decides to stay at Tatum’s overnight.
However, back at home, she falls asleep for too long, and wakes up when it’s dark, meaning the killer comes (phone) calling. Sydney doesn’t seem very scared considering what’s happened – she just assumes it’s a prankster. However, once the killer appears, she’s really capable, and manages to fight him off. Billy arrives through the window again, to Sidney’s relief – but when she hugs him, a chunky ’90s mobile falls out of his pocket, and she decides he must be the killer. It’s a bit odd that she suspects Billy just for having a mobile – I know they were less common in 1996 but he can’t have been the only one! Indeed, at the police station, he insists to the police chief that ‘everyone’s got one’, but the chief decides to hold him until they can check the phone records.
Gale Weathers is a total cow, even to her cameraman Kenny. Kenny is overweight, which is a definite death curse in a horror film, as it means you can’t run fast enough!
Billy’s surname is Loomis, presumably after Dr Loomis, which is yet another Halloween reference if you’re keeping score!
Dewey is bit of a ‘comedy incompetent’ cop, which is pretty frustrating. He and the chief discuss the process of finding out whether it was Billy’s mobile that made the calls to Casey and Sidney, which is going to take until the next morning. I wonder why it takes so long to cross-reference calls?
Linda Blair (who played Regan in The Exorcist twenty-three years earlier) makes a cameo as a news reporter!
Sidney goes into the school bathroom to find that a couple of girls are gossiping about her in the stalls, speculating that she’s the killer. Even the cheerleaders at this high school have morbid imaginations! Sidney is then attacked by someone in the ghostface costume, but it’s not clear whether it’s just a prankster student or the actual killer.
Gale and Dewey flirting with each other is just really weird and uncomfortable. I’ve never bought into this pairing, even though there should have been good chemistry given that the actors ended up marrying each other in real life.
Himbry finally sees sense and closes the school, to much jubilation, and Stu announces a house party. There’s a daft sequence with Himbry trying on the ghostface mask, investigating a noise to find that the only person around is a janitor wearing a Freddy Krueger jumper (played by Wes Craven in a ridiculously self-aware cameo!), and then getting killed due to the school being deserted. Maybe this is why high school principals in horror movies don’t usually close schools – they’re protecting themselves!
Good use of School’s Out by Alice Cooper!
A rare non-slasher horror reference as we see the Universal version of Frankenstein being shown onscreen at the video shop where Randy works. Randy, Stu and Billy are clearly not all there in the head – they’re still making jokes, speculating about each other being the killer, and generally being really unsettling and not at all like actual human beings. Randy, the resident geek, out-and-out knows he’s in a horror movie, and makes no bones about it.
More awesome background music as the police announce a town-wide curfew – this time Red Right Hand by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. The chief tells Dewey that the phone calls have been traced to Neil Prescott’s phone, which is the most obvious red herring ever.
Stu’s party attracts a lot of attention, with Dewey having been sent by the chief to keep an eye on things and Gale and Kenny sniffing around for more on the story. Gale persuades Dewey to let her come with him when he checks out the party, and secretly installs a secret camera to watch what’s happening from outside.
‘Why is Jamie Lee Curtis in all these movies?’ asks Sidney, flipping through Randy’s video collection. ‘She’s the Scream Queen,’ he replies, and it’s clearly slasher fan Kevin Williamson speaking here through Randy!
Tatum barely gets to enjoy the party, instead being picked off by the killer in the garage. When I was a kid, this death by catflap seared itself into my memory! Again, she automatically thinks the person in the ghostface costume is a prankster rather than the killer, which is not really a sensible assumption when it’s known there’s an actual killer about.
‘What’s Leatherface doing here?’ asks Randy when Billy arrives, giving us a nice Texas Chainsaw Massacre reference.
The footage from the secret camera that Kenny is watching in the TV van is on a thirty-second delay – this is important later.
Billy’s Silence of the Lambs analogy is one too many for Sidney, but his insistence that ‘life is just a big movie’ doesn’t put her deciding she’s ready to sleep with him.
Appropriately given the amount of Halloween references we’ve had so far in this film, the party guests are now watching the film, giving Randy an opportunity to explain ‘The Rules’ that characters have to follow in order to survive a horror movie:
- You can never have sex.
- You can never drink or do drugs.
- You can never say ‘I’ll be right back’.
Relatedly, we then get to the point in Halloween where there’s a topless shot of Lynda, which is juxtaposed with Sidney taking her top off. Interestingly, ’90s slasher films are pretty much free of sex and nudity, especially when you compare them to ’70s and ’80s ones. I don’t know if it’s because they were trying to get more lenient cinema ratings (pretty much a lost cause with that much blood and gore!) or if those kinds of scenes were just considered a bit tasteless at that point in time.
Randy answers the phone to somebody who tells him about Himbry’s butchered corpse having been hung from a goalpost on the football field, so the bulk of party guests leave to go check it out (grim! there’s something really wrong with the teenagers in this town), which sets up the isolation nicely for the final sequence, as Randy chooses to stay and watch the rest of Halloween.
Gale and Dewey find Neil Prescott’s car while out in the woods. How does Dewey recognise it straight away?
While getting dressed, Sidney starts probing Billy about his one phone call when he was arrested, and I wonder why she’s starting to suspect him again at this point. Was the sex that bad? The killer shows up and allays her suspicions by seemingly stabbing Billy.
While Randy is watching Halloween, the killer creeps up behind him. ‘Look behind you, Jamie Lee!’ Randy says, when he should be taking his own advice.
Kenny dies due to the thirty-second delay – he and Sidney open the car door to try and warn Randy, only to find the killer has already caught up with them. Sidney escapes out of the back of the van. We then get the background of John Carpenter’s Halloween score playing while Dewey investigates the empty house, due to the film still playing on TV, which provides an automatic creepy atmosphere and presumably meant less work for Marco Beltrami.
Given that blood is pouring from the car roof, why doesn’t Gale realise there’s a body on top of there? She then knocks herself out by crashing the van, which is not helpful.
Dewey gets stabbed in the back offscreen, which is standard for an incompetent cop. Sidney can’t escape in the police car, because the killer has taken the car keys, which is at least original – usually horror movie killers just let out the petrol. The killer then somehow gets into the back of the car and grabs Sidney from behind, which echoes Halloween again.
Sidney escapes and runs into the house. Randy and Stu come running up behind her, each accusing the other of being the killer, but Sidney doesn’t trust either of them (which is understandable, given how creepy they both are). Billy is shown to be still alive – he seems at first to have survived his injuries but then reveals himself to be the killer by shooting Randy and explaining that his ‘blood’ is corn syrup. ‘Same stuff they used for pig’s blood in Carrie‘. It’s now quote-a-minute with the horror references, with Billy’s next line being Psycho‘s ‘We all go a little mad sometimes’.
Stu turns out to be Billy’s accomplice, which is not really surprising. Billy reveals his motive (his father was having an affair with Sidney’s mother, causing Billy’s mother to leave town), and also a tied-up Neil Prescott. The killers reveal that it was them who killed Maureen Prescott, not the guy who is in jail for the murder, and then explain their plan, which is to frame Neil for the murders and appear to ‘survive’ the killings. This means the two of them start stabbing each other to cause believable injuries, which is really grim! Billy’s motivation is clearly revenge, but I think Stu is just mad.
The plan appears to be foiled when Gale returns, having survived the car crash, and steals the gun. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know how to take the safety off, and Billy knocks her out. Just as he’s about to kill Gale, Stu notices Sidney has disappeared – she then turns the phone game on them, puts the ghostface costume on herself, and seemingly manages to kill both killers. In what is could be yet another Halloween reference but is probably just me obsessing, Sidney has the sense that Laurie didn’t, and picks up the knife from next to Billy’s body (seriously, it’s always really annoyed me in Halloween that Laurie is continually dropping knives next to Michael Myers whenever she thinks she’s killed him, so that whenever he wakes up he can just pick up the knife and go again!). Stu, meanwhile, suffers death by television, meaning we finally stop hearing the Halloween soundtrack in the background. I wonder how many royalties the filmmakers had to pay John Carpenter?
Billy wakes up and attacks Sidney again, but Gale wakes up at the same time, and has finally figured out the safety on the gun. ‘Careful,’ warns Randy as they approach Billy’s body. ‘This is the moment when the supposedly-dead killer comes back to life for one last scare.’ He’s not wrong, but Sidney now has the gun, and shoots Billy in the head. ‘Not in my movie,’ she says, bringing things neatly to a close.
As the film wraps up, we see that Dewey has survived (spoiler: he sort of becomes the Dr Loomis of the Scream franchise in this respect).
Side note: it was Roger Jackson who did the ‘phone killer’ voice! I’ve loved his voice acting in videogames for years.
Back to the Halloween films tomorrow!