Scream (1996) Review – The Ultimate Parody

With Halloween just around the corner, I thought it would be a good idea to do something along the same lines as what I did last year, I.E review a well known horror franchise and this one is pretty special. Not only was the original ‘Scream’ film a risk in terms of releasing it but it did for horror what ‘Halloween (1978)’ and ‘Psycho (1960)’ did for horror back in the day. By now, it’s a well known fact that ‘Scream (1996)’ gave the horror genre the kick start that it needed.

First, a history lesson and I’ve written about this before so it’s more of a recap.

Everybody knows that ‘Psycho (1960)’ was the start of the ‘modern day’ slasher film unless you count ‘Peeping Tom (1959)’ but I don’t know anyone who’s seen that so we’re sticking with ‘Psycho’. ‘Psycho’ brought horror into your very own neighbourhood and away from Gothic castles and blokes with capes and fangs and very unconvincing accents.

To cut a long story short, once ‘Halloween (1978)’ made the modern slasher cool again, there was a slue of horror films that would become major franchises; ‘Friday the 13th’, ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, ‘Child’s Play’, to name a few. All these franchises and a few more disastrously bad imitators had films or sequels in the 90’s that died on their arses at the box office so by the mid 90’s the horror franchise was all but over.

Until.

One determined fan of this almost dead genre decided to write a horror film unlike any other. A horror film that was also a parody of other horror films. A film that knew all the rules and then broke them and even made fun of itself. That film was ‘Scary Movie’. And no… before you all start, this was the ‘Scary Movie’ that parodied other horror films before the other ‘Scary Movie’ that parodied other horror films that you’re all thinking of was a thing.

This ‘Scary Movie’ was written by Kevin Williamson whose favourite horror film in the whole wide world was ‘Halloween (1978)’ and boy do we know that it’s so given the cavalcade of little nods and references throughout the film but that’s not the interesting thing about this film.

The basis of this film is just like any slasher flick. A bunch of hormone crazed teenagers are hunted down one by one by a mysterious man in a mask with a knife. Here comes the first interesting thing. You know how teenagers in horror films will usually only embody one characteristic? You know what I mean? There’ll be the ‘stoner’, the ‘jock’ and lest we forget the ‘cheerleader’ with the big boobies who will normally get them out at some point normally right before her death scene that everyone saw coming. This isn’t that. All of these teenagers are interesting and yes they carry the typical traits but the casting was so well done that these traits are carried off in a very untypical manner.

Lets start with Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell), otherwise known as the obvious heroine. She’s young, shy, innocent and above all, a virgin which is a plot point we’ll get into later. Because this is the character we’ll be investing in the most, she’s the only one with a proper backstory as it features heavily in the films plot. Her mother, Maureen Prescott (Lynn McRee) was raped and murdered a year before the events of the first film. A man was arrested and sent to prison under a witness testimony provided by Sydney. That man is Cotton Weary who is played by the lovely Liev Schreiber in a small cameo.

Covering this story and fighting for Cotton’s innocence is field reporter, Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox) and isn’t Sydney’s best friend. Nope, that role is filled in by Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan) and her brother, the ever so adorable, Dewey Riley (David Arquette) is the Sheriff’s Deputy.

I mentioned before that these were hormone driven teenagers so lets have a look at the rest of the male cast that will form the required couplings. Sydney’s dashingly handsome boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) is all raring to go when it comes to a hormonal dalliance as is Tatum’s boyfriend, Stu (Matthew Lillard) who definitely needs to ease off the sugar. Last but certainly not least, there’s the horror movie buff that every film should have, Randy (Jamie Kennedy). All of these kids are up to date on their films and pop culture especially of the scary variety but someone loves the horror genre too much. Enough to start turning fiction into reality.

One thing that not only this film but also the series as a whole became synonymous for was their opening sequences and the first of which was particularly shocking.

The first opening sequence featured the murder of Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) and her boyfriend Steven Orth (Kevin Patrick Walls). Drew Barrymore had initially signed on to play Sidney Prescott but before filming began, she changed her mind and wanted to be one of the first victims, believing that the audience would not suspect that she would die in the first 15 minutes of the film. And they were right. This is not what makes the opening sequence interesting. This interesting thing is to do with the killer.

The killer had something that only one previous horror franchise movie villain also owned. A voice. Coincidentally, the other character in question what that of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) who featured in ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)’  which was written and directed by the late Wes Craven who sadly passed away in 2015. Wes Craven directed all 4 Scream films.

The man inside the ‘Ghostface’ costume was a stuntman but the chilling and now legendary voice of the killer was provided by Roger Jackson and would feature in all 4 Scream films along with a few episodes of the TV series of the same name. The TV show is something for another time. To keep the suspense for the cast, Jackson would always be segregated from the actors while they were performing scenes together. Jackson could see the actors on a monitor but to the actors themselves, Jackson was just a voice on the phone.

The costume or more specifically the mask which has become iconic to the series is a story in itself. In Kevin Williamson’s script, there was a brief description of what the killer was wearing but the crew needed something to put on camera. Whilst scouting for locations, the crew visited a house which had been used in cinema before in a film called ‘Shadow of a Doubt (1943)’. In the upstairs bedroom was the ‘Ghostface’ mask. Since they couldn’t use the mask on camera because they didn’t own it, the FX department created different versions of the mask with ever so slight alterations so it wouldn’t infringe on any copyright. Mr Craven wasn’t impressed with the designs brought to him and the crew found the owners of the mask (FunWorld Division of Easter Unlimited, Inc) and asked if they could use the mask. The owners agreed under the condition that their name be placed in the credits and they be sent $100. Their terms were agreed.

On a side note, the name ‘Ghost Face’ which is now used as the name for the killer especially in ‘Scream 4 (2011)’, was trademarked by one of the owners of ‘Fun World’ so the image of the mask would be forever referred to as ‘Ghost Face’.

Now is probably the time to mention the rules. The first three Scream films all had various rules attached to their films but the first set is the most famous. In the scene where Randy and his friends are watching ‘Halloween’, Randy gives his friends and the audience the rules for surviving a horror film.

  1. You can never have sex. Which is absolutely true. One particular franchise, mentioning no names (Friday the 13th) had a trait of killing off teenagers just after they’d had sex or sometimes during sex. Halloween did this as well.

  2. You can never drink or do drugs. Again is true. Psychopathic killers in films seem to be very ‘morally upright’ when it comes to underage drinking and sex. Although, the ‘morally upright’ thing tends to fade away when the murders start. Horror film makers have been criticised for this over the years but I remember watching a documentary about the making of one of these franchises and one guy said that he didn’t have this trait in to punish the kids were smoking pot and having sex it’s just that they weren’t paying attention and were easy pickings which I suppose makes sense.

  3. You can never say, ‘I’ll be right back’. Which is again, totally true. It’s not as common as the first two but anyone who has spoken this phrase doesn’t fair well.

A couple of these rules are systematically broken throughout the movie. Sydney is a good place to start. I mentioned earlier that at the start of the film, she’s a virgin but she doesn’t stay that way for long. She gives it away to her boyfriend, Billy who doesn’t seem to mind that she accused him of trying to kill her only the day before. More on this when I talk about the ending. In fact, let’s talk about it now.

One trait from the main horror franchises, especially ‘Friday the 13th’ and ‘Halloween’ is a peculiar instance in which the killer seems to be everywhere at once, one thing that ‘Scream’ addresses.

After the third act blood bath where many of her friends are either injured or dead, it is revealed that even though he was exonerated, Billy was the killer all along and may I say, casting Skeet Ulrich in that part was a stroke of genius. Mr Ulrich has a particular look about him in this film that’s quite dark and would suggest that there’s some kind of ‘evilness’ for lack of a better word lurking underneath the surface. By having him arrested halfway through the film, it would play to the audiences expectations and for him to be then let go when he’s proved to be innocent would have the audience pointing the finger elsewhere. However, the audience and indeed Sydney were right all along but there’s a twist. Billy wasn’t alone. He was helped by his mad friend, Stu in a sinister plot that is explained at the end.

Since this is a ‘whodunnit’, there has to be a ‘red herring’ and also since Sydney’s father, Neil (Lawrence Hecht) is away on the classic unspecific ‘business trip’, he’s the prime suspect. Billy and Stu have used this to their advantage and kidnapped Neil, keeping him somewhere in the house for the whole time whilst there’s been a big party with loads of people and no one noticed there was a guy bound and gagged in a cupboard presumably.

Of course it was Billy and Stu who killed Sydney’s mother and framed Cotton Weary for the murder as Cotton had already admitted that he was sleeping with Maureen. Maureen wasn’t just sexing Cotton, she was sexing Billy’s father as well which caused his mother leave her family. Of course, Sidney had no idea. Their plan is simple, the anniversary of his wife’s death has set Neil off on a murderous rampage and so he kills his daughter and all of her friends, leaving the badly injured Billy and Stu as the only survivors. But they’re not injured. Not yet any way.

The sequence that follows was probably the most controversial in the whole film and resulted in a lot of back and forth with the American ratings board, the MPAA (The Motion Picture Association of America). Primarily this sequence kept earning them an ‘NC-17’ rating which means that no child under 17 can see the movie. This rating would dramatically reduce the audience that could see the film and therefore reduce the box office. Ideally, the rating they were after was an ‘R’ rating which was eventually achieved. I am of course talking about the scene in the kitchen where Billy and Stu stab each other.

This scene is shocking due to the level of sheer insanity that these two are treading and that’s what it was meant to be and of course it deals with the moral issue of the effects of violent movies on kids. We’ll deal with this more in the ‘Scream 3’ review but for now, there was a line from Billy that the MPAA wanted to remove and it goes like this. ‘Movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative’, which I think is a great line and shows that for Billy, the wall between fiction and reality has truly disintegrated.

In fact, the issue of morality when it comes to violent movies involving teenagers hindered the production. The production team had found a great location for Woodsboro High School in Santa Rosa. As with the house where the ‘Ghost Face’ mask was found, the school had also been used in a film before in ‘Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)’. The board were presented with the opportunity to have their school featured in another motion picture and they agreed under the assumption that ‘Scream’ was a comedy which is not technically a lie. In between all of the death and horror, there are some funny bits in it. Nevertheless, the school demanded to read the script and once they found out about the death and horror, they retracted their involvement. Another building was found and converted temporarily into a school for the production.

By now, you must have seen ‘Scream’ and know how it ends. There is one other trait that was quashed and that’s that the cop always dies and since Dewey ended up with a knife in his back, it was originally written that he was to die but it was the decision of Wes Craven to film a second take and show that Dewey was still alive.

Another thing that the ‘Scream’ films became known for was it’s cameos and there are no shortage of cameos in the first Scream film. There’s Liev Schreiber that we know about but there’s also Henry Winkler of ‘Happy Days’ fame who plays the ill-fated Principal; Linda Blair from ‘The Exorcist’ is a reporter who accosts Sydney as she arrives at school and also in a ‘Hitchcock’ style move, Wes Craven, dressed in the ‘Freddy Krueger’ costume played ‘Fred the Janitor’.

One of the moves that made this film so risky was it’s release date. A risky move as this was normally the time when audiences go and see happy, family pictures but there in was the idea. What can horror fans go and see at Christmas? Well, on December 20th 1996, that movie was the re-named ‘Scary Movie’… ‘Scream’.

In it’s first weekend, ‘Scream’ took in $6.4 Million domestically which isn’t brilliant but then something spectacular happened. The following week, ‘Scream’ took the same amount of money with no drop in the figures. Third week, it made more and the rise continued until the figure reached $103 Million in the United States and remained in the theatres for 31 weeks. Elsewhere, the film made a further $70 Million making a worldwide gross of $173 Million. For a film with a budget of $16 Million, that’s a seriously healthy return.

On top of that, the positive reviews poured in from all ends of the spectrum once the opening weekend wobble was out of the way. Today, ‘Scream (1996)’ holds a 79% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

So with all the success from the horror movie that parodied other horror movies, there was only one place to go. A sequel.

By the way, have you read my new book yet? It’s really good and it’s written by me. A great read for Halloween.

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