I’m going to cheat slightly with this review, denizens. I recently reviewed this film elsewhere online, and rather than reinvent the wheel at this point, I’m going to use a lot of what I wrote in that “other” place, for this review. For posterity, yo.
I guess I also should finally point out that I probably will have a lot of spoilers throughout this and other Cravenous reviews. I don’t know why I never thought of mentioning this before. So, yeah. Spoilers.
So now that Wes Craven was (kind of) able to scratch that itch of wanting to direct anything other than a horror movie and found it to be less than the pleasant break he’d hoped it would be (thanks, Eddie…no, really…thank you), it was time once more to turn to what he knew and did so well. It wasn’t an instantaneous “yes” decision, mind you. It took a bit of pushing from Bob and Harvey Weinstein as well as a few of Craven’s close associates to finally convince him that it would be worth his time to take the reins on what practically everyone in Hollywood was convinced was going to be a huge horror hit. The Weinsteins were so convinced by the end of the day, in fact, that they scheduled a Christmas release for the film. A Christmas release? For a teen slasher flick? In the mid-90s?
God damn it, Gump! You’re a goddamned genius!
Seriously, though, with Craven coming on board as director, this turned out to be the “perfect storm” of a horror film. It was a brilliant script filled with admiration and adoration for a genre that, to tell the truth, had seen better days. Horror was, forgive the pun, nearly dead in the mid-90s. Fans had lost interest in tired sequels and cheesy scripts and horrible plots. It took Williamson to come along to remind us what we fell in love with and to show us that there was still life in the genre yet. His story was clever, his lines were catchy and quotable, and his characters were cliches to a point, but cliches with twists and unexpected complexities.
Combine this with a cast filled with up-and-coming young actors just starting to make an impact on Hollywood as well as a couple of established actors who were either making a successful comeback or who brought a delightful sense of nostalgia with their presence, and like I said: perfect storm.
Watching Scream again for what truly has to be beyond the 20th time I’ve seen the movie, I made a special effort to focus primarily on the look of the movie—the movement and action and choreography. These were Williamson’s characters and plot, but Craven was the puppet master, pulling the strings and placing all the characters into motion.
In that regard, Craven had an impeccable internal sense of timing and pacing. He was the ultimate horror metronome, never letting the rhythm of the story falter, never letting any member of the band fall out of tune.
Also, this movie is visually elegant. For a man who began his career with some of the most disturbingly raw movies of 70s-era horror (not just visually but also story-wise), Scream might be Craven’s most stylistically polished horror film. One might even argue that this was the beginning of the cinematic apex of his career, from a purely directorial perspective. While I would never argue with the sentiment that his greatest original contribution to the horror genre was Freddy Krueger (a contribution, mind you, that helped inspire this film in the first place), I think that Scream was Craven’s directorial magnum opus. I mean, just look at this screen capture and tell me that’s not a thing of terrifying beauty (and, yes, that’s an actual practical shot and not CGI trickery). Craven could compose a shot like nobody’s business. He knew what worked. He knew what would capture the audience. I think only John Carpenter could stand as Craven’s contemporary match when it came to working a frame for full horror effect.
From the clear inspiration of German expressionism to the beautifully choreographed murder sequences right down to simple subtle touches like keeping the frenetic pace of the opening sequence with the popping and then burning popcorn, Craven was showing his visual acumen. Even when he chose to use something so visually overplayed as slow motion to emphasize with unflinching brutal clarity the moment the killer plunged that knife into Casey Becker’s chest (Drew Barrymore? Dead before the end of the first reel?!), he knew the perfect way to deliver the message that all that what we thought we knew? We didn’t and all bets were officially off.
Even, and this might be me reading too much into this, the decision to film Sidney and Billy from the side as they started to fool around gave Craven the opportunity to show this moment as Sidney started to fall back onto her bed and her ponytail hung oh so briefly in air, looking like a serrated knife blade, as the soundtrack rolled out the musical cue of “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” Again, I’m probably putting way more faith into that scene than I should, but that was honestly the moment I knew who the killer was (at least one of them). Simple brilliance.
I’ve yet to grow tired of watching this film. True, it no longer serves that intrinsic horror purpose—it hasn’t scared me since that first viewing almost 20 years ago—but it still exhilarates me, enthralls me, and, yes, terrifies me on different levels. This is a horror master class, taught by one of the maestros himself. Craven knew that the truest form of fear was the fear of the real. No, a dead child molester isn’t ever going to really kill people in their nightmares. But pack mentality could well and truly lead to group vigilantism such as what the parents of those original Elm Street kids did in the name of protecting their own.
And apathy and desensitization could lead to the moral lassitude that led the likes of Billy and Stu down the path they ultimately traveled in this film. Yes, the exacting of their plan was hyperbolic in its almost supernatural perfection (and later sequels would put a new spin on the actions of the first film that would, in some ways, work well and in others make me want to pummel the ticket taker at the theater), but the essence of their actions was very believable. And that is what continues to root this film strongly in the realm of horror power players.
Craven clearly knew his shtick. Who better, then, to direct a movie all about showing how self-aware a horror movie could be? These characters inhabited a world that not only acknowledged the horror genre but acknowledged Craven as one of the architects of its current existence. In some ways, it was also an indictment against the masters like Craven—look at what you’ve done to us with your pursuit of more realistic, more visceral fear. You have left us bereft of human empathy and motivated by vengeance and mayhem. You have pushed us to reach deeper, into ever-darker corners and pull forward whatever resides therein.