Scream is one of those movies that's so iconic you almost forget about it — maybe you saw it upon its release in 1996 (almost twenty years ago — in related news, we're all old), then perhaps once or twice since then, but it's become such an integral piece of the cinematic lexicon that it's easy to ignore how revolutionary it was.
Wes Craven's nimble direction, coupled with Kevin Williamson's ingeniously witty and self-referential screenplay, plus a performance possessing surprising pathos and depth from Neve Campbell, makes Scream not only one of the best horror movies ever — it's probably one of the best movies of the last two decades, full stop.
And if you're in the mood to revisit it, like magic — it's streaming on Netflix right now.
THIS WEEK'S 3AM HORROR STREAM: Scream
Again, it's tough to talk about a movie like Scream without also talking about its cultural impact: it shifted the tone and form of the horror film, which by the mid '90s was limping forward with ponderous sincerity. With Scream, horror movies could be funny and self-conscious, and the film ushered in a new era of slashers that felt modern — not only a string of sequels of variable quality, but I Know What You Did Last Summer and the like. The image of the ghost masked killer is an indelible one, as parodied in Scary Movie and its endless sequels; the line, "what's your favorite scary movie?" is nothing short of iconic.
But before all that, Scream was just a movie about a teenage girl, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), being targeted by a serial killer inspired by famous horror movies (and their villains) of yore. It's an obvious concept, but a powerful one — a horror movie where the characters have actually seen horror movies.
Sidney, along with her friends, speaks in that quintessentially Williamson-esque patois, all cutting barbs and precocious wit, which lends the film a likable quotability, and the deaths are spectacularly gruesome — see the unforgettable opening sequence where Drew Barrymore is sliced open and hung from a tree, or the garage scene where Tatum (Rose McGowan) meets a grisly end by way of doggy door. If you watched Scream as a teenager, you'll remember the stomach-turning gore and the vulgarity of the dialogue, and those haven't changed. But rewatching as an adult, there's a narrative sophistication and a level of social commentary — about how violence desensitizes viewers, about how the media shapes our experience — that goes well beyond cheap thrills.
So it may not be the scariest movie out there, after all is said and done, but it'll give you a few startles — and more than that, it might actually make you think. Who knew? Nearly twenty years later, Scream is still one of the smartest horror movies out there — and well worth a late-night watch.
Sam Lansky is a writer and editor from New York City.
Photo Credit: Dimension Films