Scream (1996)

D: Wes Craven
S: Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, David Arquette

We've seen it all before. Well, duh!

The entire point of Wes Craven's postmodern opus number two is that the audience know all about slasher films and what happens in them. What's worthwhile about it is that it has a sense of humour about how to handle its inanities. What's disappointing is that it's still pretty inane. A masked killer stalks a peaceful community with a dark past. Teenagers drop off one by bloody one until a climactic party where the killer is finally unmasked reveals that really, it's all just a variant on the formula, and that's the point.

Typical postmodern tail chasing here, with plenty of cheeky, in your face in-jokes to disavow all pretension of actual involvement. Even if it does reduce its audience to genuine screams, they can pretend it didn't, or that it was all part of the fun. As comedy, Scream works great, but as horror, it scores nil. Thing is, it's not very frightening, precisely because it is just way, way too old at this stage. John Carpenter hammered his audience over its collective head twenty years earlier with Halloween, making use of the widescreen frame and an electronic soundtrack to play a sophisticated joke on the viewer. By now, the joke is not very sophisticated anymore, it's just a cinematic pratfall.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare was this director's first foray into the postmodern horror film, and was, to my mind, much more effective. In the former film, the shifting boundaries of diagesis and the constant self-referentiality merely contributed to the sense of disorientation necessary to bring Freddy Krueger back to life for one last scare in the dream world that is the movies. Scream is not really about that kind of disorientation. It doesn't induce a state of cerebral hesitation between suspension of disbelief and genuine fear. It is simply a big tongue-in-cheek shaggy dog story, which is fine, except to note that real horror is absent from a story of gory multiple murder, which can't be altogether right. Still, it proved a massive hit with audiences and critics, and no one is going to stop the Scream 2 steamroller except maybe the film itself.

On the purely technical front, the film is cleverly plotted, generally well acted (given the deliberately campy performance of David Arquette and the cameo by Henry Winkler), and directed with skill and control by Craven. It is nicely shot in widescreen and makes ample use of the old 'movement into frame' gag. But none of this means the film is really all that good. Funny and clever as it is on the most basic level (penned by Kevin Williamson, also responsible for the 'is it or isn't it a parody?'I Know What You Did Last Summer), the script really is hackneyed. Perhaps also the film is just a tad too long for the constant in-jokes to remain effective, and there really is a lot of gory death for something which generates no real terror on any other level. Even it's big denouement is not surprising, the killer twist was actually...yes...done before. Sigh.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.