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It’s about a silly little goofball with a knife… but also misogyny: A review of “Scream” (1996)

Before we proceed, I must admit something important: I’m a wimp. Scary movies have never been my thing at any point. I like some of the classics, but their dated effects allow me to appreciate their horror from a distance. Seeing the shadows of Nosferatu’s gnarled fingers cut across the screen is bone-chilling in its own right, but not enough to keep me up at night. Something like “The Shining” still chills me to my core, but for very different reasons than a slasher film would. I like my horror disquieting, existential and revealing as much about the human condition as it leaves shrouded in mystery. I don’t like stuff that makes me jump out of my seat… largely because I have the embarrassing memory of spilling a can of Coke onto the white carpet of a friend’s house while watching “Scream 4.” It wasn’t even the original “Scream,” it was “Scream 4.” The actual power of these films to terrify should lessen with each lackluster installment and yet, I was still jumping high enough to compete at the Olympics. 

The first “Scream” film, however, did have me jumping, but also laughing, thinking and above all, dreading. There were also no soft drinks to spill anywhere in my immediate vicinity to ruin the sanctity of the Weitz cinema, which helped. From its opening sequence, “Scream” not only displays a mastery of a build-up to a big scare, but manages to round itself out with an interesting theme and as many moments of high comedy as it had flashes of unbridled terror. We follow Sidney Prescott (Neve Cambell), a young high schooler trying to live a normal life following the murder of her mother. Near the tragedy’s anniversary, word gets out that her classmates are being sliced open by a serial killer named Ghostface. With her boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich), as a prime suspect, and a tabloid news reporter, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), breathing down her neck, Sidney must do all she can to survive with the list of people she can trust slowly dwindling. 

The biggest surprise, however, is that “Scream” is just as much a raucous comedy as it is a horror film. True, the actual horror set pieces are fantastic, but the comedy that appears within them serves to heighten the terror. Ghostface’s signature is calling his victims first (voiced on the phone by Roger L. Jackson) and asking them about their favorite scary movies, before revealing that he’s not just a butt-dialer but is nearby or inside their house. Jackson’s dynamic voice provides Ghostface with ghastly range over the phone, shifting from being disarmingly casual to making loud, commanding threats. What’s more, he isn’t presented as some kind of immortal, unstoppable force. Ghostface, once he hits the scene, trips, gets kicked in the face, gets beer bottles thrown at him, gets punched, gets hit with a refrigerator door and endures other various slapstick shenanigans. He’s a rather silly horror villain that actively draws attention to the fact that it’s really just some guy under the mask… but he’s still got a knife and is still capable of bloody acts of violence. He’s clumsy, but determined. Ghostface becomes scarier despite his mistakes, because he’s shown to recover from them quickly. 

If the emphasis on Ghostface’s nature as a human exacerbates the fear, then how the humanity of its protagonist is brought forward exacerbates the stakes. For Sidney, “Scream” is not just about surviving an ordeal, but coming to terms with a world unsympathetic to her trauma. Her mother’s death was unspeakably horrifying, but her classmates still gossip about her, spreading rumors that this new set of killings is actually her fault. Her boyfriend, Billy, is the least helpful of all, as his objective remains taking their relationship to the next level rather than supporting her… so much so that Sidney apologizes and claims to have been “selfish and self-absorbed with all this post-traumatic stress.” The appeal of “Scream,” as I’ve read and heard, seems to be in its metafictional approach to the “rules” of horror films. I don’t know enough about horror to necessarily get it, but I’d actually argue that its critique of mental health stigmatization and advocacy for believing women’s stories grants it real longevity. Gale Weathers embodies the publicity of and subsequent popular polarization over real stories of trauma: she has not only published books about Sidney’s mother’s murder, but has gone after Sidney in a very public way, claiming that she condemned the wrong man to death. However, this ordeal’s disheartening nature is juxtaposed with Sidney’s agency in surviving it. She’s able to throw the punches, adapt and outsmart her opponents… and remember, she’s not just up against a monster here, but an entire community and the press. 

This interesting gender and mental health commentary exists under the previously mentioned play with the “rules” of horror. The various teenage boys are quick to explain that the slasher film acts as a moral enforcer: the virgin lives and the “adulteress” always dies. The slasher genre not only subtextually slut-shames, but also openly objectifies, as we see the boys clamor around the TV in anticipation of a skimpy scene they’ve committed to memory. That familiarity, that group experience and the horror genre’s links to the “Satanic Panics” of old also appear here in unsubtle fashion. Whether these films create psychopaths or grant preexisting ones artistic inspiration remains a debate, even in today’s culture. However, what I think “Scream” shows is that they also create misogynists, or at the very least, perpetuate misogyny’s hold over the film industry. Despite having seen little else in the genre to corroborate this claim, I can say that while “Scream” rewards horror aficionados, it also rewards those green to the genre (such as wimps like myself) the tools to begin engaging with it critically. 

Rating: 4.5/5


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