As any fan of horror flicks can attest, the genre often becomes weary. The slasher subgenre, specifically, is characterized by several traits: a seemingly unending string of sequels, obligatory remakes, and a strict formula. While once novel, we can now predict the outcome and general plot of most slashers without even watching the trailer. Master of horror Wes Craven lampooned the monotony of the slasher in his 1996 masterpiece “Scream.” In using a film that makes fun of its own category, he simultaneously acknowledged audience sentiments while reinvigorating a stale and dying genre.
Alone in her house one evening, high schooler Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) answers an ominous phone call from an unidentified caller. Assuming it’s a prank, she hangs up several times, despite the caller’s persistence. The mystery caller asks Casey what her favorite horror movie is, and the initially innocuous conversation spirals into chaos and bloodshed when the caller threatens Casey’s life. Casey and her boyfriend Steve (Kevin Patrick Walls) are killed by the caller, revealed to be clad in a reaper costume with the now-familiar Scream face.
The next day we meet Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), a classmate of Casey’s. Almost a year ago her mother was raped and murdered, and Sidney is clearly troubled by her classmate’s recent death. Sidney begins receiving strange calls, and while initially her classmates think her to be crazy, the high school principal’s murder leads to a cancellation of classes and a city wide curfew. Naturally, this means an impromptu house party, and we all know where that will lead.
The cast of “Scream” distinguishes the production from lesser slasher flicks. Neve Campbell truly breathes life into Sidney Prescott, and plays a surprisingly emotive character. There’s a relevant subplot involving an in-your-face news reporter, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), who believes that Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber) has been wrongly convicted of killing the late Mrs. Prescott. There’s a juicy tension established between Sidney and Gale, heightened by Gale’s blossoming flirtation with Dewey Riley (David Arquette), the older brother of Sid’s friend Tatum (Rose McGowan).
Wes Craven’s 1996 film morphs into a masterpiece through the abundance of horror movie Easter eggs within. There are the more obvious references, such as the early movie trivia. “What’s your favorite scary movie?” the unseen Ghostface asks. He proceeds to quiz Casey on “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th.” Craven even pokes fun at his own creations with a suspiciously Freddy Kruegeresque janitor. A particularly fantastic moment comes when Tatum refers to “Wes Carpenter,” a combination of Wes Craven and John Carpenter, two of the most revered names in horror cinema. Even Sidney’s boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) could be a reference to Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) from the “Halloween” franchise.
Even more entertaining than the numerous slasher throwbacks is the horror situational awareness the characters possess. There are constant acknowledgements about scary movie tropes, particularly from the resident film buff Randy (Jamie Kennedy). Hint: don’t challenge this guy to a bout of horror movie trivia at the next pub quiz. Thus, “Scream” accomplished a difficult task: freshening up a decaying genre. While previously viewers would laugh at the ridiculousness of formulaic sequels, the humor was now intended. Ironically, we’re still witnessing this theme of movie madlibs, with slight variations on the same plot. 2012’s “Cabin in the Woods” notably followed in the same vein as “Scream,” and was equally, if not more, Meta. Striking the quintessential balance of comedy and horror, “Scream” re-popularized the slasher genre by infusing originality and making the familiar once again new.