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One of my top films of all time is 1996’s ‘Scream.’ From the story, to the characters, to the slasher formula and meta-commentary, the iconic teen film resonates and stands tall even after all of these years have passed. ‘Scream’ has also forwarded its own franchise, with four further installments in the series, the most recent one being 2022’s ‘Scream,’ another one well on the way. But what is it about this original film that holds it up as a classic?
Directed by the late great Wes Craven (best known for his works in the slasher genre, such as ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’) and written by Kevin Williamson (who later went on to develop ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ ‘The Vampire Diaries,’ and ‘Tell Me a Story’), ‘Scream’ took on the world of slashers, most prominent in the 80s, and set its characters to be aware of the clichés, all the while making it a whodunit plot with everyone trying to decipher who the killer is. Upon its release, the film was well-received both critically and commercially and revived its genre in the mid-90s. Now, the characters are immortalized in pop culture, especially as Ghostface costumes return every year for Halloween, and the story is still a classic to return to.
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There’s a Formula to It! A Very Specific Formula!
Williamson went to write this film following the inspiration of other slasher works, and much of the beauty stems from his writing ability to play into the tropes and expectations while commenting on them and furthering an actual story. Randy Meeks (played by Jamie Kennedy) is the lovable film geek of the story who spends most of his screen time rambling about the killings that are happening and how they correlate to the film genre. He tells everyone the rules of what not to do (for instance, don’t say “I’ll be right back” because you won’t be) and he’s able to take in the events of Woodsboro, their town, with a movie-like perception. The film follows the formula of a typical slasher, with various characters getting plucked off one-by-one, but it also seeks to subvert that formula when necessary.
Spoilers (obviously) – the grand reveal of “who did it” ends up being not one character, but two. Not only does the twist work effectively, but both Stu and Billy (played by Matthew Lillard and Skeet Ulrich), Woodsboro’s resident killer psychopaths, feel like complete characters who are capable of their malicious actions. They still maintain the personalities we have seen from them throughout the film, as the persona of Ghostface is not a faceless slasher, he’s a costume being worn by a couple of messed-up kids. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), our best resident final girl, subverts the expectation that the final girl must be a pure virgin by sleeping with Billy moments before everything goes down. The rule that she must be pure is even stated by Randy as he covers the various rules to follow. It’s the perfect subversion.
There’s a brilliant scene towards the beginning of the film where Sidney is first being attacked by Ghostface. When he calls her and questions her thoughts on scary movies, she calls out the typical stupidity you see from characters, saying they should run out the front door instead of running up the stairs. Following the phone call, when she’s actually attacked, she tries to go out the front door, but is unable to fix the lock, therefore she’s forced to run up the stairs as an only option. It’s all very masterful and carefully crafted, able to work with the formulas while subverting and commenting on them.
You Wanna Play Psycho Killer? Can I Be the Helpless Victim?
Another big highlight of ‘Scream’ is the characters, as previously touched-on. Sidney already stands out as a badass final girl with more to offer. Randy is so brilliant and his “film nerd” stereotype only works to make him more lovable (being a film nerd myself, I can especially resonate with him). Stu and Billy work well individually and together, with their different outlooks on the world and motivations setting them apart. Stu has some of the best lines, especially after he is revealed as one of the killers. Every other character is just as full. Courteney Cox took time off the ‘Friends’ set to play Gale Weathers, tapping into a different type of female role. Her relationship with Deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette) throughout the first film and the rest of the franchise is one of the best subplots that aims to give both characters more depth. Dewey’s sister, and Sidney’s best friend, Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan), also stands out. Tatum is able to be tough and spunky while still being compassionate and protective of Sidney, being fully layered and complex, even in a supporting role. She’s just so memorable, even before the infamous garage scene.
Especially in slashers, it can be difficult to attach to characters because you know the majority of them are set up to die and just add to the body count, but Williamson and Craven take time to let us get to know these guys, making it all the more heartbreaking when they’re in danger or when they’re suspected of causing the danger. The last character I’ll mention is the girl who starts it all, Casey Becker, played by Drew Barrymore when she was just reaching the height of her popularity. Barrymore was marketed as being the lead in the film, causing audiences to be shocked when she was killed off within the opening, and really droning in the feeling that no one was safe. The opening scene in it of itself still reigns as one of the most iconic opening scenes, as Casey answers the phone, and the conversation becomes more and more fear-inducing until the person on the other line is in her house. From there, the chase scene that endures is a bloody masterpiece.
‘Scream’ – The Horror Classic
‘Scream’ is a horror classic, and always will be. All the elements woven together to create it further cement its iconic status. The ways with which it was able to handle teenage struggles and capitalize on the slasher genre as a whole make a beloved addition to the world of horror films. Staples of ‘Scream’ are still replicated within the franchise itself and within the genre as a whole, as seen recently with ‘Bodies Bodies Bodies,’ and 2021’s ‘Fear Street’ trilogy of films.
Though the reveals are already given away, this film is always an option for a rewatch, as its themes and storytelling still hold up and remain entertaining. Plus the film is full of clues and instances which hint at who the killer is or how the characters relate to one another, and these little nuances are so enjoyable upon a second, third, or billionth watch. It’s a classic for many reasons and is a wonderful example for what an actual good film looks like. I don’t think ‘Scream’ will ever be knocked down from my list of favorites, or from its residence as one of the best slasher/horror classics.
By Rachel Beltowski
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Rachel Beltowski is a screenwriter and film critic, with a passion for character-driven stories and thought-provoking themes. From adventure to horror, Rachel enjoys stories which take the audience on an emotional rollercoaster and allow for personal expression that would otherwise go silent. Rachel was drawn to The Hollywood Insider’s dedication to individual perspectives and positive world impacts. The Hollywood Insider has provided a foundation for Rachel to share her insights and leap into the center of the entertainment industry. Rachel hopes to bring a fresh voice into the world of film and television, and share her love of stories with others.