Rating *** A must see

Directed by Wes Craven

Written by Kevin Williamson

With Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Skeet Ulrich, and Henry Winkler.

By Bill Stamets

The decay of culture is perhaps our most commonly cited fin de siecle cliche, and nearly everyone holds the entertainment industry at fault. In recent years horror directors John Carpenter and Wes Craven have confronted their genre’s alleged role in debasing the masses–engaging the conservative’s paranoia that Hollywood is a prime polluter of public morality–and in doing so they’ve both taken interesting risks with their formulas and fans.

Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1995) is about a pulp novelist “who outsells Stephen King.” The author’s latest book drives readers to homicidal rages, and we’re told the movie version will be coming out soon. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) begins with a stock horror-movie scene that finishes with a director calling “cut” and the camera pulling back to reveal a movie set. In the film Craven, playing himself, writes a script that unmasks evil as an entity that seeks to be incarnated through movie sequels; later, actress Heather Langenkamp (who starred in Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street ten years earlier) reads the script to her young son as a bedtime story.

Scream, Craven’s latest movie, continues this ironic inquest of the horror genre, though this time he shifts his focus from the producers of these films to their teenage consumers. It opens with Drew Barrymore as a high schooler targeted by a killer who quizzes her on details from Carpenter’s Halloween. Craven cuts from her grisly murder to Sidney (Neve Campbell), another teenager, pecking away at her personal computer. In light of Craven’s recent self-referential shtick, I wondered if this over-the-top opening was in fact a creation of Sidney’s. But it wasn’t. As in so many horror movies, expectations are set up, and then subverted. Sidney’s simply bummed out because it’s the first anniversary of her mom’s murder and her dad is going away on business.

A figure crawls through her bedroom window, but it’s only her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich), a semisensitive type who pressures Sidney for sex. He has a seemingly harmless habit of drawing parallels between life and the movies. His hyper pal Randy (Jamie Kennedy) works in a video store and brandishes an encyclopedic knowledge of scary movies brimming with dead teenagers. Soon enough, more teens fall prey to the masked slayer.

Writer Kevin Williamson peppers his script with clever lines. The high school students are all video savvy; they know how to use the freeze-frame to spot Tom Cruise’s penis in a nude scene from All the Right Moves. The school principal (Henry Winkler) denounces two pranksters as “heartless, desensitized little shits” after they don the same mask used by the killer (based on the central figure in Edvard Munch’s The Scream). A curfew is called, so naturally the kids head for an unchaperoned party in the country.

Courteney Cox plays a tabloid TV reporter. “People treat me like I’m the antichrist of television journalism,” she half boasts. She gets her scoop by hiding a miniature camera under a TV. It captures the teens watching scary movies on a VCR while Randy treats his classmates to a full-blown deconstruction of the horror genre. Among his rules for survival in a horror movie: “Never, never, under any circumstances, say ‘I’ll be right back.'”

As Cox’s cameraman monitors the living room from a van parked outside, Craven crafts a perfect mirror image; his own deconstruction figures into the plot. A teenager watching Halloween yells at the television, trying to alert Jamie Lee Curtis to “Look behind you.” The cameraman helplessly yells those same words at his screen when a figure looms behind the teen. (The killers in Scream fault the local cops for not watching enough slasher flicks like Prom Night.) When Sidney finally faces the killers, she charges, “You’ve seen one too many movies.” They reply, “Movies don’t make psychos; movies make psychos more creative.” What follows is an insightful aside on the role of motives in these movies–usually there are none. Killers without motives are far more scary. The killer even tells one of his victims that she can’t reason her way out of her role: “You can’t pick your genre.”

Scream’s in-jokes may suggest that the genre has atrophied. In recent interviews Craven has expressed a desire to get out of the horror business. Maybe that’s why he’s set out to make more than a horror movie. He’s contributing to a long tradition of reflexive films, going back as far as the turn of the century. Within a few years after the first public screenings, filmmakers were already spoofing the fledgling art form. And unlike the cartoonish lefty politics of John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A., Craven offers a more nuanced take on Hollywood. Scream producers Cary Woods and Cathy Konrad have already betrayed their progressive leanings with last year’s Kids and the upcoming abortion satire Citizen Ruth. “There’s a tremendous temptation in this country to get up and pontificate,” Craven told me at the Chicago International Film Festival two years ago. “It really is thought control coming from an overblown sense of righteousness.”

Movies were a forbidden pleasure when Craven attended the religious Wheaton College. He saw his first film, To Kill a Mockingbird, in his senior year after breaking school rules and hitchhiking to a theater. Perhaps his resistance to the Wheaton authorities has resurfaced as a resistance to the strictures of the teen horror genre. He hasn’t entirely forsaken his identification with adolescent rebellion. The final credits in Scream even give the finger to uncooperative authorities: “No thanks whatsoever to the Santa Rosa City School District Governing Board.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.