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"Scream" (1996) Is My Favorite Scary Movie

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Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

A promotional poster.

A promotional poster.

Scream is a 1996 horror film directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson. It has always been well-received (that I recall) and has since become a horror classic in its own right.

I don't typically take time to credit the writers of films. In fact, most people don't because writers at large are viewed as invisible entities who merely set the foundation for a great movie. It sucks, but that's the way they're viewed.

But I took the time to credit Williamson because the writing for Scream is just so clever, and it's really the writing that drew me in. Scream is a satire of the "scary movie" genre but unlike today's sloppy satires, it actually does satire well. If anyone were to ask me for the perfect example of a satire, I would point to this film.

So in essence, I love this film so much because it's smart, it's funny, and at the same time, it's still scary as hell. Very few horror films pull that off today. In fact, most of today's horror films are full of gore and blood and shock value violence. I can't decide if the audience is getting dumber or the writers, but I also love Scream because the violence was always the opposite of gratuitous.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Let's rewind a little bit (every pun intended).

Drew Barrymore as Casey.

Drew Barrymore as Casey.

The Characters Are Real People

I usually have a story about the first time I saw a film that I loved in my articles. Bear with me. Films were probably the best thing about my tortured past (lol...).

The first time I saw Scream, I was ten years old (I turned ten the year it came out), and we were at summer camp. They popped us popcorn and we grabbed sleeping mats and gathered in front of the TV and watched.

Now, I'm a kid whose mother was a huge horror fan, so I grew up looking at Freddie and Jason and Michael Myers, Pet Sematary, The Shining, Child's Play . . . I was not new to the horror genre at all. And yet, when I saw this film, it was easily the scariest thing I had ever seen so far. And to this day, I'm still more afraid of Scream than the "big" horror franchises.

I think it's largely because a killer messing with someone on the phone is terrifying. They can you see, you can't see them. They can be anywhere, even in the closet, under the bed.

It gives them the sense of being an omnipresent entity and the victim utterly powerless. That's what makes it scary. The killer (Billy) whispering into the phone, ". . . Blondie . . ." after he reveals that he's watching Casey is probably the most chilling part of the phone exchange, because it's here that Casey completely loses it and runs around with a knife, locking doors and turning off lights. It's here that she realizes she's in danger. Unfortunately for her, the killer was already in the house and she's basically just locking herself in with him, a thought that never occurs to her.

Also, I just think Drew Barrymore's phenomenal acting really made you afraid for Casey. She's a scared and helpless teenage girl, but instead of being the standard dumb blonde who gets sliced up for banging her boyfriend in the woods, she is depicted as an actual person and it makes you pity her.

In most horror films, the women getting chopped up don't have names and don't have personalities. Hell, they barely have lines. They're just faceless hot women who are there for the obligatory boob shot (even referenced in the film itself) before they are cut up for the (male) audience's pleasure.

Scream actually made an effort to make all its female characters three dimensional, human, and real. Casey wasn't just some girl. She was a person who didn't deserve to die. She was someone we could pity, rather than hooting and throwing popcorn at the screen as we relish in her suffering.

Tatum is murdered.

Tatum is murdered.

The actress who portrayed Sidney's best friend, Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan), actually made a conscious effort to make her character a person and not just an object to be slashed up for entertainment. She consciously picked Tatum's outfit and bedroom accessories (giving Tatum personality and life) and acted in such a way that her death scene was remembered because it was tragic rather than "funny" or "amusing."

The horror genre has a long history of slashing up women for "amusement." Scream is a film that completely turns the entire concept upside-down, allowing the women to be portrayed as actual people we are supposed to feel sorry for and not just a pair of boobs that gets stabbed.

And really, Tatum is as tragic a character as Casey. Both of them had the misfortune of dating Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard), one of the killers and a teenager who seems to have the emotional maturity of a toddler.

That said, I feel as if the movie really attempted to humanize the killers, too.

Stu cries into the phone.

Stu cries into the phone.

While Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) is actually the standard textbook psycho killer we see in most horror films, Stu is actually just a normal kid with mental issues, easily influenced and lacking empathy for others like the typical rich, spoiled teens we see running through the halls wearing masks in the film itself.

Billy Loomis is the predator of the pair and needed a minion and scapegoat. So he recruited Stu, knowing he was easily manipulated and bullied. Stu himself admits at the end of the film that he is easily swayed by peer pressure. As funny as the line is delivered, I think he's telling the truth.

After realizing who the killers are, it makes a rewatch of the film very interesting (as it always does). If you go back to Casey's murder scene, it's obvious that Stu was the one in the house, while Billy was calling on the phone to torment Casey and probably never even came to her house at all.

It makes perfect sense. Stu used to date Casey. He would be familiar with her house. He would know the layout and where to hide. So he hides inside the house while Billy terrorizes Casey over the phone.

When it finally comes to the death scene, this is Stu's first kill (I'm convinced Billy was the one who actually killed Sidney's mother). His hand is shaking as he raises it to stab Casey. He's having second thoughts. He never really wanted to kill her. But he was hurt because she dumped him, and Billy pressured him into the kill so that he would have something on him incase he tried to rat him out. (Not an excuse. I'm explaining his "logic," or lack thereof.)

I'm also convinced it's Stu that kills Casey because she takes off his mask and she seems to recognize him. Makes her death all the more sad, knowing that she was murdered by her ex-boyfriend over something so trivial as having said no.

Sadly, this is all too common a reality for women in the real world.

Stu mocks Sidney about his motive.

Stu mocks Sidney about his motive.

But the point is, instead of both killers being the typical evil psychos, one of them was actually a normal human who let himself get pressured into a situation that goes completely out of control. This is very obvious by the end of the film when Stu breaks down crying and Billy (like the typical psycho) throws a tantrum and starts slashing up pillows.

Billy is an actual psycho with zero empathy and a reptilian brain. Stu is just a low empathy teenage boy who let himself become someone's puppet. I'm not saying we should pity Stu or that he shouldn't be held accountable for his actions (he should). I'm saying that it's refreshing that at least one of the killers wasn't a one-dimensional stereotype, cliched, psycho, nutcase.

I thought it was done pretty well.

(Also, Stu is wearing a sweater like Casey when he dies. . . .lol.)

Sidney is terrorized by Billy on the phone.

Sidney is terrorized by Billy on the phone.

Awesome Protagonist

Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is probably my favorite "scream queen," largely because she takes every single horror film trope and turns it on its head. She's not dumb. She's not helpless. She's not constantly cowering in fear. She's tough, she's strong, she fights back. And she has funny quips like a f*cking action hero or something.

Sidney: Shoots dead killer in the forehead.

Everyone else looks at her.

Sidney: "Just in case."

Sidney goes through a tremendous amount of trauma but never gives up and never stops fighting 'til the very end. I always thought Scream 3 had the perfect ending. After she kills her half-brother (an obvious nod to Halloween), she begins a new life, no longer worrying that a killer is constantly standing over her shoulder.

While at her home celebrating, the door is blown open by the wind. There was a time in her life when that would have made her paranoid or afraid. Now she smiles at the door and leaves it open as she goes to join her friends for the movie. She's safe now.

I have to say, I really hate that they made a Scream 4 and are making a Scream 5, largely because it invalidates the ending the of the third film. The other films just feel like unnecessary and excessive money grabs.

"Behind you, Jamie Kennedy, behind you . . ."

"Behind you, Jamie Kennedy, behind you . . ."

The Humor

Even though Scream is a horror film, it was always on-point with the humor. It's the kind of film I could see a thousand times and still laugh every time anyway at the same joke because it's just executed so well.

  • Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) screaming at her cameraman to move his "fat tub of lard ass" right now.
  • Tatum shouting that Stu had a brain leak and whopping him with a lollipop.
  • Everything involving Dewey Riley (David Arquette).
  • Sidney making a comment about hating scary movies because they always feature some "dumb blonde" who runs up the stairs when she should be running out the front door . . . Only to have Sidney run up the stairs when the killer comes . . .

These characters are utterly flawed and human (Gale in particular comes to mind), and it leads to hilarity. Had they been two-dimensional, one-note characters that just existed to get slashed, it wouldn't have worked.

"There's a formula!"

"There's a formula!"

I think I enjoyed Randy (Jamie Kennedy) in particular. I studied film in college (it probably should have been my major in hindsight) and I always connected with Randy because we had so much in common, even when I was just ten years old.

I was nerdy, spent a lot of time in video stores (back when that was a thing), always had a crush on some girl that didn't like me back, and was basically an outcast obsessed with film theory. I was the kind of weirdo who would have been seen in the middle of Blockbuster clutching fistfuls of VHS's and screaming,

"THERE'S A FORMULA! A VERY PRECISE FORMULA!"

I loved Randy. But when I was ten, I didn't really know myself well enough to understand why. I wasn't walking around aware that I was a film nerd or that unrequited love would become a pattern of my lonely geek life.

It was a shame that Randy was killed in the second film, but I think having him around for the entirety of the third film would have been a bit much. There's only so much of his meta the series could handle. It was good that he had a small cameo in the third (and hilarious how Dewey actually took notes).

The Psycho Killer

I know I said up higher that it was refreshing that Stu was just a normal teenager, but Ulrich's performance as Billy Loomis was amazing. He pretty much embodied the classic horror film psycho to a T.

He lacked empathy. He was cruel. He was self-centered. He was violent. He had logical "reasons" for everything he did and none of it made sense at all (just like his mother in the sequel).

Stu was a crazy cartoon but Billy Loomis was actually scary. Probably one of the best moments in the film is when Sidney realizes Billy is the killer. He slowly turns around and says to her a line from the classic film Psycho (my sociopathic mother's favorite horror film that I've, thanks to her, seen a thousand times),

" . . . we all go a little mad sometimes."

In this moment, the audience has the same horrified realization as Sidney: Sidney has just had sex with, put her trust in, and gone through the emotional hell of guilt and confusion for the guy who killed her mother, killed her friends, and is now going to kill her.

"Don't you blame the movies, Sid!"

"Don't you blame the movies, Sid!"

Sidney basically spends the entire movie being terrorized by the one person she trusted. Meanwhile, she is guilt tripped over and over for her confusion. First Gale gets in her face about Cotton Weary, the man she accused of her mother's murder. Then Billy is angry at her for the duration of the film because she (correctly) suspected him of trying to kill her.

Everyone in the film eats her alive for being traumatized and confused. She's a f*cking teenage girl. It's awful.

I think any normal person would have buckled under the pressure, but Sidney is the protagonist because she's remarkably strong.

I always say that the story is only as good as the villain, and Billy was a very good villain. That isn't to say he was competent. In fact, if he'd been capable of killing Sidney during his first attempt on her, the entire movie wouldn't have happened.

But once Sidney proves she isn't so easy to kill things quickly unravel from that point onward. Billy and Stu throw a party to try and "rectify" the situation by killing both their girlfriends and completing their frame job of Sidney's father. But Sidney continues to prove too resourceful and strong, and so they are ultimately defeated.

No. Billy was a good villain because he was entertaining, he had memorable lines, and he actually posed a real threat to Sidney, challenging her and forcing her to adapt to new situations at every turn in order to survive.

Be kind. Please rewind.

Be kind. Please rewind.

So that's why Scream is my favorite scary movie and probably my favorite horror franchise. If you haven't seen it, you're doing yourself a disservice.

Fix that now!