Scream at 25: How Critics Received it in 1996
In October of 1996, within the confines of a large, secluded house in the fictional town of Woodsboro, California, Casey Becker receives a phone call. The voice on the other end doesn’t progress the plot with an invitation to a party, or with news of a dead relative—instead, the voice asks Casey about her favorite scary movies.
During what at first seems like a casual (albeit abnormal) conversation, she curls her hair and heats popcorn on the stove, and the voice almost flirts with her. That’s what Casey thinks, at least.
We all know that’s nonsense—the voice on the other end is clearly a killer, about to drop a bomb in the form of her boyfriend: beaten, bloody, and tied to a chair on the patio. This is Steve.
The killer then initiates a trivia game centered around horror movies, and if Drew Barrymore’s hapless Casey gets one wrong, well… you know what goes down. It’s brilliant.
And it’s nothing but blood, guts, and self-reflexive lines of dialogue from there. That’s what all of those questions were over the phone: a self-reflection of scary movies. In fact, sixty-four of the 120-paged screenplay feature—to one degree or another, either indirect or unmediated—a reference to a horror film.
Be it a movie quote, the namedrop of a character like Hannibal Lecter, or even Halloween playing on TV in the living room, screenwriter Kevin Williamson saw a vision into fruition that transcended genres by dint of these constant references.
Categorized as a Meta-Slasher, its characters consistently allude to the fact that they’re living within a horror movie. They insinuate that the killings happening around them are akin to the murders of a horror movie instead of outright accepting that they’re fictional characters experiencing fruitless lives.
As a result of this dynamic, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the movie takes itself seriously—if overtly dramatic moments were staged as such on purpose with ironic intentions, or if it was truly an awkward moment in an otherwise completely self-aware script. It seems like a nightmare to critique.
And as someone who holds the scores given out by Rotten Tomatoes to fairly high regard, there are definitely some consensus ratings that I couldn’t disagree with more. The Last Jedi has a 91% approval rating, while The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou holds a meager 56%.
Scream—directed by Wes Craven, released in 1996—has a 79% approval rating from both critics and audiences. While not a bad score on paper, I was simply curious as to what that 21% of critics who didn’t recommend the movie had to say.
Bearing that in mind—plus the fact that I in no way intend to slander the names of Roger Ebert or any other critic who reviewed this movie in 1996—there were several criticisms at the time of release that, today, make me tilt my head, sip a cup of coffee and contemplate their meaning before coming to the inevitable conclusion that the written critiques were mostly rants of people that forgot what kind of movie they purchased tickets to see.
A lot of people my age—born in 1996, the same year the film was released—often associate the Ghostface costume with Scary Movie opposed to Scream, and no, I’m not suggesting that these reviews played part in the paucity of popularity with my generation, but the middling reception surely didn’t help.
Leonard Klady, a writer for Variety, wrote in December of ‘96 that: “The pic’s chills are top-notch, but its underlying mockish tone won’t please die-hard fans.”
The opinion that “die-hard fans” of the genre are likely to be displeased with the film’s sneering nature is frankly anecdotal, and I’d bet that hardcore horror hounds represent a meager percentage of filmgoers worldwide. The sneering tone—or mockish, satirical, whatever you want to call it—also appealed to fans of comedy, creating a much larger target audience.
But Klady later asserts that, “There’s no question (the filmmaker) knows how to put an audience on the edge of its seat. But this yarn isn’t content with visceral delight, and its attempts to instill irony and social perspective just slow down the proceedings.”
Firstly: It didn’t merely attempt to instill irony. In the third act, when Randy watched the original Halloween, pleading for Laurie Strode to turn around and direct her attention to the killer, when in reality there was a killer in the room with Randy, encroaching from behind the couch—that’s clear-cut dramatic irony right before our eyes.
Secondly: If your movie isn’t attempting to instill social perspective to one degree or another, or if your movie fails to touch on the human condition, then what’s the point? The whole idea of cinema is to entertain, yes. But emotion is what resonates.
If the movie attempts to shift social perspective to excess, don’t just say that—give us an example, perhaps of an agenda being pushed within a line of dialogue, a plot point, something to showcase the lethargy you felt thereof.
As far as criticism goes, Klady’s review was far-less scathing than others, but one of the more positive evaluations came from the most renowned movie critic of all time.
Roger Ebert (of the Chicago-Suns Times) begins his review (more or less) with the analysis that “Scream is self-deconstructing; it’s like one of those cans that heats its own soup.” That’s a great line.
He goes on to say: “Scream is not about the plot. It is about itself. In other words, it is about characters who know they are in a plot. These characters read Fangoria magazine. They even use movie-style dialogue.” Good point, G.O.A.T. We’ve now established the meta.
Here’s the question that lost me: “Is the violence defused by the ironic way the film uses it and comments on it? For me, it was. For some viewers, it will not be, and they will be horrified.”
So, are we forgetting Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street from a decade prior when Johnny Depp’s entire body turned to a spouting fountain of blood? What about Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with how the killers used meat hooks to hang their victims like animals for slaughter?
Scream is like a walk in a semi-well-lit park compared the gore of those two prior films.
If I’m being honest, though, he isn’t wrong: Scream is violent from start to finish, but not to the extent that it can be seen as a flaw with the film itself, especially when considering the fact that horror filmmakers (the director of Scream included) made much more morbid experiences in the decades leading up to 1996, and have continued that trend over two decades since.
His only real gripe was the gore, and how it would affect casual audiences (note: not die-hard fans). Aside from that, he didn’t hate the film. He gave it three out of four stars, in fact.
Someone who absolutely loathed the picture, however, was Janet Maslin of the New York Times.
She wrote that Craven “wants things both ways, capitalizing on lurid material while undermining it with mocking humor. Not even horror fans who can answer all this film’s knowing trivia questions may be fully comfortable with such an exploitative mix.”
For my money, if you’re hardcore enough of a horror fan that you relish the buckets-of-blood style of Craven’s past or the gruesome nature of movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, but you’re uncomfortable with the characters of Scream making light of fictional murders for the sake of comedic value and creative freedom, then yeah. Maybe stick to period pieces, or something.
Nonetheless, she felt the die-hard audience would feel some type of way, while Ebert left the theater fearful for the more casual crowd. Different analyses overall, with one similar exception: Scream is a bit too violent—or, at least, too casual with its approach to violence.
Luckily, a review by Richard Harrington of The Washington Post provides a deeper insight into both Maslin and Ebert’s assessments.
Mr. Harrington said: “Though it begins and ends with requisite bloody roughness, the film deftly mixes irony, self-reference and wry social commentary with chills and blood spills. And even to a veteran genre fan like myself, the ending was a genuine surprise.”
So that settles it, right? The die-hard fan has spoken.
Seriously, though: I obviously couldn’t agree with him more.
Freaky and Fear Street, two recent horror films (with the latter being a trilogy, actually), are about as gruesome and terrifying as you can get, and guess what? I thought those movies were great, due in large part to the fact that neither film took themselves too seriously. Scream falls wonderfully into that boat.
Of course, the reviews don’t end there. For every Richard Harrington, you have a Stephen Hunter—via The Baltimore Sun, here’s an excerpt from the latter half of his review:
“No real detective work is done,” he says. “But by the time the cast has been reduced by about three-quarters, the list of suspects is so minimal that no surprise is really possible.”
Except the point was that there were two killers instead of the ordinary psychopath who operates by himself, and whether you expected the killer to be Billy, Stu, Randy, or by some stretch of the imagination, Neil Prescott—no matter the identity you had in mind, you weren’t expecting two of them.
To end the review, he questions the actors’ decisions to star in the movie at all, saying:
“One would think that Courtney Cox would have managed to ride Friends to something better than this vehicle, but here she is, as a snippy TV reporter who thinks it’s possible for a TV talking head to win a Pulitzer Prize.”
And apparently, this dude thought it was possible for Friends to take Courtney Cox on a cross-country road trip straight to doorstep of the Academy Awards. He continues.
“… There are some other mildly advanced people appearing in low-end jobs more appropriate for entry-level performers: Neve Campbell, of Party of Five, is one such; another is Matthew Lillard, of Serial Mom. Even Drew Barrymore makes a brief appearance, though only her agent knows why.”
So, apparently in 1996, Cox, Campbell, Lillard and Barrymore were critically acclaimed movie stars with the upmost potential before starring in Scream.
I wouldn’t have expected any of this, given the perception we have of these actors today: Courtney Cox, known as the woman who played Monica on Friends, and Gale Weathers in Scream. Matthew Lillard, somewhat famous for his roles in Scooby-Doo, and, you guessed it: Scream. Neve Campbell is almost exclusively known to moviegoers today as Sidney Prescott, but she also had that one role in Wild Things, in 1998.
Then, there’s Drew Barrymore. She had great success as a child star, but her fifteen minutes of screen time as Ghostface’s first victim arguably did more for her career than every subpar Adam Sandler rom-com she decided to star in post-Craven, combined. You really can’t explain that unless her manager is the Sandman himself.
However, my biggest takeaway from Mr. Hunter’s piece materialized at the very beginning, and with it comes a trend we’ve become familiar with throughout this essay:
“Mostly, it’s the same old things: goblins in masks chasing teen-agers and the occasional grown-up through time and space without regard to logic, catching them and doing the dirty deed with six inches of cold steel. Not pleasant, if you’ve got a soft spot in your heart for human beings.”
… Until you take a solitary step back and conclude that the film overtly disregards logic for the sake of cultural commentary, and utilizes an over-aestheticism of violence as a conduit for social assessments, creating a paradox of interpretation that renders viewers unsure if the creators are mocking horror movies, or celebrating them.
I mean, the movie is directed by the King of Slashers himself. Even if the movie is poking fun at other slashers, who cares? Wes Craven didn’t, and neither should you. He crafted a piece of cinema that’s nearly impervious to negative criticism by dint of mastering a single genre to the point where the film and its characters transcend the ordinary clichés and conventions thereof.
I think he said it best in a 1997 interview: “Nobody is being led to these theaters in shackles. They can get up and leave at any time.”
With the fifth entry of the franchise releasing just two months ago—which, by the way, already has ANOTHER sequel in the works for next year—filmgoers would be remiss not to sit back and cherish the thoughtfulness, the passion, the sheer creativity that went into making this film—that is, only if those filmgoers are cool with a little bit of blood.