In a world where every story has been told a thousand times and slasher movies have been a cliched joke for about a decade, everyone was certain there was no way someone could make a fresh and original horror movie. Horror-master, Wes Craven, proved them all wrong.
Welcome to the later half of the 90s. A time that saw self-awareness and meta-humor run rampant in the world of film and television, and Scream was one of the reasons why. One year before Joss Whedon made himself and his brand of humor known to the world with Buffy The Vampire Slayer (the show that is) Wes Craven reinvented himself and the slasher film with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor and winks to the audience about "the rules of a horror film."
Rule 24: Stay away from this man (Seriously, Hostel was garbage)
The film opens as Casey Becker, a high-school age girl sits at home making Jiffy Pop one night. She receives a phone call from a rather flirtatious stranger who seems to have the wrong number...until he lets slip that he's watching her in her own house. Soon Casey is forced to play a game of horror movie trivia in order to save the life of her boyfriend who she discovers tied to a chair on her back porch. After answering a question incorrectly (It was Mrs. Voorhees that was the killer in Friday the 13th, always remember that) her boyfriend Steve is killed and the man on the phone has now turned his attention on murdering Casey as well. A chase and a struggle leads to Casey being stabbed to death outside her house as her parents return home and listen to their daughter dying over the phone line. Mrs. Becker walks outside and discovers her daughter, gutted and hanging from a tree in their front yard.
The film than shifts focus onto Sidney Prescott, another high-school-age girl living in Woodsboro, California. Sidney, her boyfriend Billy, and their friends Tatum (the sex pot), Stu (the hyperactive loud-mouth), and Randy (the film nerd) are all classmates of Casey and Steve's and their school has turned into a media circus after the story of their murders gets out. Sidney, however, is no stranger to press and murder seeing as her mother was brutally killed the year before by a man she was having an affair with. Sidney is soon attacked and thinks Billy is behind it, leading to his arrest.
He is soon released when clues point to Sid's father being a suspect. In the wake of the killings, the Westboro High School suspends all classes and in celebration of no school Sidney's friend Stu decides to throw a party at his house (they celebrate a tragedy because it got them out of school...wow). At the party Sidney makes amends with Billy and they have make-up-sex in an upstairs bedroom. Meanwhile, Gale Weathers, a tabloid journalist with a sordid history with Sidney's family, catches wind of the party and believes that if a serial killer was going to show up anywhere it would be at a high school party. Gale is dead right (wink) as the Ghost Face killer makes an appearance, and the bodies start piling up.
No, the other one.
It's here that Scream takes a turn that separates it from all the other slasher films it both pokes fun at and pays homage to, and here why I picked it for this list. Up until this point in the film many characters have pointed out the fact that all the events and kills are playing out exactly like they would in a slasher film and even make mention of cliches such as "running upstairs instead of out the front door" moments before they actually occur. For two out of three acts Scream is nothing more than nudge in the audiences ribs while saying "remember all these things you've noticed about horror movies? Aren't they so dumb?" In the third act, the film takes a life of it's own by breaking away from all the cliches and meta-humor and bringing a fresh twist to the story. There are actually two killers, and Billy IS one of them. Billy reveals that not only is he not dead but he faked it and both he and Stu have been working together committing the murders.
It was this reveal of the film that showed horror films, especially slasher films, weren't dead yet. While franchises like Halloween and Friday the 13th went for more supernatural elements to spice up their franchises (ancient family-killing cults and super-human zombie tanks were the norm for slasher films by this time) while Craven, who was also the creator of the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise felt true terror could be found with regular people. Well, people with violent mental illnesses at least. Billy Loomis is a quintessential sociopath. Everything he does is carefully crafted to be exactly what he wants everyone to see him as. The brooding and lonely romantic he seems to be is entirely crafted in order to lull Sidney into a false sense of security so that he can sleep with her and take her virginity. You may wonder why this matters, but it's because of Billy's M.O. Billy has decided the only way to be an effective murderer is to follow the rules of the only killers he has access to, the ones in horror films. A major cliche of horror films, especially slashers, is that the virgin is the one that always lives to the end and defeats the killer. By taking Sidney's virginity Billy has solidified in his twisted plan that it is okay to kill her. Stu on the other hand is a psychopath, his symptoms are more based in impulse than planning, and therefore makes the perfect lackey to be used in Billy's plan. While Stu sees himself as an equal partner in the plan, it's only because Billy knows he has to make Stu think that in order for Stu to go along. Billy's control over Stu is solidified in one of the most disturbing scenes in the film when Billy and Stu take turns stabbing each other in order to carry out framing Sidney's father for the killings. It's obvious with all of his excitement and talk Stu is not prepared for just how much getting stabbed is going to hurt and takes it out on Billy by stabbing him deeper than planned. At this point Billy decides to show Stu who is in charge by demanding the knife back so he can stab Stu several more times. Billy obviously has the control in their relationship, but it is Stu that is honestly the more frightening of the two.
When Sidney demands to know why the two of them killed all these people Billy claims his father's affair with Sidney's mother led to his mother abandoning their family and killed Sidney's mother in a fit of revenge, framing the new man she was sleeping with. "Abandonment leads to serious deviant behavior." It's in this scene that Billy also states that movies are always scarier when a killer has no motive to his killings. That's the key, Stu is never truly given a motive. When Billy reveals the abandonment motive Stu didn't even know about this part, he and Sidney both react in surprise to this story. Stu had just been along for the ride of re-enacting horror films by killing people. Later when Sidney turns the tables on the two of them and asks Stu his motive he gives his reasoning as "peer pressure, I'm far too sensitive." While some could argue that Stu means this as a motive of helping Billy due to the sob story about his mother, the problem is he never knew that story. Instead this is Stu still making jokes even while bleeds to death internally, another testament to just how psychotic he truly is. Stu Macher may actually be one of the most terrifying characters in modern horror. Yes, I will type that again. Stu Macher, the loud mouth jackass played by Matthew Lillard is one of the most frightening characters in modern horror.
Like, ZOINKS, man.
Scream will always be remembered as the movie that re-invented the slasher film and made self-awareness in horror common place. The characters were goofy and overly cliched for the purpose of being goofy and overly cliched, but what most other films that tried to capitalize on it's success, including it's own sequel (because face it, these days there has to be a sequel, baby!) was the fact that Billy and Stu were already crazy and carried out their murders because of that fact. Every film afterward played on the idea of killers who saw how much media attention the events of the first movie got and copied it in an attempted to get famous...which I guess is actually a pretty genius meta-joke on sequels themselves. Way to go, Scream franchise...or at least Scream 2.