Rule #1: Sex equals death. Have sex in a slasher movie, and your fate is sealed. You’ll see your own entrails before your fly is zipped. The only safe sex is no sex. Drugs and alcohol are also no-nos. The rules are strict, but they’re for your own good, really.
Rule #2: Adults will never help you. That includes cops, parents, teachers, and other inept authority figures. They’re all clueless in the face of psychotic, supernatural evil, and they’re apparently never home anyway. If they show up at all, it’ll be during the final credits.
Rule #3: Psychotic killers always attack teenagers, mostly for the sheer ironic pleasure of slicing up someone who still believes in their own immortality. Teenagers are also easy targets because they are inherently incapable of escaping via the obvious and sensible routes, their adolescent minds being addled, primarily by thoughts of sex.
Rule #4: The boys all die (see Rule #1), and most of the girls die too, but one virginal girl always kills the monster and lives to see another sequel. Slasher movies are the first and last bastion of feminism in film.
Rule #5: Nobody in a slasher movie ever knows any of these rules.
Wes Craven isn’t one to mess with a tried and true formula. He helped invent the cliches, in fact, with A Nightmare on Elm Street, a splatter and ‘sploitation classic. In Scream, the standard slasher plot unfolds: a psychotic killer, wearing a creepy white mask that resembles Edvard Munch’s "The Scream" (one of many, many cultural references in this witty movie), is stalking the teenagers of a quiet suburban town. They die gruesome, graphically gory deaths. Here’s the twist, though: Scream violates Rule 5. These screaming teens haven’t been reared in a media vacuum like their dunderheaded precursors. They own VCRs, and they are all too aware of slasher conventions, reeling off movie refs like so many junior film critics. The killer even quizzes them on slasher classics. Does it help to know the rules? Of course not.
The terrorized teens of Woodsboro include Sidney (Neve Campbell), whose mother was brutally murdered a year earlier causing her to be sexually reluctant (a heroine in the making). Sid’s hard-up boyfriend is Billy (Skeet Ulrich), who bears a striking resemblance to Johnny Depp, who was fatally sucked into a bed in A Nightmare on Elm Street. There’s also Tatum (Rose McGowan), her goofy brother Dewey (David Arquette), a numbskull sheriff’s deputy (he’ll be no help), and Randy (Jamie Kennedy), the horny, geeky video store clerk who tutors his peers on the ways of psychos, and recognizes early on that they’re all living a real-life slasher movie (how’s that for a kaleidoscope of reflexiveness?). “If this was a scary movie, I’d be the prime suspect,” Randy confesses. Tagging along is Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), a sleazy tabloid reporter who always manages to beat the cops to a murder scene.
It’s easy to scare the uninitiated, but the challenge faced by the modern slasher film -- the genre peaked, then petered out in the 80s -- is to scare an audience that knows the rules, knows exactly what to expect, and when to expect it. Scream is scary and cathartic in all the right ways, but it also challenges the audience to a duel of wits and nerves. Craven and writer Kevin Williamson know you know, but they also know that a scary movie is like going down to the basement: you can convince yourself there’s nothing to be afraid of, but you’ll always run up the stairs with your heart pounding anyway. Craven exploits that autonomic fright mechanism even while he acknowledges it.
Scream is also bloody funny, taking every slasher convention, bleeding it dry, then adding a cheeky, viciously droll twist, a knowing wink to the audience, and just enough of a rule violation to unnerve the nerviest viewer. The killer does exactly the same thing to his hapless, seen-it-all-before victims, toying with them, letting them in on the joke before gutting them with a razor-sharp punchline. This killer takes his lumps in the process, because the savvy kids of Woodsboro, weaned on Halloween and Friday The 13th, always fight back, with blood-spattered slapstick consequences. It all works to undermine the only security left to the jaded slasher fan: the confidence that, thanks to years of watching these films, you could escape a psycho killer because you know exactly what not to do. Nothing sets off a psycho like the hubris of a know-it-all teen.
Scream is superb entertainment, a smart, witty film that’s more twisted than Norman Bates. Red herrings are as abundant as red Karo syrup, and the surprising climax simultaneously plays up and plays against all the conventions of this highly ritualized genre in a gleefully blood-soaked paean. Scream is the last word on the slasher genre, and Craven, who saw some of his best work bastardized in pro forma Nightmare sequels, gets the last laugh.