‘Scream’ and the Art of Mocking the Horror Genre While Also Excelling at It

If you plan on watching Scream because you love Drew Barrymore then I’m very, very sorry.

Because it’s almost spooky season — well it is in my mind at least — I’m picking back up on my Film Appreciation series to talk about 1996’s Scream.

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What’s your favorite scary movie?

The plot centers around a murder mystery in a Californian town, where a killer in a Halloween mask terrorizes its victims via phone — and then knife. At the heart of Scream is high school student Sidney Prescott, whose mother’s brutal murder a year prior has made her the prime target of the “ghostface” killer.

This is a film both horror fans and enthusiasts of ironic humor will love. Although Scream appears to follow the tried and true slasher flick formula (final girl, cool-guy boyfriend, promiscuous best friend, comedic relief, masked killer stalking them all the while, yadda yadda) it actually exists as a parody of this exact formula.

To be clear, Scream is not a spoof film a la the Scary Movie franchise it inspired. Instead, Scream is a very real movie with a real storyline that happens to poke fun at other films in the genre throughout its runtime. The prime example of this, of course, is Randy.

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Randy as a character practically exists as the film’s way of breaking the fourth wall without actually doing so. Throughout Scream, Randy (the self-professed film expert) prophesizes how the situation he and his friends are in would go down in a scary movie. He oftentimes explains the “rules” of horror films, from the “only virgins survive” rhetoric to lengthy explanations of why the killer is totally the creepy boyfriend. In one scene, in the middle of a video store no less, Randy exclaims: “It’s a very simple formula! Everybody is a suspect!

And how right he would turn out to be. Scream plays with us by teasing this “everybody’s a suspect” idea — multiple times we are given hints that seem to say A-Ha! This Is Without A Doubt The Killer! And then right when it has audiences convinced, assuming we are used to these kinds of clues, Scream introduces yet another hint towards an entirely different culprit.

One of my favorite moments where Scream dictates the rules of slasher films to its audience occurs during Sidney’s first encounter with “ghostface.” Thinking at first the disguised voice on the other end of the phone is Randy, she laughingly makes a jab at scary movies after being asked the infamous line: “What’s your favorite scary movie?”

Sidney smartly replies: “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.”

Not much later Sidney finds herself being chased around the house and, unable to wrench her front door open in time, immediately runs right up the stairs — just like the final girls she so despises. It’s scenes like this that keep Scream so original.

Now, don’t go thinking Sidney is just “some big-breasted girl” with no brains. She proves herself time and time again to be a certifiable badass. This is another reason why Scream will always be so iconic — it has Sidney Prescott. The first time I watched, I knew this was a final girl I could get behind from the moment she unhesitatingly kicks the dude in the gut during her first grapple with “ghostface”.

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For the entirety of the Scream franchise, Sidney gives strong right hooks, shoots, and successfully fends off her would-be killer. For this reason, she will always be the most iconic horror movie heroine. She is undoubtedly a fighter, and you can actually see her grow tougher and more steely as the film progresses.

As for the rest of the characters making up the first film, Sidney and Randy are without a doubt the two most interesting at the start. By the end, Stu becomes the ridiculous favorite, at least in my opinion. But more on Stu Macher later.

Sidney’s boyfriend, Billy Loomis, is a grease-ball of a 90’s movie love interest who over the years seems to grow more unattractive the more I watch Scream. Billy, his libido, and his nonexistent father all exist as oppressive figures during the movie — all the inner torment of the character becoming very clear by the film’s conclusion (said ending I’ve decided I won’t spoil, just in case).

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The other primary player in the drama is Tatum Riley, Sidney’s best friend and girlfriend of the infamous Stu. She is definitely the source of many a 90s era crush, as she is played by a very blonde and very sassy Rose McGowan. The source of much of the movie’s dry humor, and also the voice of reason and comfort for Sidney at times, Tatum is an interesting character who I wish Scream hadn’t been so afraid to explore deeper.

Her brother is the town deputy, a bumbling and loveable cop named Dewey. He has a massive crush on local reporter Gale Weathers, who has the countenance of a hard-boiled egg. I enjoy her ego and ruthless nature, though, particularly how well it balances with Dewey’s childlike morals. Seeing Gale descend into the bloody final showdown in Scream is always a fun time as well, as you see her ramrod-straight all-business style turn into a much more human (yet still ruthless as hell) character.

And, finally, Stu Macher. He’s Billy’s best friend and owner of the genre-staple: a massive, conveniently parent-free house in which the final action must take place. Stu is quite a creature, described by Randy as Billy’s lap dog and seeming to have no real defining characteristics of his own besides this. However, his oddball sense of humor is washed away by the end to reveal how deep this quirkiness really goes; he proceeds to give my absolute favorite performance by a side character in a horror film. Ever. If you are only familiar with the actor from the 2000s Scooby-Doo series as Shaggy then this scene will be double the thrill for you. Seriously, enjoy.

All of these characters fit some scary movie archetype or another, as mentioned before. Only Randy seems fully aware of this, and almost communicates directly to the audience as all his friends continue to ignore him. He’s just the movie fanatic, after all. However, the guiding idea in the movie becomes clear towards its resolution, and it is a haunting echo of Randy’s rants:

Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!

To understand what this really means, for those who have yet to watch Scream, you’ll have to have yourself a special Halloween viewing of your own. For everyone else, is this not the most chilling moment? Where Sidney’s disbelief and horror are felt so clearly in the audience as the mystery is solved?

Do yourselves a favor and fully break into the spooky season — watch (or re-watch) Scream and think about the ways it mimics the horror genre. But also look at how it absolutely kills (ha) at creating suspense of its own and how masterfully entertaining it is. You won’t be disappointed.

So, what’s your favorite scary movie? Comment it here.

-Kendall

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