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Go Ahead and 'Scream'

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 20, 1996

The best fright fest of the ’90s, Wes Craven’s "Scream" playfully tweaks many of the horror/ slasher conventions in place since the arrival of "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" in the mid-’80s, but it does so with a fiendishly clever, complicated plot that makes it an instant classic, and not simply of the genre. 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.

Credit veteran director Craven and a newcomer, scriptwriter Kevin Williamson: Like the teen characters in "Scream," they are intimately familiar with genre conventions but are not slaves to them.

You get a sense of the wild ride ahead from the opening sequence in which a teenager (Drew Barrymore in the Jamie Lee Curtis "Halloween" mold) is tested over the phone -- at first chummily, then suddenly meanly -- by a phantom psycho caller who quizzes her about slasher movies. "If you answer correctly, you live," he warns. She doesn’t and Craven unleashes a living, knife-wielding nightmare who wears black robes and sports an Edvard Munch-"Scream"-like death mask that’s truly unsettling.

This little California town seems to be inhabited mostly by teenagers, including Sidney (Neve Campbell from "Party of Five"). Seems Sidney’s mom had been slashed to death a year ago, and her testimony had sent the killer to death row. Now Sidney’s on the killer’s kill waiting list. Soon after she survives an attack, who should come crawling in her bedroom window but boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich). Arrested by the police, Billy is simply the first of many suspects, including tabloid TV journalist Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), Deputy Dewey Reilly (David Arquette), belligerent teen rebel Stuart (Matthew Lillard) and video shop employee Randy (Jamie Kennedy). As always, the line between suspect and victim is membrane thin.

The irony of "Scream" is that all its characters seem conversant with slasher film conventions. "To successfully survive a horror movie, you have to abide by the rules," Randy reminds a group of teens gathered at an isolated farm house for a celluloid slasher fest. "You can never have sex: The minute you do, you’re as good as gone. Sex equals death. Never drink or do drugs: It’s an extension of the first. And never, ever say ‘I’ll be right back . . ..’ "

SCREAM (R) -- Contains violence and gore.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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