This post originally ran on Wednesday, October 28, 2009.
When it comes to slasher films, I only have a few favorites. I've seem dozens of them and I don't boycott the genre by any means (I save that venom for torture porn and Saw ripoffs. If you like that shit, don't try to defend it. I don't want to hear it.), but there are many, many more bad slasher films than good ones. Among the best, is 1996's Scream, written by Kevin Williamson, and directed by horror legend Wes Craven - whose A Nightmare on Elm Street is also on my "favorite slasher movies" list.
Scream pretty much single-handedly revived the teen horror genres after years when it was well out of favor. For the first time in a long time, horror was smart, scary and funny again. If it wasn't for that resurgence, you have to wonder what sort of movies the teen stars of the WB and CW would have ended up making during their hiatuses. I've read a lot of bad horror scripts that were trying to be like Scream, but few of them seem to have really deconstructed the film and made note of what really made it work. Here's what Scream really gets right:
A killer opening sequence: Granted, Craven's directing has a lot to do with this, and having a director that skilled isn't something a writer can always count on. Putting that aside, there's a lot here that's on target. A lot of horror scripts start with a three or four page kill scene that doesn't do much beyond setting up a victim and killing them off immediately. It's usually treated as a disposable scene that's just there to grab the audience and then give the writer license to spend the following 25-30 pages slowly killing time until the killer jumps out of the shadows and guts the next lowest billed character (who nine times out of ten will be the female character whom the script introduces at least a full two lines after her breasts.)
Scream's opening is a bit longer than that, and it doesn't just give us a victim and a killer. It has them interact via phone and we see the killer's MO established with clever dialogue. He asks his victims to name their favorite scary movie, setting an important tone for the killer and the movie in general - this is a movie about people who have actually seen scary movies and know all the conventions and cliches. It's a way of announcing to the audience "This isn't a film that's going to just cynically recycle the cliches - it's gonna subvert them!" (Now, whether this sort of meta humor is always a good thing is probably a topic for another column.)
As many, many reviews have been written about Scream's self-aware tone, I won't waste much more time on it. My point is that the opening sequence isn't a throwaway kill. It's crucial to the fabric of the movie beyond being a scene that shows a killer is out there.
Sharp dialogue - Here's where you probably either love Williamson or hate him. I'm firmly in the former category. The characters - especially Jamie Kennedy's Randy - are constantly referencing movies, both in terms of the horror setting and in other scenes. (In one example, a character laments that his relationship with his girlfriend is like a horror movie "edited for television" - all the good parts have come out. Every character has a distinct voice. A Randy line doesn't sound like a Billy line. Nor does a Sydney line sound like a Tatum line. I've suffered through many a horror script where Jack's lines seemed interchangeable with Ryan's, or even Jennifer's. I've also read a lot of scripts that try to imitate the Williamson (or Joss Whedon) penchant for pop culture references and you know what? Every character talks exactly the same. It's not enough to make your characters witty - they need to be distinctively witty.
(Now, sometimes the actors will make this harder for you. I remember loving Scream's dialogue, but feeling that some of Williamson's dialogue in early Dawson's Creek sounded rather clunky. Revisiting Scream post-Dawson's actually left me feeling that there wasn't THAT much difference in the dialogue, stylistically. If you listen to some of the lines in Scream, you can clearly pick up on cadences and rhythms that turn up on the TV series. So why does Dawson's sound more forced? To be blunt, the actors seem a lot less comfortable with it - especially early on. Neve Campbell and company took Williamson's words and were able to deliver them organically. In contrast, James Van Der Beek and Katie Holmes appeared to have memorized their dialogue phonetically at times.)
Great use of red herrings - Scream is a solid example of using the audiences expectations against them. From the moment it's clear that this is a whodunit, the audience is naturally going to try to outguess the film. Thus, Williamson is smart enough to not just thrown in red herrings, but use those as red herrings for further red herrings.
For example, boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) is virtually the only suspect the film points a finger at early on. Thus Mr. Smarter-Than-Everyone-Else Moviegoer is going to say, "They want me to think he's the killer, but since it's still the first half-hour of the movie, he's clearly not going to turn out to be the killer. It would be too obvious... unless that's what they want me to think. So, when Billy is arrested and then seemingly cleared, it can't be taken at face value... unless they want us to think that he's still the most likely suspect so that we won't notice it's someone else...."
That was basically my internal monologue during the entire film the first time I saw it, "It's so obvious that it can't be true, unless they're counting on me NOT to suspect the most obvious suspect!"
And don't even get me started on the debate about which glass had the iocane powder....
Anyway, I kept vacillating about the killer's identity - still casting a suspicious eye towards Billy right up until the point he got gutted in the bedroom. At that point, the audience's reaction is probably something along the lines of "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!" as they try to outguess the movie again. Even later, when Billy turned up still alive, I remember not suspecting him. After all, we saw him and the killer at the same time, right? Which leads to...
Using the audience's knowledge of the genre against them - I'm sure there are obscure counterexamples, but I can't recall a slasher film with two killers working together. Williamson knew that the audience would assume that there's only one killer to be unmasked, and because the script doesn't tip it's hand on this until the very end, certain characters seem to be accounted for at the same time the killer is shown. We're used to getting one psycho with one convoluted motivation - so most viewers were likely totally blindsided when the ending hinged on two killers working in concert with each other.
I'm not even sure if this counts as misdirection so much as it is knowing how the audience is going to interpret the unspoken clues. The best mysteries hide their solutions in plain sight. They rely not so much on deception as the audience putting themselves and their logic in a box. In this case, the "box" is "There is only one killer." We were never told this - the movie just gambled we'd assume it. Thus, Craven and Williamson haven't deceived us so much as WE have deceived ourselves. That's a lot more subtle than simply cheating by lying to the audience about what they were shown, and that's the sort of twist that keeps people talking. (See also The Sixth Sense.) A weak mystery plays out exactly how you'd expect, in the precise manner you'd expect.
So if you have never seen Scream, slip it into your movie marathons this weekend. You won't be disappointed. Yeah, I kinda blew the ending for you, but there's more than enough to keep you entertained even with that.
Plus after that, you can watch Scream 2 completely fresh. (Scream 3 isn't as strong a script, in part because Williamson is replaced by Ehren Kruger. I'd love to know what Williamson's original plan for the trilogy closer was.)