Monday, April 11, 2011

Scream's Sidney Prescott: Horror's greatest heroine

I'm anticipating this week's release of Scream 4 with equal measures of excitement and trepidation. I've said before that the original Scream is not only my favorite horror movie, it's one of my all-time favorite movies, period. In fact, it's pretty much the movie that made me a horror fan. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and you have to remember that that was a period where a proliferation of inferior sequels really tarnished the genre. The endless Friday the 13ths might have made a decent amount of money, but they and their kind really contributed to the perception that horror films were mindless, bloody and exploitative affairs. There wasn't much respect for that genre in general.

So as I was becoming "movie aware" right in the middle of this trend, Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers held no appeal for me. Slice and dice affairs weren't my kind of movie, and it's not as if the latter chapters in those franchises and their imitators offered much counterarguement to the notion that those films were trash. I remember the hype over Freddy's death, even though I had zero interest in the film, though I do recall being intrigued when I heard the following sequel took place in "the real world" and actually commented on the horror genre. I still wasn't intrigued enough to go see it though.

And then came Scream - which I initially dismissed as more trash. (Yes, even at sixteen I was a movie snob.) I don't think I even saw it until a few months after its release and I was instantly a fan because it was such a smart film. It was a horror movie for people who were smarter than the genre. If you haven't read it yet, check out my post on what you can learn from the original Scream. Scream 2 continued that tradition, and even though I was largely disappointed by Scream 3, it was still better than many of the imitators. So it's a given that I'm going to be there for the opening of Scream 4.

However, my trepidation comes from the concern that this time they might actually kill Sidney (Neve Cambpell.) I've spoken about this fear before, so I don't want to repeat myself too much. Instead, I want to talk about the impact of Sidney Prescott.

Back in college, I ran what was basically a half-hour teen drama that was intended to air on our school's fledgling cable network. (The network itself ended up crashing and burning, but that's beside the point.) I quickly decided that one of my central characters had to be an assertive female character. As I developed the character, like most writers, I found myself using a shorthand to describe her, citing other influences.

Remember, this is 2000, the height of the WB and after many, many assertive, strong, and/or ass-kicking heroines had invaded pop culture. So did I compare my lead to Buffy Summers? Joey Potter? Jen Lindley? Felicity? Angela Chase? Those were the leading teen heroines of that day, but they weren't my point of reference.

No. Without hesitation I picked Sidney Prescott, who was not only horror's greatest heroine, but possibly one of the strongest modern teen females ever created. She's perhaps the best-realized version of the girl-next-door turned heroine. When she takes on the killer, she doesn't have the advantage of super powers, cool weapons or military training (ala Buffy, Ripley, or Sydney Bristow.) She's also got her shit together a lot better than some of the WB female leads of the day, who tended towards mopeyness, martyrdom, and wallowing in their own baggage.

Yes, like most heroines, she's got some issues from a dead parent, but unlike say Lana Lang or Joey Potter, those issues don't DEFINE her. The wound is there, but it's not stopping her from interacting normally with her friends and it doesn't feel like she uses every conversation as an excuse to pick at that scab. She has friends, she's well-adjusted and she's generally likable. You get the sense you could carry on a conversation with young Sidney, and not once get the urge to smack her, or feel like she's making it all about herself.

I'm aware she's a descendant of Nightmare on Elm Street's Nancy and Halloween's Laurie, but I feel she is a successor that improves on the original. They're both icons in their own right, but Sidney is a better-realized character in my opinion.

(So yeah, I'll cop to the fact that when I was in high school, I totally would have gone for the Sidney Prescott type. It was my bad luck we really didn't have any in my class. However, I honestly think that every female lead I've written owes a lot to the impression Sidney Prescott made on my teenage brain.)

Better still, when the time comes, she actually uses her head. She's blindsided by the reveal of the killer, but the plot doesn't turn her into an idiot to pull this off. She makes questionable choices, but not stupid ones and it never feels like the script makes her brain-dead for the sake of advancing the plot. She's smart, she's likable, and she's emotionally mature, which is sadly kind of rare in teen characters, male and female.

But the real reason I think Sidney is horror's strongest heroine is who she becomes in the sequel. After all she's been through, she's still strong enough to not let it get her down. Her mother's been murdered, her friends have been killed and she herself narrowly escaped that same fate. That'd be enough trauma to turn anyone into a basket case, but no, she goes off to college, she has a social life, and she's almost jaded about the prank phone calls she gets.

Sidney is no victim. And she's got her shit together. It's part of her past, and ONLY when it's clear that someone is actively stalking her does she really let it get to her and mess with her mind.

This is partially why I'm less of a fan of Scream 3. Not only is Sidney's participation greatly reduced, but the character herself is shown to be living in seclusion, shutting herself off from society and people in general. I get that some of that was done to accommodate the fact that Neve Campbell only could work some 20 days on the film, but it's frustrating to see that in between parts 2 and 3, the killer essentially beat Sidney and drove her into hiding. Even though the "real" Sidney seems to reassert herself by the end of the film, I had a hard time recognizing the Sidney we rediscover early on as the same girl from the first two films.

In Scream 4, I hope to see more of the character who was the emotional core of the first two films. I'm sure the younger characters will dominate in terms of screentime, but even if Sidney's role is as limited as, say, Leonard Nimoy's in J.J. Abram's Star Trek, as long as the character is true to herself, I'll be happy.

And yes, it would be a shame if the film featured Sidney's death, but if the character has to die, I hope it's handled in a way that honors the character, and is a worthy death in some way. Kevin Williamson, Wes Craven and Neve Campbell have created one of the genres best characters, and it would be unfortunate to see that tarnished by an undignified exit. However, I have faith that these players wouldn't have teamed up again after so long if they didn't feel as strongly about honoring the character as I do.


  1. YES. This whole post is pretty much accurate to my own feelings on both the original Scream films and Sidney's character. It was one of the key films that started me writing my own scripts. These films develop almost everyone so well that you hate to see them die (I had a major problem with the opening kill of 3, because I maintain that character and thier progression was a highlight of Scream 2, and a happily ever after should have been allowed) I couldn't relax on Scream 3 the first time all the way through, lest Sidney suddenly get offed for a twist's sake, which is why the final shots of the film are actually brilliant - the open door is just peace of mind and not a setup.

    I'm looking forward to 4, but I'm worrying for Sidney. A lot.

  2. This comment has SPOILERS for Scream 4, so don't read it if you haven't seen the film!

    These are both great posts about Scream 4. I was really quite shocked when none of the original 3 were killed...I personally thought Gail was a goner in the barn scene...and then thought Sid was dead at the end but they kept on truckin'! Do you think the film would've had more of an impact had one of them died though? Craven and Williamson (and the studio!) haven't said no to a 5...but where can they possibly go now? Williamson claims to have ideas for 5 and 6...but when will it be too much? And what is the liklihood that Sid can survive TWO more films?

    Yikes. Either way - I love this series so, so much! I wish the box office picked up a little more in the states, but here's to hoping there are more films ahead. Even a less-than-stellar Scream film (3) is way better than any other horror pic.

    If you get a second, check out my review:

  3. Yeah, the box office probably wasn't where Dimension was hoping it would be in order to justify another sequel. I'm also of the opinion that a fifth Scream isn't worth doing unless they get Craven, Williamson and Campbell back. At the moment, Williamson's a busy man so I don't know how likely that combination is.

    Good review!

  4. Sidney WAS going to die, finally, in part 4. But due to the Weinsteins unneccessary meddling with the script that didn't happen, sadly..