Roger Ebert Home


Wes Craven's “Scream” violates one of the oldest rules in moviehistory: It's about characters who go to the movies. They've even heard ofmovie stars. They refer by name to Tom Cruise, Richard Gere, Jamie Lee Curtis.They analyze motivations (“Did Norman Bates have a motive? Did Hannibal Lecterhave a reason for wanting to eat people?”) True, they went to the movies in “TheLast Picture Show” and the heroes of “Clerks” worked in a video store. EvenBonnie and Clyde went to the movies. But those movies were about the *act* ofgoing to the movies. “Scream” is about *knowledge* of the movies: Thecharacters in “Scream” are in a horror film, and because they've seen so manyhorror films, they know what to do, and what not to do. “Don't say 'I'll beright back,' “one kid advises a friend, “because whenever anybody says that,he's *never* right back.” In a way, this movie was inevitable. A lot of modernfilm criticism involves “deconstruction” of movie plots. “Deconstruction” is anacademic word. It means saying what everybody knows about the movies in wordsnobody can understand. “Scream” is self-deconstructing; it's like one of thosecans that heats its own soup.

Insteadof leaving it to the audience to anticipate the horror clichés, the characterstalk about them openly. “Horror movies are always about some big-breasted blondwho runs upstairs so the slasher can corner her,” says a character in “Scream.”“I hate it when characters are that stupid.” The movie begins, of course, witha young woman (Drew Barrymore) at home alone. She gets a threatening phone callfrom an evil Jack Nicholson sound-alike. She is standing in front of patiodoors with the dark night outside. She goes into a kitchen where there are lotsof big knives around. You know the drill.

Later,we meet another young woman (Neve Campbell). Her father has left for theweekend. Her mother was murdered...why, exactly a year ago tomorrow! Herboyfriend climbs in through the window. At high school, rumors of cult killingscirculate. The killer wears a spooky Halloween costume named “Father Death.”There are more phone calls, more attacks. The suspects include the boyfriend,the father, and a lot of other people. A nice touch: The high school principleis The Fonz.

Allof that is the plot. “Scream” is not about the plot. It is about itself. Inother words, it is about characters who *know* they are in a plot. Thesecharacters read Fangoria magazine. They even use movie-style dialogue: “I wasattacked and nearly filleted last night.” The heroine has been rejecting herboyfriend's advances, and just as well: As another character points out,virgins are never victims in horror films. Only bad boys and girls get slashedto pieces. Realizing they're in the midst of a slasher plot, the characters talkabout who could play them: “I see myself as sort of a young Meg Ryan. But withmy luck, I'll get Tori Spelling.” The movie itself, for all of its ironicin-jokes, also functions as a horror film--a bloody and gruesome one, that usesas many clichés as it mocks.

Oneold standby is the scene where someone unexpectedly enters the frame,frightening the heroine, while a sinister musical chord pounds on thesoundtrack. I love these scenes, because (a) the chord carries a message ofdanger, but (b) of course the unexpected new person is always a harmlessfriend, and (c) although we can't see the newcomer because the framing is sotight, in the real world the frightened person would of course be able to seethe newcomer all the time.

Themovie is also knowledgeable about the way TV reporters are portrayed in horrorfilms. The reporter this time, played by Courteney Cox of “Friends,” askswonderful questions, such as “How does it feel to almost be the victim of aslasher?” Savvy as she is, she nevertheless suggests to a local deputy thatthey shouldn't drive to an isolated rural setting when it's a nice night towalk down a deserted country road in the dark while a slasher is loose.

Whatdid I think about this movie? As a film critic, I liked it. I liked the in-jokesand the self-aware characters. At the same time, I was aware of the incrediblelevel of gore in this film. It is *really* violent.

Isthe violence defused by the ironic way the film uses it and comments on it? Forme, it was. For some viewers, it will not be, and they will be horrified.

Whichcategory do you fall in? Here's an easy test: When I mentioned Fangoria, didyou know what I was talking about?

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Now playing

After Death
The Pigeon Tunnel
Who We Become
American Symphony
Against the Tide

Film Credits

Scream movie poster

Scream (1996)

Rated R Violence, Gore, Language, Sexuality

100 minutes


Neve Campbell as Sidney

Courteney Cox as Gale Weathers

Jamie Kennedy as Randy

David Arquette as Dewey

Matthew Lillard as Stuart

Drew Barrymore as Casey

Written by

Directed by

Latest blog posts


comments powered by Disqus