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That Moment In Scream (1996): Wrong Number Turns Deadly

REVIEW: Casey (Barrymore) gets an unexpected call, a wrong number she thinks, but it quickly becomes a little flirty, a little tempting. She hangs up and he calls again. She’s preparing some popcorn to watch a movie, alone she says at first, thinking the caller is just having fun, but that changes when he insinuates he is watching her from outside. He wants to play a game, and the stakes are suddenly very high. Strapped to a lawn chair, Casey’s boyfriend sits on the patio, the killer telling her he will die if she doesn’t answer a horror movie trivia question. When she fails a question, it’s lights out for her beau and the killer breaks into the house. A quick chase follows, but there’s no hope. Out in the yard, under the cover of dark, the killer, dressed in a ghost face Halloween costume, finds his mark and poor Casey is done for.

Dimension Films
Dimension Films

The next day, as the town deals with a media circus, high school Sidney Prescott (Campbell) contends with the one year anniversary of her own mother’s gruesome murder. Alone in her home, she receives a call, thinking a decidedly untactful friend is pranking her, though she quickly realizes it is the killer. Wearing the ghostface costume, he attacks her, though she beats him back and manages to escape into her bedroom where her boyfriend has just climbed through the window, hearing screams. As they embrace, a cell phone falls from his pocket and she thinks he is the one who called. The police arrive and he is arrested, but is released soon after as investigators shift their focus onto Sidney’s father.

Meanwhile, back at the high school, Principal Himbry (Winkler) meets his end as the masked murderer continues his rampage. School is shut down and Stu, a popular though arrogant party boy hosts a celebration at his house in honor of no classes. Intrepid reporter Gale Weathers (Cox) and a local deputy (Arquette) arrive suspecting the slasher will crash the get together and aren’t disappointed. As the victims begin to pile up, the killer’s identity remains a mystery as horror movie tropes are first ridiculed and then exploited.

Dimension Films
Dimension Films

Having fun with the slasher movie formula, Scream delivers a fresh and compelling story that keeps audiences guessing at every turn. Breaking down all expectation of what has defined the genre for decades, while still paying homage to those before it, the film is a genuine scary treat with lots of laughs and plenty of easter eggs for horror fans paying attention.

That Moment In: Scream

Setup:  Of course it’s the beginning. Casey is cooking popcorn and talking on the phone with the unknown caller. It starts out playful and turns ugly fast.

Why it matters: Scream has plenty of great scares but not one of them compares with the opening, a scene that not only shocked and surprised but has become one of the most pivotal moments in horror (or any genre for that matter) cinema. Drew Barrymore had expressed interest in the role of the main character, Sidney, and was cast right away, which helped the low budget production take off and convinced big time horror director Wes Craven to take the lead. Unfortunately, or perhaps opposite, Barrymore was unable to commit to the long shooting schedule and was cast in the minor opening scene. This was a real gamble, as killing off the biggest named actor in the film could prove costly, though Psycho had done something similar several decades later and enjoyed tremendous success. What it accomplished was something unexpected. Audiences, feeling comfortable that such a famous star would never take a role that was so limited, were more than unprepared for her early demise and it layered the film with a real sense of uncertainty as there was no telling who could die next. It is a brilliant moment.

More: The “first kill” is an important element of any slasher / horror film. It sets the tone but shouldn’t be so strong as to lessen the impact of what’s to come. The genre relies of creative kills, sometimes going to implausible extremes. With Scream, the best kill is the first kill but it does not take away from the thrills of those that follow. In fact, it remains an echo for all others and actually helps to solidify the killer’s character. Most other horror movie killers, who are mostly imbued with supernatural powers or stamina, are nearly flawless in their, well, executions. That is until they meet the “final girl“, which typically means they make some blunder that leaves them dead or caught or otherwise disposed until the next sequel. Here, we see that the killer is not specialized and is in fact a little awkward, making missteps and falling victim to unexpected, forceful defenses. It’s a trait that grows as the movie pushes forward. As the opening scene unfolds, we are convinced Casey will survive, She beats him back a few times and escapes out of the house and nearly into the arriving arms of her parents, pulling up the drive as she rounds the back yard. But that doesn’t happen, and it makes for one of the most terrifying and shocking moments in movies.

Easter eggs and homages to horror and more:

1) As Casey mentions the film Halloween on the phone, she strokes a large kitchen knife like the one Mike Myers uses to kill his victims.

2) Still with Casey, when she is being questioned about who the killer is in Halloween, the soundtrack plays a few bars of Mike Myer’s theme. You’re humming it now, aren’t you?

3) Fred the Janitor (cameoed by director Wes Craven) is dressed exactly like Freddy Kruger of the Nightmare on Elm Street series (also directed by Craven).

4) Principal Himbry, played by Henry Winkler who is best known for being Fonzie on the TV series Happy Days, checks hair in the mirror similarly to his trademark style as the Fonz.

5) In a bit of amusing forecasting, a slow ballad version (performed by Gus) of Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper (Minus cowbell! *gasp*) is playing as Sidney and Billy make out on her bed.

6) Billy Loomis is the same name as Samuel Loomis in Halloween and Sam Loomis in Psycho.

The Scream series, like so many of this ilk, withered to a waste as they were bled dry, but the original is still a fantastic, gruesome, funny and sexy slasher movie. It was a cast of young, up and coming stars that really had great chemistry together, never falling into the boring tropes of their roles, despite begin cast exactly for that reason. Rose McGowen is the big-breasted Tatum, who we all know will die because she is the epitome of that character from all others before her and she plays it to the hilt. Neve Campbell, as the virgin leading lady fits the bill perfectly and is the powerful independent girl we expect from the role, but does it better by also being smart and, in the end, kick-ass. Best of all are the two killers played by Skeet Ulrich and Matthew Lillard. We never suspect them even though the movie basically screams (sorry) that they are the ones. They are clearly having fun and it’s frightening and even a little emotional when their plans begin to unravel toward the end.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 11.49.25 PM
Dimension Films

Scream has been a tremendous influence on horror and slasher movies, even being inspiration for a successful spoof series. Full of pop-culture horror references and shredding the old tried and true formula, there are few films as fun and scary to watch. Clever and always suspenseful, culminating in a nasty, bloody climax, it never lets up and keep us guessing right from the start. And it’s the start that deserves the most praise. Terrifying and daring, it turned the whole genre upside down.



Wes Craven



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