Casey (Drew Barrymore) is planning on spending a quiet night in with a scary movie when the telephone rings. It's a wrong number, so she hangs up, but then the caller rings once more; every time she hangs up he calls again, becoming increasingly aggressive, especially after he reveals he is watching Casey through the windows of her isolated house in the country. The biggest revelation comes when Casey sees her boyfriend tied up and bloody outside on the patio, and when she gets one of the caller's horror movie quiz questions wrong, the boyfriend is disembowelled. Now Casey has to fight for her life, because there's a psychopathic killer loose in the community of Woodsboro - you know, like in one of those scary movies?
Scream was scripted by Kevin Williamson, and represented a return to major box office success by horror movie maestro Wes Craven which, although essentially the same thing he'd been getting away with for years, had a new twist: a knowing, self-referential sense of humour that had emerged in New Nightmare. Every slasher movie convention is alluded to, not in a simple homage, but as an integral part of the plot, so the heroine is a virginal girl who makes it to the end, the killer is a knife-wielding masked madman whose motives are unimportant, and the rest of the characters are either suspects or victims, and sometimes both. The film positively revels in the clichés - it has no shame.
Our final girl is Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), whose mother was murdered in a frenzied attack almost a year ago. She believes the killer to have been rightfully convicted, but the hardnosed TV reporter who covered the case, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), is not so sure, and when the double murder of Casey and her boyfriend occurs, Gale dives in looking for an angle on the story that includes Sidney. Gale is in luck, because the next person to be terrorised by the killer is Sidney, who was alone in her house when her father was away on business, but she manages to fend him off just as her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) arrives on the scene.
But Billy arrived suspiciously quickly, and he could have been making the crank calls, so he is whisked away into custody. The red herrings come thick and fast: could the killer be Stu (a hyperactive Matthew Lillard), the boyfriend of Sidney's best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan)? Or how about Randy (Jamie Kennedy), a horror movie buff who knows a little too much about the way the plot is going? Is Tatum's brother Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) as harmless as he seems? And why hasn't Sidney's father been in touch? The only thing more conspicuous than the suspects are the horror movie references, which ground the film in a disreputable tradition with undisguised glee.
Cheekily thumbing its nose at the notion that horror movies turn people psychotic by taking the idea to its extreme, Scream also runs the danger of being too clever for its own good. Although it's strength is that it flatters the audience into being in on the joke, it doesn't shy away from the nasty suspense sequences, but if you're at an ironic distance from the characters who are equally sardonic about their predicament, you don't care much about whether they live or die, it's all about the sensational thrills. Fortunately, Sidney doesn't find the situation as exciting as her contemporaries as she's the daughter of a victim, and Williamson wisely lets her remain a concerned, level-headed centre of the action.
The success of Scream was a double edged sword in that it made horror movies cool again, but also led to the steady stream of homages, remakes and rip offs, good as well as bad. And not many of them had Scream's wit or could back up the shocks with the same "did you get the gag?" intelligence, so now the inspiration of this film looks pretty hackneyed itself, after seeming so fresh back in 1996. Even the three sequels were guilty of being retreads, and the shrewdness of the original was rarely repeated. Still, you shouldn't blame the much-maligned Scream for the lazy film making it spawned, because some of those successors have been gems. And the opening scene is a real attention grabber, unforgettably setting the stage for a genre renaissance. Music by Marco Beltrami.