While certainly not the first meta-movie, an argument could be made that Scream has been the most influential – it’s a slasher film about slasher films. The thrilling opening, in which a big-breasted blonde (Drew Barrymore) receives a phone call from a man eerily inquiring, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it is one of the smartest and scariest horror sequences of all-time, full of wry in-jokes and genuine gory terror; a curse in that the first 10 minutes of a four film franchise stand as its greatest moment.
Although Wes Craven’s status as a horror director is undeniably legendary, it is really screenwriter Kevin Williamson who shines here. Craven wrings taut suspense out of scenes written with tongue firmly in cheek, and also creates some visually interesting (and hilarious) horror movie parallels; his work is to be applauded. Regardless, scenes such as one in a video rental store where two characters use classic slasher films as evidence for their respective “whodunit” arguments, betray the sheer brilliance of Williamson’s writing. There are numerous in-jokes to Craven’s filmography, discussions about Jamie Lee Curtis’ status as the virgin girl in all of her films, and even Skeet Ulrich (the male lead) doing a pitch-perfect impression of Johnny Depp circa 1984.
Scream’ s consistent wit and tension aren’t the only inventive aspects of the picture. Here, the killer (the now-iconic Ghostface) isn’t a slow moving supernatural stalker a-la Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. Sure, as all psychopath slasher villains, he is always situated in the perfect spot for maximum scream inducement, but there’s no supernatural element here. It breaks the rules. Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the protagonist, comes under attack in the first act. Ghostface primes his attack, gives his hilariously spooky phone calls, and then strikes. Occasionally he misses. Craven captures the thrill of the chase, shooting both predator and prey sprinting up the steps. The resulting chase scenes are low on jump scares but high on terror. Scream simultaneously embraces and subverts the slasher genre, and its influence is still felt twenty years later, although none of have bested it. When asked, in a gravelly voice, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” millions of horror fans would grin and say, “Scream!” It’s not a bad answer.