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Retro Review: ‘Scream’ (1996) mocks and embraces the classic slasher tropes

Emma Liu

This article is part of the “Retro Review” series. Each month, four films — united by a singular theme — are assessed. The theme for October 2023 is “slasher.”

“My mom and dad are going to be so mad at me!”

In the first of four classic slasher film reviews for the spookiest month of the year, Wes Craven’s “Scream” doesn’t redefine the subgenre, but it is a fantastic reflection on the cliches and tropes that plague slashers and horror films alike. 

A “Scream” review wouldn’t be right without acknowledging that first scene. It’s an entire movie in itself. Casting Drew Barrymore as Casey only to give her a mere eight minutes of screen time could be seen as a questionable choice due to her stardom, but it paid off. With multiple killings within that first sequence, viewers are immediately put on edge, shocked by the mangled corpses on display. The popcorn popping, the killer killing, the tropes troping and the cliches clicheing … it’s got it all! 

As the film emphasizes later on, it’s a whole lot scarier when people don’t know a killer’s motives, and this is a great example, as the murderers never reveal their reasoning for slaughtering the innocent girl and her boyfriend. A tone-setter for the rest of the film, this opening sequence is famous for a reason, and that’s because it’s simply fantastic.

After these Woodsboro High students are killed, the town and school are put on edge. This doesn’t deter Stu (Matthew Lillard) though, as he decides to throw a party and invites his teenage friends Sidney (Neve Campbell), Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Tatum (Rose McGowan), among others. What follows is classic slasher chaos. 

There are plenty of standout characters, whether they are ones viewers want to cheer for or ones that are … ridiculous. The most fascinating character, though, is Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox). Gale is a famous local TV reporter who is insensitive and desperate to beat everyone standing in her way. From the jump, it’s clear that she’s preoccupied with her image and popularity and also doing whatever it takes to get the best story possible. She’s not thinking much about the kids and the dire situation at hand, to say the least. 

She treats her cameraman terribly, gets in Sidney’s face nonstop in the pursuit of more information and uses Dewey (David Arquette), Tatum’s brother and a cop, to snoop on the party that descends into madness. She gets thrown into the chaos and is nearly killed, and nearly redeems herself, too, at the end. 

However, even after partially saving the day, the ending scene shows Gale immediately back at her reporter duties, beginning to tell viewers at home what went down. It’s a great instance of a character who, though annoying to some viewers, is necessary, as they provide other forms of entertainment, more reasons to root for the protagonists, and in this case, one heck of a character arc.

The film is extremely self-aware, and because of that, it’s able to use classic moments popularized across many slasher movies for humor and scares alike. There’s plenty of dramatic irony in referencing these moments, such as when film nerd Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) is watching the 1978 film “Halloween.” He speaks to the television set, demanding that Jamie Lee Curtis’ character turn around to face the killer. Meanwhile, Randy, unbeknownst to him, has a different masked killer right behind him. 

There are also quick, less important moments that leave a mark, such as when Fred the Janitor, played by director Wes Craven dressed just like Freddy Krueger, makes a brief appearance. It is not an example of a trope, but a playful and light reference to the horror genre among the gore and terror.

Making fun of these moments that pop up in most slashers, and even most horror movies, is a blast for the viewer, but what Craven does so well with the original “Scream” is that he embraces these moments and uses them within the film. Randy making fun of Jamie Lee Curtis’ character for not turning around is something that every movie lover has done when watching a horror or slasher.

“Why would you do that?”

“Why would you pick that phone up?”

“They’re right behind you!” 

Many decisions by characters can come across as incredibly stupid to viewers, but it’s a vital, definitive aspect of the genre. The heightened anxiety by viewers’ frustration with the on-screen characters is ideal for the film and the audience, and not to mention, it’s enjoyable to just make fun of the characters. It keeps people coming back because, even though it’s downright frustrating to see the outlandish decisions that these characters make 95% of the time, it’s so entertaining.

To say that the original “Scream” has stood the test of time would be an understatement. What started as an uber-popular 90s hit — an achievement in itself — turned into one of the most successful horror franchises of all time. With five sequels as of 2023, the franchise ranks as the eighth highest-grossing among horror franchises. There isn’t a Halloween that goes by where one doesn’t see at least 10 people donning the infamous Ghostface mask worn by the killers in the franchise. With a self-aware and genius recipe, the “Scream” franchise continues to reap the benefits of its 1996 original, proving that Craven’s premier installment is one of the most important horror films to date.

About the Contributor
Emma Liu
Emma Liu, Deputy Design Editor
Emma Liu is a second-year behavioral neuroscience and design major. She is currently working as the deputy design editor for The News. Originally from Philadelphia, Emma loves to collect sonny angels, volunteer at local orgs and find good food in her free time.
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