In the ’80s, splatterific teen horror movies were as unavoidable as garden weeds. One after another, they popped up in the multiplexes, perpetually recycling the masked killers, softcore-sexpot victims, and ”Who will be the next to die?” formulas of Halloween, Friday the 13th, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Poised on the knife edge between parody and homage, Wes Craven’s Scream is a deft, funny, shrewdly unsettling tribute to such slasher-exploitation thrillers as Terror Train, New Year’s Evil, and Craven’s own A Nightmare on Elm Street. In the dazzling opening sequence, Drew Barrymore, a teenager alone in her parents’ house, is menaced by a stalker who keeps calling her up on the telephone. We’ve seen this bit before, but Craven gooses the tension with lurid finesse, and he throws in a wild card: The killer discombobulates Drew by forcing her to answer trivia questions about…teen horror films. Moments later, he pops out of the shadows. His mask, with its melting white ghost face, suggests a plastic version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” and though we can see it’s just a Halloween costume, that mask has the eerie effect of reflecting the victim’s — and the audience’s — fear right back at it.
Knife murders, high school girls in tight sweaters, ”surprise” blasts of white-knuckle fear music — Scream revives the slasher films of the Reagan era in all their gruesomely ritualized glory. There’s one crucial difference, though: The teenagers in Scream have been raised on endless VCR replays of those very same films. And so the sudden appearance of a mad killer becomes a case of life imitating schlock. Sidney (Neve Campbell), the virginal heroine, her hard-up boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich), and their clique of pals have such intricate knowledge of the formulas of grade-Z horror that when those formulas start to come alive, it confirms their worst fears. They now have to outsmart their own video-zapped fantasies.
The first teen horror film comparable to both Psycho and Clueless, Scream uses its hall-of-mirrors self-referentiality as a source of comedy and vise-tightening suspense. ”If this were a scary movie,” declares Randy (Jamie Kennedy), the geeky video-store clerk, ”I’d be the prime suspect!” Indeed, and the fact that he can joke about it doesn’t mean he’s not the killer. I seriously doubt that Scream will spark a splatter-movie revival, but anyone who has ever shuddered into their popcorn at the sight of a kitchen knife dripping Karo-syrup blood will have a fine time watching Wes Craven, who has turned out almost nothing but duds since A Nightmare on Elm Street, rediscover his craft with this inspired wink at the cliches he helped invent.