Scream (Wes Craven)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

I must confess that I shed no tears when the slasher movie died an ignominious death about half a dozen years or so ago; with the exception of John Carpenter's creepy exercise in nervous anticipation, Halloween, I'd found the genre dreary and revolting, little more than a primer in the creative perforation of the human (usually female) body. Scream, a reasonably clever meta-slasher film written by Kevin Williamson and directed by horror maestro Wes Craven (Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street), uses the trite conventions and inherent limitations of its predecessors to its advantage, demonstrating a giddy reflexivity not seen since The Player. It's the same tired premise -- attractive, horny teens are methodically executed one by one in the latest designer methods -- but the characters in Scream are savvy enough to understand that they're living in a cheesy slasher film...and what's more, they spend a lot of their time talking about the fact that they're living in a cheesy slasher film, excitedly discussing (and then inexplicably ignoring) the tried-and-true rules for survival. All this analysis makes for a relatively tame viewing experience, as this kind of picture goes -- apart from a bravura opening sequence featuring Drew Barrymore, Scream provokes few screams -- but I nonetheless found its deconstruction of the genre more gripping and entertaining than most of the "texts" to which it refers. The film is also unique in being as much a murder mystery as a hack-'em-up; the latter usually features a faceless Creature who represents pure evil (Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason), but we're encouraged to believe that the psychopath in Scream, who wears a cheap but nonetheless chilling Halloween mask that calls to mind Edvard Munch's famous and similarly-titled sketch, is one of the main characters. This guessing-game element further distances the audience from the violence and mayhem (was it Professor Plum in the garage with the electric hedge clippers?), which seems entirely in keeping with the uncommonly introspective tone; unfortunately, the answer, when revealed, is less than satisfying, not least because I guessed part of it in advance. Still, an unexpected pleasure, from a director who hadn't made a film I'd wanted to see since The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1988. The young cast -- including The Craft's Neve Campbell, The Doom Generation's Rose McGowan, and Johnny Depp doppelgänger Skeet Ulrich -- is uniformly competent.