Scream opens with a phone ringing. A radiant blonde answers. Her name is Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore), and she's about to die. The unknown man on the phone asks her what she's doing. The conversation builds until the man admits that he's watching her. Then he reveals her boyfriend - bound and gagged - on her floodlit patio. The man says he won't kill Casey's boyfriend if she takes his quiz about horror movies. A tearful Casey agrees. She knows Michael Myers is the killer in Halloween, but she forgets that the killer in Friday the 13th was not Jason; it was in fact Jason's mother, Mrs. Voorhees. The error leads to a life-or-death assault that climaxes with an unforgettable single shot, where the killer (clad in the now-iconic white mask and black robe) races up to Casey and plunges a knife in her chest.
Even with a fatal wound, Casey fights on, kicks at the killer, crawls toward the house. In a sick moment of irony, she sees her parents but can only whisper "Mom" before the killer pulls her away. We don't see Casey die, although we (and her mother) hear her weak voice over the phone. When Mrs. Becker sees her daughter gutted, hanging from a tree, there's no sense of exploitation or authorial superiority (gotcha!). The score by Marco Beltrami plays like a Medieval requiem. Mrs. Becker screams from the base of her soul and collapses out of the frame, melting in despair. This doesn't feel "hip" or "clever." This feels apocalyptic.
This opening proves so impactful, so emotional, viewers might forget that this is the only time in Scream that a killer and victim actually play its famous culture-shifting "scary movie" quiz. Sure, the killer tries to coax Sidney into playing later, but she bats the quiz aside, mocking horror's propensity for busty bimbos and ill-considered exit strategies. If the killer's quiz might feel more pervasive than it is in-film, maybe that's because Scream drowns itself in pop culture from beginning to end.
Think of how the first real conversation of the film - a romantic come-on and let-down between Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) - revolves around The Exorcist and its TV edits. Think of how Craven backs the scene with Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" (used previously in Halloween, the mother of all slashers). How Billy's outfit and hair eerily recall Johnny Depp in Craven's own A Nightmare on Elm Street. These reference points, which might come off as too clever for their own good, instead give texture to a setup that would otherwise be at home in any '80s slasher film (hell, any campfire story): a horny young man pines for a resistant girl while a killer is on the loose.
After the opening scene's micro- and macro-throwbacks, Scream's cultural nods accelerate into a highlight reel of horror history: Candyman, Frankenstein, The Howling, Basic Instinct, Prom Night, Hellraiser, The Evil Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Silence of the Lambs, Carrie, Psycho, Terror Train, I Spit on Your Grave, The Bad Seed, The Town that Dreaded Sundown... to say nothing of broader Gen X touchstones like All the Right Moves, Clueless, Trading Places, Clerks, and that infamous urban legend about Richard Gere and a brave little woodland critter. There's also a standee in a video store that promotes little-seen Jamie Lee Curtis thriller Mother's Boys.
The culture-savvy of Scream sometimes looms so large that it overshadows the drama, especially when the film thinks quoting tacky horror tropes can absolve their presence. When Sidney's best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) gets beer during the climactic party, the sequence opens with Tatum's nipples poking through her sweater. She fake-pleads "I wanna be in the sequel" to a killer, and her subsequent death emphasizes creativity over sympathy (and strains plausibility - that is one sturdy garage door). Are we supposed to laugh during a scene like this? Why? Tatum's sympathetic enough to reframe Sidney's post-attack overnight stay as a slumber party ("Bam! Bitch goes down!"). She's also tough enough to speak candidly with Sidney about putting the death of her mother in the past. She deserves a more honorable exit than the cheeky dispatching she suffers.
Smaller trope-friendly touches further threaten the film's confidence and sincerity, like when the killer's knife "sheenks" through the air like it's striking industrial metal, and when the girls walk through the town and we see Ghostface lurking in the background like a furtive sasquatch. One dopey moment has the killer follow Sidney and Tatum around a convenience store. We see the killer in the reflection of a cooler window, and we're left to wonder what customers and clerks thought of a guy in a black robe just sorta... scampering around.
Fortunately, Scream builds on its virtues - Williamson's fast-paced script, Craven's ability to bring out teenage honesty (something he also achieved in Elm Street) - and pays them off with an ending that almost matches the power of the opening, in which Sidney learns that the masked killer was actually two killers: Billy and his buddy Stu (Matthew Lillard). The boys corner Sidney, lean on each other, reveal their perfect crime, and, in their final moments, the two characters step beyond their inspirations and generate real pathos. Delirious from blood loss, Stu learns the police are on the way and sobs, "My mom and dad are gonna be so mad at me." And when Billy admits his despair over his mother leaving home, his eyes glisten, his voice cracks.
The subject of mothers flows under the surface of Scream like an undertow. Sidney's trauma from her mother Maureen dying weighs her down, keeps her from engaging with the world. She learns in the end that Billy killed her mother because Maureen had sex with his father... which led to Billy's mother leaving. Which means that the entire reason the events of Scream occur is because Sidney's mother had sex when she wasn't supposed to.
The most well-known trope of classic '80s slasher formula, after all, is the concept that sex equates to death (Randy insists in-film that this is the "number one" rule for surviving a horror movie). How accurate that trope is depends on which films you emphasize, but a glance at popular slasher franchises supports the premise. Laurie Strode in Halloween. Alice in Friday the 13th. Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The jury's out on Kirsty Cotton's sex life in Hellraiser, but her moral uprightness certainly feels virginal when set against the sexual depravity of the demonic Cenobites, whose idea of foreplay probably includes rusty fishhooks and a lack of safe words.
Keeping disruptive sex in mind, also remember that these '90s teens have parents who came of age in the mid-to-late '70s, right when movies like Black Christmas, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Halloween (the movie Scream cites most frequently) codified slasher formula. Which is to say, the mothers of Sidney, Billy, and all the other teenagers are the stewards of a generation that so frequently (deliberately or incidentally) slut-shamed its way through one horror film after the other. Maureen Prescott is the ghost of that generation of horror, of that morally constrictive attitude. According to Billy, she had too much flippant sex (he calls her a "slut-bag whore"), and so she died for her sins.
The challenge now is that Maureen's daughter Sidney faces her own choice about sex: whether or not to retreat from intimacy and find refuge in the shade of trauma. And to the credit of Craven, Williamson (and effectively played by Campbell), Sidney's "journey" concludes with her decision that sex is healthy and empowering and fundamentally okay. That the shame and fear some bring to sex are just that - their own baggage, their own moral confusions. Sidney choosing sex doesn't just coyly invert formula. It makes a vital moral correction to the bizarre Puritanism of slasher tropes. When Sidney calls Billy a "pansy-ass mama's boy" at the end, Sidney's not just emasculating him. She's saying that Billy's lost to his mother, to the previous generation. He's the one retreating to the shadows.
And if all this yammering about mothers and generations and sex seems disproportionate, remember that the question Casey flubs in the prologue is about Mrs. Voorhees, Jason's mother. And remember the standee of Mother's Boys (a fitting alternate title for Scream once we know its secrets). That poster features former "scream queen" Jamie Lee Curtis as a mother, emphasizing the generational shift. And remember how often Scream points up the new generation, like when the sheriff mutters, "But these kids today," or when the rock band Birdbrain sings over the action, "Say a prayer for the youth of America," or when Principal Himbry chews out two teens. He rants about "desensitized little shits" who represent an "entire thieving, whoring generation."
Those insults line up with Himbry's perception, but we know that many of the young characters are stout-hearted and smart. Wes Craven clearly loves them - how else to explain the end-credits roll call? As the actors' names fade in, footage captures the cast in various states of cheer and triumph. Randy grinning after a witty aside. Deputy Dewey (David Arquette), elated at the house party. Casey answering her phone. More thoughtful images too, like Tatum on the porch, opening up to Sidney. Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) pointing a gun at the killers. And a seemingly nondescript moment in which Sidney shakes her head. Viewers might not remember this moment. The shot comes toward the end of the film.
It's when Sidney decides to take Billy upstairs.