Wes Craven, creator of the Nightmare on Elm Street series and writer-director of its two best entries (the first and the last), works within whispering distance of the commercial Hollywood mainstream, just far enough away to allow for more rude wit and less comfortable resolution than most studio product. His films open wide, with heavy TV advertising, marketed almost entirely to a teen-date audience. His technique depends on suspense, red herrings, and a regular dose of shocks.
With Scream he has come up with the umpteenth entry in that most exhausted and redundant subgenre, the teen slasher film. But as with his terrific 1994 New Nightmare, he has found ways to breathe new life into the same old tropes.
In the grand (?) tradition, Scream opens with a scene of protracted and brutal violence. It's really bloody, really sadistic, with an anonymous caller tormenting a teenage girl before moving in for the attack. Aesthetically, it announces the rules and limitations of the film's world; commercially, it makes sure nobody in the multiplex gets bored and bails to another film during the opening exposition.
After the intro we meet our protagonist -- Sidney (Neve Campbell), a teen with a trauma. Her mother was murdered a year before; her father has become strange and distant, disappearing for long business trips; her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) is putting on the heavy sexual pressure. Even worse, she is constantly hounded by Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), a TV newswoman, who sees a connection between the murder and the new attack. Sidney's mother's killer was sent to death row on Sidney's testimony, but Weathers has written a book suggesting he's the wrong man.
There's a freak on the loose. It's exactly a year since Mom's murder. Sidney lives in a remote house. Her father just left on business.
Gee. Whaddaya think's gonna happen?
Sidney and all her high school pals throw a big party, at which they are picked off one at a time. But since these are all typical modern kids, they've seen this movie before. "This is like some Wes Carpenter flick," one of them remarks. A geeky video clerk tries to outline their best strategy for survival, based on a lifetime of watching the genre: "One: Sex equals death," he warns. "Whatever you do, don't have sex. Two: Never drink or do drugs. Three: Never leave the room and say, 'I'll be right back.'" Life is all one big movie ... and you don't get to pick your genre.
In order to mislead us about the killer's identity, Craven pulls some plot manipulation and flouts believability, but he's careful to acknowledge the stretch upfront. "It's the millennium," one wacko character says. "Motives are incidental."
The filmmaker's other accomplishment here, besides resuscitating the genre, is the way he keeps things scary even when they're at their funniest. John Carpenter did a little of this in Halloween, but Craven has a richer sense of humor. The grand finale, while thoroughly bloody and tense, has some genuinely hilarious shtick.