Last night, I watched Scream for the first time, though I did not know it was the first time until 20 minutes in. I was so sure I’d seen the movie as a teenager, but as it turns out, no. My memory is not to be trusted, and everything I thought I knew about Scream was just a series of GIFs and references and Halloween costumes I’ve absorbed over the 23 years that have passed since its 1996 release. For at least half that time, I’ve gone around confidently telling people I’ve seen Scream and it’s dumb. I’m here to tell you today that the dumb one is me. I hadn’t seen Scream and then I did, and I loved it.
Something annoying about me is that, given the opportunity, I will complain that scary movies aren’t scary enough. I have seen one genuinely terrifying movie in my lifetime (The Orphanage, 2007), and despite many attempts before and since, I’ve never found anything that comes close. I think you have to be really good at suspending disbelief in order to find a horror movie scary — you have to think whatever’s happening onscreen could happen to you, or at least that it’s really happening to someone. But I’m terrible at that. I see a ghost sucking the soul out of some girl’s mouth and I think, Eh, seems unlikely. I am too aware that she’s an actor and will soon be eating a plate of fruit at craft services.
Many horror movies are also just very bad, and funny when they don’t mean to be. (The end of Hereditary? Hilarious.) If you’ve seen a handful, you’ve seen them all, for the most part. Which is what makes Scream so very good and self-aware: It knows you know (or at least you think you know) what’s coming, and it even alerts you to its formula via Randy, played by Jamie Kennedy, the classic geeky fifth wheel to the movie’s two lead couples.
Despite the many warnings, I was genuinely surprised by the movie’s reveal, which I think you’ll agree is safe to talk about now, 23 years later. It’s frankly miraculous that I didn’t know exactly what happened, but I have a blind spot for much of the ’90s, having grown up under the embarrassing misconception (encouraged by my parents) that movie ratings were real and enforceable. When Scream came out, I was ten years old. Scream is rated R. I am now 32; by the time I am 40, I hope to have finished catching up on the would-be formative films of my youth.
Anyway, some other good things I didn’t know about Scream: The hero’s a girl! A girl and a woman, really. I was particularly pleased by the redemption of Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) because everybody always hates journalists in movies like these, and as a journalist, that hurts my feelings. Gale was just trying to do her job, in a neon-green skirt suit, and Neve Campbell punched her in the face. I think it’s nice that they come around to each other’s sides in the end. I also enjoyed watching the genuine chemistry between Cox and David Arquette, the dopey young cop who doesn’t really accomplish anything. The eventual couple met on set, and while their real-life marriage ended in 2013, their cute, blush-y little Scream interactions are forever.
Rose McGowan is also very good in this movie as a classic ’90s mean girl with creative insults and choppily layered blonde hair. Skeet Ulrich, meanwhile, is everything I thought I wanted in a boy/man when I was 16. Except for the inexplicable psychopathy and murdering toward the end. But before that?? Oh my God, he’s so hot.
On that bit about the end: It’s absurd, obviously. So there are two certifiable violent psychopaths attending the same high school, and one day they decide to kill a classmate’s mom because she’s hooking up with Billy’s dad? And then they decide to just … wait around for a year, acting normal, before killing Drew Barrymore? What did Drew Barrymore do to deserve this? If we got an explanation for that, I missed it.
So yes: Scream, befitting its genre, is ridiculous in many ways, but it knows that. It revels in it. And somehow that self-awareness made its scary scenes so much scarier. It’s no Orphanage, fright-wise, but I definitely gasped and said “I was not expecting that” more than once, and that is all I really ask for in a horror movie. Ultimately, I don’t really want a movie to scare me so much it, like, ruins my life. I just want to feel alive.