Clever, witty, tense, entertaining "Scream" a bolt from the blue

Scream (1996) 
111 min., rated R.
Grade: A

Wes Craven's most accomplished work, the clever, witty, and entertaining "Scream," walks a knife between homage and spoof, while also being an uncommonly effective representative and revitalization of the horror genre. "Scream" deconstructs slasher movies with wicked, self-aware humor and daringly pokes fun at the clichéd no-no rules: don't drink or do drugs, never have sex, and never ever say you'll “Be Back!” because you won't be back. These characters are savvier than the slasher-pic stereotypes in that they've actually seen movies, let alone horror movies. How post-modern. 

The opening ten minutes of "Scream" are masterfully executed, amusing as they are scary, and will go down in film history next to the shower scene in "Psycho" or the first shark attack in "Jaws." Played by a blonde Drew Barrymore in an innocent-white sweater, Casey answers a ringing phone, home alone, popping popcorn and readying herself to watch a scary movie. What starts out as a flirtatious stranger on the other line, Casey senses the person is closer than she initially thinks, gets quizzed on horror-movie trivia to live, and finds herself running and screaming. When the killer asks a potential victim if she likes scary movies, she laughs off the slasher movie trope: "What's the point? They're all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can't act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door." But when she's finally put into real peril, she runs up the stairs. 

Thanks to a hot new cast, the colorful characters are brought to life. Neve Campbell is a fresh-faced heroine, both strong-willed and vulnerable, as 17-year-old Sidney Prescott, whose mother was murdered exactly one year before Casey's murder (are the murders related?). Her coming-of-age grounds the film. Courtney Cox is just right, sexy and funny, as tabloid reporter Gail Weathers who thinks she's a big deal. David Arquette is endearingly goofy as a boyish, Barney Fife-type cop, Deputy Dewey. Rose McGowan gives sassy, likable support as Sidney's best friend and Dewey's sister Tatum, who gets her memorable "big closeup," Matthew Lillard is a loony eager-beaver as Tatum's boyfriend Stu, Jamie Kennedy is amusingly over-the-top as movie-geek Randy, and Skeet Ulrich (a dead ringer for Johnny Depp) is suspicious and interestingly complex as Sidney's charming but mysterious boyfriend Billy. As the cherry on top, Henry "the Fonze" Winkler gives a cameo as the high school principal, as does Craven as a janitor in a red-and-green Freddy Krueger sweater. 

Incoming writer Kevin Williamson's script is smart, ironic, and self-reflexive, working within the genre conventions that Craven stages like a pro. The plotting is intricate, and as all the red herrings culminate in a corn syrup-splattered climax at a house party, the whodunit twists are unexpected. The killer's black reaper robe and mask (evoking Edvard Munch's "The Scream" oil painting), as well as the menacing voice on the phone, are unshakable. The winking, satirical references might be cute ("You're starting to sound like some Wes Carpenter flick or something"), but feel never overdone to the point of overshadowing the violence; Craven and Williamson make us chuckle and then move on. After so many lackluster franchise sequels making the horror genre feel played-out, "Scream" is a bolt from the blue that puts 'horror' back in vogue.