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Scream

Year: 1996
Studio: Dimension Films
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Cast: Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore

Few genres of films have so many iconic markers of the passage of history as horror. Whether it was the 1930s Universal monster era, the video nasties born on the back of the VCR or the modern torture porn films, the mention of many horror movies can invoke not just the era but the socio-political mood at the time.

While not enjoying a particular renaissance in 1996, horror enjoyed a huge shot in the arm by the birth of the 'horror aware' horror film. On the surface, Wes Craven - responsible for, or at least having participated in several iconic horror milestones - looks to have simply been doing a slasher movie of the video nasty variety, albeit more slickly produced.

A killer is stalking teenagers of the small town of Woodsboro, attacking them with a huge knife and wearing a black cloak and ghost face mask, an image that's as recognisable to filmgoers as Darth Vader's helmet or Indiana Jones' fedora.

Heroine Sidney (Campbell) lost her mother to a murderer years before, and when her friends start dying around her it looks like the same psycho has returned to Woodsboro to finish the job of wiping her family off the planet.

The plot is a by-numbers job, a rip off of every slasher that's come before it, and therein lies the whole point. Jamie Kennedy explaining the horror movie rules to the group while they settle down to a horror video night is the focal point for Scream's mission statement - the genre poking fun at itself. It makes it quite explicit that you never say 'I'll be right back', but when Tatum (McGowan) scoffs at the silliness of it and says it anyway, she has no idea she's going to be the next victim just for having uttered a line that's almost a curse.

Tatum knows it doesn't really work like that in real life, but only we know we're watching a movie so we know she's doomed. It seems other characters (even the movie itself) know it too, breaking the fourth wall by homaging, setting up and poking fun at it's own silly conventions but sticking to them rigidly, an in-joke between Craven and the rest of us.

Of course, it might not be such high and mighty literary deconstruction that's made Scream such a classic beyond the mandate of its plot but the confluence of history. In 1996, the video nasty era kids were growing up and the generation to follow didn't have the slasher film education we have today.

It was before the age of DVD and Bittorrent, so not only were those films harder to get hold of, slasher-era fan directors like Tarantino, Raimi and Jackson weren't quite holding the reins in Hollywood and making the genre cool. It simply may have been the first taste young filmgoers of the mid 90s had of anything like Halloween or it's other contemporaries that Craven was spoofing.

But however it happened, Billy (Ulrich) was right when he said 'Yes it is, Sidney. It's all one big movie', Scream breaking its banks and becoming one more signpost signalling the new direction of horror.

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