There's one thing that isn't realistic enough about EastEnders - - if these were real people, wouldn't they just talk about last night's EastEnders all the time? Well, that's what Scream does for horror movies - - specifically, teen slasher horror movies of the Nightmare Halloween Massacre On Friday The 13th kind. These kids aren't just terrified because they're being stalked by a masked sociopath; they're terrified because they've seen plenty of films about teenagers being stalked by masked sociopaths - and they know that their chances of surviving unlacerated aren't good.
Sound like fun? It is, not least because this is a simultaneously frightening and witty film. Made all too aware by a string of recent flops - - The People Under The Stairs, Vampire In Brooklyn - - that no-one takes junk like this seriously, director Wes Craven happily chucks in every cliché in the book (the self-same book of slasher movie clichés he can plausibly claim to have written in the first place).
You see, it's almost exactly a year since the horrific murder of the mother of schoolgirl Sidney (played by promising brunette Neve Campbell, from The Craft and TV's Party Of Five). She's upset when her classmate Casey (an opening cameo from Drew Barrymore) gets similarly knifed and ends up hanging from a tree. So when the sicko comes after Neve - - he's polite enough to wait 'til his victims are alone in the house, then phones them with trivial questions about horror films - - the whole school goes Crazy Killer Crazy.
Naturally, all the kids' whodunnit theories are based on their favourite slasher-based flicks. ""There's always some bullshit reason to kill your girlfriend"," advises geeky film nerd Randy at the local video store, after Sidney's clearly unhinged boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) is accused, then released. Randy's full of this sort of handy info, providing commentary on the suspense-building second half when the kids - - not too brightly - - get together for a party way out on the edge of town. If only they'd listened as he reeled off the rules of surviving a horror film: never pop out for something and say, "I'll be right back"; and don't, for God's sake, have sex.
Fans will enjoy the references to "Wes Carpenter" (Wes Craven admitting that he's often confused with Halloween's director, John Carpenter), and they'll chuckle at the school janitor's strong resemblance to Freddy Krueger. But not all the gags are in-jokes. Sidney's best pal's attitude to the town deputy (her elder brother) is just plain hilarious, as is the subtly effective stunt casting. Henry "The Fonz" Winkler is way too convincing as the knife-edge puritan headmaster, and Friends' Courtney Cox, to her credit, plays an authentically unpleasant tabloid TV news reporter (feel free to cheer when Sidney chins her for getting too personal).
But does it have enough chills as well as chuckles? Or do the self-referential bits stop you believing in the characters, as in Schwarzenegger's widely misunderstood Last Action Hero? Reassuringly, Scream has a whole dingy boiler-room packed with popcorn-spilling moments, from the "Scream" killer's costume (a distorted white face with a hideous fixed grin, based on Edvard Munch's nightmarish painting of the same name) to Craven's trademark shocks (girl cut in half by garage door) to a nastily protracted multiple stabbing near the end.
What's more, the way everyone keeps saying, ""If this really was a scary movie..."" ultimately makes it more realistic. These are precisely the comparisons you would make if you had the misfortune to be stalked by an imaginative psycho.
Scream is a better film than Craven's other self-quoting effort New Nightmare, chiefly because it doesn't include the unconvincing spectacle of Wes and Heather Lagenkamp (Fred Krueger's first nemesis) playing themselves. Plus, when you see it, the cinema is bound to echo to the knowing laughter of trash-horror connoisseurs desperate to show off their knowledge - - and what could be more terrifying than that?
An affectionate tribute to teen slasher films. The cheapster cast are better than they have any right to be, and the action drips with shrewd self-referential gags that actually make the scary bits scarier. Wes Craven proves at last that he's more frightening than his distant Country File-presenting relative.