Dissecting the Opening Scene of SCREAM
The greatest holiday is nearly upon us! Today and tomorrow I’ll be posting essays about the late great Wes Craven’s two masterpieces. His passing in August was a deeply sad one as he was arguably the greatest horror director of all time and one of cinema’s greatest contributors. A Halloween tribute with these two essays just feels right and is the least I could do for someone that inspired me so much.
(Excuse the typos and errors. I wrote this fairly quickly and had a lot of ground to cover. I’ll fix them later.)
SPOILERS AHEAD. Obviously
I couldn’t find the whole scene on youtube, but here it is in low quality on VIMEO if you wanna watch it first https://vimeo.com/29890881
In the 70’s and 80’s Wes redefined horror with complete game-changers. Hell, he created a sub genre of horror. More on all of that tomorrow. By the 1990’s audiences had seen it all in horror movies. Specifically in slasher films, which had been pulverized to death in the 80’s. How many times can you watch a masked killer, stalk teenagers? The clichés in US horror became easily read quite fast. The genre was losing its touch in the early 90’s as independent film and Die Hard action ripoffs became all the rage. The 1996 slasher film SCREAM not only revived the career of director Wes Craven, but also saved a genre and made horror films mainstream again. By playing with the “rules” of the horror genre, devoted horror fan and screenwriter Kevin Williamson wrote a film where all the great horror movies exist and the characters in the movie know them as well as the most devout cinephiles! I’ll be cutting into and dissecting the opening scene which cemented this film as a classic and self-aware blood dripping satire by playing with the audience’s knowledge of horror movies, while also delivering purely horrifying and suspenseful scenes that cleverly put the audience in the position of a helpless victim.
As the movie begins a Dimension logo appears. A dark background and eerie music accompanying it sets the tone for a typical scary movie. The word SCREAM stretches out on the screen and then crashes back along with sounds of a phone ringing, screaming, and a slicing sound. SCREAM is in the color red and this stands out even more with the black background. Of course the red implies that blood will be shed. The title itself suggests a tongue in cheek style of humor. This is a scary movie and of course character and the audience will SCREAM. The original title was actually Scary Movie, even more blatantly meta. The uber metaness of the film is already present and we don’t even have an opening shot. The audience knows as much about scary movies as the film does. It’s as if it’s asking us to engage in a game. At this point cinephiles and horror fans are probably licking their chops.
Fade in on a ringing phone and the classic blonde that we always see in horror movies picking it up. But ahh the actress is Drew Barrymore. Her face had been plastered all over the posters and ads for the film. She’s the lead actress! Here she’s dressed very similar to Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween and has that same sense of innocence. Note that Casey is wearing white, symbolizing innocence. The innocent girl never dies! The beginning bit of dialogue is important to note.
Casey: ”Hello.” Man: ”Hello.” Casey: ”Yes.” Man: ”Who is this?” Casey: ”Who are you trying to reach?” Man: ”What number is this?” Casey: ”What number are you trying to reach?” Man: ”I don’t know.” Casey: ”I think you have the wrong number.” Man: ”Do I?” Casey: ”It happens. Take it easy.” Then she hangs up. The dialogue begins just like any wrong number phone call. We’ve all been a part of that exchange before. The person in control of the conversation is the one that picks up the phone. In this case it would be Casey. She’s smiles almost flirtatiously and doesn’t think much of it as she is talking. She’s almost robotic as she runs through the usual dialogue. The important bit of conversation is when it clearly shifts into something different than this situation usually entails.
Casey says “I think you have the wrong number” and the man responds “Do I?” This is a subtly chilling moment as the man’s voice has shifted away from basic conversation to a level of power and awareness. As viewers we are now aware that this is something more than a mere wrong number. However, Casey is not aware yet. The phone rings again and Casey once again answers. Horror fans will see this as a clear homage to When A Stranger Calls, which has one of the great opening scenes as well. Off topic but I’d rank the top 5 opening horror scenes as 1. Suspiria 2. Scream 3. Halloween 4. When a Stranger Calls 5. Jaws. Okay back to the scene.
The dialogue starts to become even more layered and obviously creepy. The man claims he is calling back to apologize and wants to talk for a second. Casey denies him and hangs up. At this point we’d only seen shots focused on the phone or Casey to suggest they have a connection or are engaging in a nearly intimate conversation. The phone of course is the man’s voice. As a motif it’s essential not only to the film, but the genre. From what I know, it was a motif birthed in Craven’s other masterpiece, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Phones are a vital part of teenager’s lives and horror is all about turning comforting societal/cultural norms into monstrous entities. So of course we have a phone that maliciously tortures Casey. We quickly get an external shot from outside the house. We hear a creaking noise and the camera pans down to reveal a swing on a tree that is rocking back and forth. The significance is an outside point of view from someone else. The creepiness and tension levels rise just through this single shot. The audience is now informed with enough information to become engaged in the gears of the scene.
Casey puts popcorn over the stove next. It functions in two ways. Metaphorically it’s rising tension with the popcorn beginning to crackle and we know that it could potentially explode. Secondly, it works as a timer that Craven can cut back to for tension. The phone once again begins to ring and Casey answers AGAIN. She’s already let the caller know she doesn’t want to talk yet she still answers. The stereotype of the dumb blonde is nearly in full effect, but because it’s a self aware film with the same knowledge that the audience has, we cannot be sure of where it will go. The dialogue at this point begins to reveal more about the two characters and the movie itself. Casey continues to flirtatiously talk to the caller and entertain his questions. Man: “You’re making popcorn? I only eat popcorn at the movies.” Casey then reveals she is about to watch a scary movie. Man: “What’s your favorite scary movie?” Casey: “Ummm Halloween! You know, the one with the guy in the white mask who stalks babysitters” A nice WINK WINK allowing us in on an inside joke while also suggesting the exact same scenario may possibly happen to her.
This is a clever way to deliver exposition because it’s fun for the audience to listen and it’s actually essential for us to engage with it. The camera follows Casey with a tracking shot allowing the film to make us feel as if we’re in the scene as well. We’re actually more than voyeurs because of the film’s meta subtext. Casey then references A Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy Krueger. This dialogue about horror movies allows Casey and the audience a sense of security. Again, this is allowing the audience to be in on the joke but the tension and atmosphere is continuing to rise through the dialogue and camera movement.
Wes Craven masterfully executes this scene by slowly and subtly revealing more and more while making us comfortable. It’s all been fun and inviting so far. We’re not frightened yet because nothing substantial has actually happened. As an audience we’re also confident that Drew Barrymore’s character will live through the movie because she’s the big star! She can’t die! The tension builds through dialogue once again and this time it gets to be even more layered. Man: “You never told me your name.” Casey: “Why do you wanna know my name?” Man: “Cause I wanna know who I’m looking at.” Casey: “What did you say?” Now the power of the conversation has completely shifted. The camera zooms in on Casey’s face and for the first time she isn’t smiling. A dog begins barking and the music starts to make its presence known. The tension has now grabbed the audience by letting it be known that this character is no longer safe AND we haven’t even seen the killer yet.
Wes Craven has slowly been carefully adding layers to this scene. It doesn’t even matter if you’re not aware of it’s sub-textual playfulness. All through dialogue and camerawork we have become engaged in the scene. More of this cat and mouse phone game ensues until the man reveals his intentions. Man: “NO YOU LISTEN YOU LITTLE BITCH. YOU HANG UP ON ME AGAIN AND I’LL GUT YOU LIKE A FISH. UNDERSTAND. Hah. Can you handle that Blondie?” She is officially no longer safe and the audience is completely caught off guard. Craven has engaged us using humor, meta-text, camera work, and clever dialogue to slowly suck us in. It’s not until 5 minutes in that a real threat makes itself known and since we’re being engaged on multiple levels, the tension is extra extra high. “Can you see me” the man asks Casey. A point of view shot has the camera looking around for the killer outside. This implies that the audience is looking as well.
The killer makes his presence terrifyingly known by revealing he has Casey’s boyfriend outside and tied up. She can save him though! All she has to do is answer horror movie trivia. This is an incredibly fun and sick inside joke to the audience as it begins to involve us even more by playing on movie buffs knowledge and interjecting it into this deathly scenario. As the voice asks questions it stays calm and monotonous, but is clearly relishing in this game and having fun. Important to note that most often the audience is above the horror film because of their knowledge and the “rules” of the genre. We’re usually just watching and reacting to jump scares. Not in SCREAM.
The voice is the authoritarian power over us and even more so over Casey. The lighting has turned dark and the music becomes significantly creepier. What once was a fun inside joke and game has now become almost subversive for the audience. It’s as if the killer is attacking the audience through it’s knowledge of OUR knowledge of horror movies. Man: “Name the killer in Halloween?” Casey: “Michael….Myers” Casey begs and screams for this to stop and it’s completely chilling and almost sad to watch. But the movie has already had so much fun engaging us that it’s created an odd tension. We want to engage but we know it’s wrong. I really can’t think of many other films that makes the audience aware and troubled about being voyeurs.
Casey is now laying in the fetal position between the wall and TV. The significance is that everything is closing in on her. She can’t escape. Barrymore’s performance deserves incredible amounts of praise. She emits utter fear with her voice and facial expressions all while this man’s creepy voice is forcing her to answer these questions. Man: “Name the killer in Friday the 13th?” Casey: “JASON. JASON. JASON. JASON.” Man: “I’m afraid not. No way.” Casey: “Listen I saw that movie 20 goddamn times. It was Jason!” Man: “Then you should know Jason’s mother, Mrs. Vorhees was the original killer. Jason didn’t show up until the sequel!” It’s that last question that is super clever because most people do think that Jason Vorhees is the killer! Under pressure wouldn’t Jason pop into your head immediately too?
The first introduction to blood and gore comes as Casey watches the aftermath of her boyfriend getting gutted. The music begins to race loudly. Man: “Hey were not finished yet. Final question. What door am I at?” This isn’t a horror question the audience can know and neither can Casey. After feeling comfortable with the film’s horror nods we’ve now become as helpless as Casey. She runs through the house and the camera follows her every movie to suggest a connection between us and her. Those long tracking shots at the beginning gave us the layout of the house, which comes in handy during the chase scene. Craven smartly uses few cuts to let the scene grow a paranoia and sense of hurried fear.
We get our first glimpse of this killer as he quickly runs across the screen in the next room. Casey hides outside in a shadowy corner as the killer looks around in the kitchen next to her. Camera movement and spacing is key in these scenes as it keeps Casey always tight in the middle of the shot in a claustrophobic way. Almost coffin like. She’s stuck in this situation as is the audience. Again, we’re given shots from Casey’s point of view, which furthers our connection to her. At this point Casey and the audience are the same and serve the same function. Our first real glimpse of the killer happens as Casey looks into the window and we see the iconic Ghostface mask. It looks like a basic Halloween costume and that’s the point. The killer could be anybody.
As the audience is on the edge of their seat, Casey is running from this killer. Her parent’s car is just in sight and there is still hope. The cutting between Casey running away and the car coming home heighten the tension. Oldest trick in the book. “Her parents will save her and she’ll make it through this scene! She has to live. It’s the rules.” the audience says to themselves. Then in sow motion we watch as the ghost face killer grabs Casey and stabs her in the heart. Sound is the key to this scene. All we can hear is Casey’s heavy and quick breathing full of sobs. Craven relishes in this shot by slowing it down and making it even more suspenseful and shocking to watch for the audience. Blood covers her white shirt and the killer strangles her as she screams. Casey kicks the killer off of her and we get another point of view shot looking at her parents. Marco Beltrami’s haunting score is in full effect as Casey stumbles to her porch and tries to yell.
The killer stands over her and she grabs off his mask. A low angle shot reveals the killer has all of the power. Casey’s fate, and the audience’s, is controlled by him. The camera cuts away to his bloody knife as it stabs her. We’re now wondering who the killer is. A shift has happened. Casey has been our symbol of horror knowledge and watching a movie star like Barrymore be killed implies the film has destroyed the clichés and tropes that we’ve come to know so well. But until this point we’ve known just as much as Casey has. Now she’s learned the killer’s identity. The audience is in an even more vulnerable and helpless position than Casey.
It’s a perfect setup for the whodunit plot that the film will play on throughout. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had watching a whodunnit film. Actually, it’s just one of the most fun movies to watch ever. Period. The scene finishes with the killer dragging Casey’s body away as she is still holding her precious phone. An overhead shot shows us the blood covering Casey and her barely uttering her final words to her parents. On the other end of the phone her parents helplessly hear her die which adds an emotionally devastating element to the horror. It also suggests the uselessness of adults in horror films. The slasher film has always been about the teenage realm of horror. The scene finishes with the parents walking outside and the camera zooming in on Casey hanging from the swing that was shown in the beginning. Cut to the next scene with Neve Campbell as Sydney Prescott, the actual main character of the film. BRAVO WES BRAVO!
SCREAM is a titan of the genre and one of the landmark films of the genre. An all time favorite of mine and for my money it’s Craven’s greatest film. It’ll always have a spot in my top 5 horror films, and Craven will continue to be an inspiration for me. Not only does it provide a satirical and self referential look at the genre, but it cleverly involves and engrosses the audience (especially movie buffs) by using our knowledge of horror movies to make us completely powerless. BRILLIANT! Few movies are this hilarious, scary, insightful, and fun to engage with. The opening scene expertly builds through Craven’s masterful direction and Williamson’s endlessly clever script. Drew Barrymore’s killing in the first 12 minutes is about as shocking and unexpected as it gets.
The film hasn’t just turned the genre and the audience upside down, it’s completely gutted us and left us for dead. Particularly the dialogue is impressive by involving the viewers and slowly creating tension through it’s inviting meta-text only to then make us helpless. Craven’s direction gives the movie a level of fun playfulness while also reaching truly terrifying and shocking levels that Hitchcock would gush over. The rules of horror are thrown out the window and the audience has no idea where it will go from the opening scene. The rest of the movie miraculously fulfills this promise by keeping the audience in on the joke and satire but still keeping us completely blind to what is actually happening. Never have movie buffs been such helpless voyeurs. Craven’s masterpiece has one of cinema’s finest opening scenes ever and is a cunningly blood soaked example of what the horror genre is capable of.