Director Wes Craven is on familiar turf with his latest thriller, "Scream." The setting is a small town, the protagonists are teens, and there's a psychotic killer on the prowl. But he may have gone to the trough once too often, attempting an uneasy balance of genre convention and sophisticated parody. The pic's chills are top-notch, but its underlying mockish tone won't please die-hard fans.

Director Wes Craven is on familiar turf with his latest thriller, “Scream.” The setting is a small town, the protagonists are teens, and there’s a psychotic killer on the prowl. But he may have gone to the trough once too often, attempting an uneasy balance of genre convention and sophisticated parody. The pic’s chills are top-notch, but its underlying mockish tone won’t please die-hard fans. That adds up to no more than modest commercial returns and fast theatrical playoff.

The film opens in rather traditional fashion. Home-alone high schooler Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) answers the phone and is confronted with a menacing voice. The sinister caller coerces her to play a series of increasingly perilous games. Eventually the masked demon reveals himself, and the encounter proves lethal for the girl.

Next on the unknown maniac’s list is Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), whose mother was murdered by a similar-style fiend a year earlier. In fact, aggressive tab TV reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) believes it’s the same killer and that the man (currently on death row) fingered by Sidney for her mom’s murder is innocent.

Craven and scripter Kevin Williamson have worked hard to gussy up well-trod territory. And though the material is more intelligent than the norm and has an unusual third-act twist, it also employs some very clunky stereotypes.

The fictional community of Woodsboro, Calif., is normally a sleepy hamlet populated by callous teens and ineffectual adults. The kids have been shaped by the movies and can quote chapter and verse from Craven’s “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Halloween” and “Prom Night” to explain the killer’s gestalt. The rules of movie horror — as delineated by a vid-store employee — make Billy (Skeet Ulrich), Sidney’s boyfriend, a prime suspect and also provide a long list of candidates for the potential-victims roster.

Craven, in this film and his prior “New Nightmare,” displays a fascination with blurring the lines between reality and film. “Nightmare” imagined a world where Freddy Krueger could be willed into being. “Scream” merely ponders copycat murders, something that occurs more often onscreen than in dozing towns.

There’s no question that the filmmaker knows how to put an audience on the edge of its seat. But this yarn isn’t content with visceral delight, and its attempts to instill irony and social perspective just slow down the proceedings.

In addition to a strong surface sheen, Craven has put together a strong ensemble cast headed by the charismatic Campbell and Ulrich. Cox has a nice against-type part as an ambitious news hound, and Henry Winkler has graduated to principal of the school.

“Scream” is an interesting stab at altering the shape of horror. But it’s one experiment that needed more lab time before venturing into the marketplace.

Scream

Production

A Miramax release of a Dimension Films presentation of a Woods Entertainment production. Produced by Cary Woods, Cathy Konrad. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Marianne Maddalena. Co-executive producer, Stuart M. Besser. Co-producer, Dixie J. Capp. Directed by Wes Craven. Screenplay, Kevin Williamson.

Crew

Camera (Consolidated color, Panavision widescreen), Mark Irwin; editor, Patrick Lussier; music, Marco Beltrami; production design, Bruca Alan Miller; art direction, David Lubin; special makeup effects, Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger; sound (Dolby), Richard Goodman; assistant director, Nicholas Mastandrea; casting, Lisa Beach. Reviewed at the Aidikoff Screening Room, Beverly Hills, Dec. 7, 1996. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Sidney Prescott - Neve Campbell
Deputy Dewey Riley - David Arquette
Gale Weathers - Courteney Cox
Stuart - Matthew Lillard
Billy Loomis - Skeet Ulrich
Tatum Riley - Rose McGowan
Casey Becker - Drew Barrymore
Randy - Jamie Kennedy
Principal Himbry - Henry Winkler
Neal Prescott - Lawrence Hecht
Cotton Weary - Liev Schreiber
Kenny - W. Earl Brown
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