"Do you like scary movies?," asks the stranger on the other end of the phone. Scream's opening scene introduces us to the meta slasher's referential through line. "What's your favorite scary movie?" "Halloween. You know, the one with the guy in the white mask who walks around & stalks babysitters?" It's playful enough until the caller pivots away from gentle curiosities. "I want to know who I'm looking at."
The tone changes. He wants Casey Becker to realize that she's not overreacting. "No, YOU listen, you little bitch! You hang up on me again & I'll gut you like a fish, understand!?" The threat is not just in her head. She is, indeed, trapped in a life-or-death game of cat-and-mouse. And if she'd like to keep her entrails in tact, she'll have to mine the tropes of past horror films to devise an escape.
Scream is in many ways a love letter to the slasher genre: a movie, though hyperaware of its own plot, still subject to the laws & flaws of human nature. Paranoia should rule the sleepy town of Woodsboro, California as it's terrorized by a masked killer. But no one can truly bring themself to suspect any of their friends or neighbors. They go to school. They rent movies. They throw parties. And it's ultimately this collective sense of disbelief that carries the plot forward. We acknowledge that bad things happen. But even when they're right on our doorstep, we refuse to seriously entertain the idea that bad things will happen to us. That is, until it's too late.
Scream revived the dying slasher genre, opening the door for hits like Halloween H20 & I Know What You Did Last Summer. And it's meta analysis of the genre lives on in later films like Cabin In the Woods & the Final Girls. It was a necessary commentary at a time when the genre had painted itself into a corner, opening it up to new ideas & proving once again that the moviegoing public does, indeed, like scary movies.