Scream became a major commercial success upon its release, and was one of the highest grossing films of 1996. It was also highly acclaimed by many critics worldwide, who appreciated the film's tongue-in-cheek approach. It received an 86% rating at rottentomatoes.com. As a result it spawned two sequels, Scream 2 and Scream 3. A fourth film was officially announced by The Weinstein Company in July 2008.
The caller promises Casey another round, but suddenly, a chair smashes the patio doors, and Casey runs out of the house, armed with a kitchen knife. However, she is caught by a cloaked figure in a mask and stabbed in the stomach and through the throat. With her last bit of strength, Casey takes off the killer's mask, and sees his face. When her parents return home, they find her body gutted and hanging from a tree.
Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is attempting to cope with the anniversary of her mother's brutal rape and murder. The next night, while at home alone, the killer, who calls his/her victims on the phone and taunts them before attacking, invades her house and attempts to kill her. The killer is known as Ghostface, who wears a Halloween costume reminiscent of the painting The Scream by Edvard Munch.
Sidney tries to sort through the trauma of being attacked and, in reaction to circumstantial evidence, points an accusatory finger at her boyfriend Billy Loomis, played by Skeet Ulrich. She decides to stay at the home of her friend Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan) and Tatum's brother Dwight, nicknamed Dewey (David Arquette), the Deputy sheriff. While there, she receives a phone call from the killer. Billy is released, as he could not have placed the call from jail, however it is later discovered that it was possible for him to have used his one allowed phone call to call her from jail.
Already under considerable stress, Sidney is forced to deal with the scandalization of her own attack by ambitious tabloid television newswoman Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox). Gale is responsible for a tell-all book revealing the promiscuous affair between Sidney's mother and her convicted killer, Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber). School is soon cancelled as a precautionary measure, leaving the building temporarily abandoned. Despite the closing, the school principal (Henry Winkler) is killed while in school and Sidney encounters her attacker a second time, barely managing to escape. Unaware of their principal's fate, the teenagers plan a party. They are joined by Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), a horror movie buff, and Tatum's boyfriend Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard), who suggested the party. The party quickly becomes a bloodbath as the killer murders Tatum, who dies when she becomes stuck inside an automatic garage door.
In the interim, Gale, sensing the potential for a major scoop, hides a video camera inside the house. She then goes outside and begins searching for anything suspicious, with the help of officer Dewey. Meanwhile, at the party, Billy shows up and is confronted by Sidney; they eventually head upstairs and Sidney loses her virginity to Billy. The partygoers soon receive word of the principal's death, and head to the school football field to find his corpse.
Back at the house, Billy is stabbed by the killer while getting dressed, forcing Sidney to run out of the room to escape the killer. Randy, watching television, narrowly avoids death when the killer walks up behind him only to be interrupted by Sidney's screams. The killer leaves Randy unnoticed and chases after Sidney instead. Inside Gale's news van, her cameraman Kenny (W. Earl Brown) witnesses the killer's attempts to murder Randy and then lets a running Sidney inside. Kenny steps outside the van to try to warn Randy, but has his throat slashed by the killer.
Dewey leaves the house, and falls down to reveal a knife in his back. Sidney runs back to the house where she is greeted by Randy and Stu, who are presented as the only remaining suspects. When they both accuse each other of being the killer, Sidney does not know who to trust, and slams the door in their faces.
Billy comes falling down the stairs, not dead, but seriously injured. Sidney helps him up and gives him a gun for safety. Suddenly, Billy shoots Randy (non-fatally), and shows the blood on his chest is corn syrup (as used in the production of Carrie). Sidney turns and finds Stu, who unveils the voice-changing box.
Finally, the truth is revealed: The murders were planned and carried out by Billy and Stu, as a means for getting revenge on Sidney's mother; it is revealed that Sidney's mother had an affair with Billy's father and this was the reason for the demise of Billy's parents' marriage. It is also revealed that it was Billy who murdered Sidney's mother and not Cotton Weary, who was convicted of the murder based upon Sidney's testimony; Billy's rage over his parents splitting up because of the affair with Sidney's mother turned him into a murderer. Sidney is saved by Gale, however briefly, (she forgot about the gun's safety) until she is again knocked unconscious. Stu and Billy also reveal they have abducted Sidney's father and it was his cellphone they used to make their ominous phone calls, and that they planned to murder Sidney and her father, then stab each other in non-vital places to make it seem like they were victims of Mr. Prescott's emotional and murderous breakdown while getting away with committing the murders. Things begin to fall apart though; Billy stabs Stu too deeply and he begins to bleed profusely. Sidney then manages to escape while they're dealing with Gale, before she kills Stu in self defense. Billy is shot by Gale but comes back for one more scare. However, Sidney shoots him in the head, finally killing him. Dewey is shown being carried away in a stretcher, alive.
A similar set of "rules" was used for the movie's trailer:
Two of the most common references are to A Nightmare on Elm Street and its director Wes Craven. In the audio commentary for the DVD, Craven says that he almost took out the line where Casey Becker says the first A Nightmare on Elm Street was good but the rest sucked, because he thought it would make him seem egotistical. However, it was pointed out to him that he had co-written the third film and also wrote and directed the seventh. A Nightmare on Elm Street is also referenced in the high school janitor. Fred, played by Craven, wears an outfit resembling Freddy Krueger's. Later in the film, Tatum tells Sidney that she is "sounding like a Wes Carpenter flick", a fictional name created from compounding the names Wes Craven and John Carpenter (co-producer of the first three installments in the Halloween film series, co-writer of the first two, and director of the first).
At one point Billy sneaks into Sidney's room through her window, startling her, in a way that quotes Glen sneaking into Nancy's room in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The similarity between the scenes in emphasized by the physical resemblance Skeet Ulrich, who plays Billy's character, bears to the young Johnny Depp, who played Glen's character.
In addition to its director, Halloween is referenced many times throughout the film. When Casey's parents come home and see that something is wrong, her father says to her mother, "Drive down to the Mackenzies'", which is a quote from Halloween. During the party scene, Randy Meeks, Stu Macher and the other party goers are watching the horror film. They watch many famous scenes such as Michael Myers murdering Bob, as well as Laurie Strode discovering her friend's dead bodies scattered in the bedroom. The song that Billy puts on when he and Sidney are making out in her room is a cover version of "Don't Fear the Reaper" which was featured in Halloween in the scene where Laurie and Annie are driving to their babysitting jobs.
Billy's surname, Loomis, is the same as that of Donald Pleasence's character in Halloween (1978), which in turn was the name of Marion Crane's lover in Psycho. In a similar fashion to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), Scream's highly-billed star Drew Barrymore dies early in the film. Referring to Crane's similar premature murder, Robin Wood writes of the "alienation effect" of killing of the "apparent center of the film." In the later stages of the film, Billy Loomis quotes Norman Bates, saying "We all go a little mad sometimes." Licking his fake blood, Loomis says that it is actually corn syrup and food coloring, "the same stuff they used as pig's blood in Carrie".
As Stu and Billy reveal themselves to Sidney as the killers, they stand head to head, echoing a famous still photo from the film The Thing With Two Heads (1972).
Many films are briefly mentioned during a scene in which Billy and Stu visit Randy at work at a video store. Films Randy mentions include Candyman, The Howling, Prom Night, Everybody's All-American. Frankenstein is showing on the monitors.
Sidney mentions The Town That Dreaded Sundown while she, Dewey and Tatum are buying food for the party.
During the party scene, the partygoers are struggling with which movie to watch. The possibilities include The Evil Dead, Hellraiser, The Fog and Terror Train. Clerks is seen as a videotape on top of a television. During the party scene, when Billy arrives, Randy exclaims "What's Leatherface doing here?". Leatherface is the antagonist in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
In addition to mentioning several horror films throughout the film, many minor characters were portrayed by actors that have worked with Wes Craven before and have also appeared in prominent horror films. For example, Linda Blair, who played Regan in "The Exorcist", also plays the obnoxious reporter who approaches Sidney when she first returns to school. Joseph Whipp, who plays Sheriff Burke in Scream, also plays the sheriff in "Nightmare on Elm Street." Frances Lee McCain, playing Mrs. Riley, also played the part of Billy's mother, Lynn Peltzer, in 1984's "Gremlins."
Other films that are seen or mentioned throughout the film include:
Most notable of all, the climactic scene of the film revolves around the characters watching the movie Halloween, unaware that they themselves are being watched on a hidden camera with a time delay. At one point Randy (played by Jamie Kennedy) yells at the movie: "Look behind you, Jamie", unaware that there is also a killer behind him. Kenny watches this from inside the news van, and also yells: "Behind you, kid." despite the time delay meaning the warning is just as pointless as Randy's. The result is a movie character (Kenny) watching what the hidden camera in the room shows, giving advice to another movie character (Randy), also watching a movie, also giving advice to a movie character (in the movie he's watching).
In addition to this, the movie features cameos, such as Linda Blair and Henry Winkler and general references to Hollywood figures, such as Sharon Stone and Richard Gere.
Roger Ebert appreciated "the in-jokes and the self-aware characters", but was confused over whether the level of violence was "defused by the ironic way the film uses it and comments on it?" The New York Times says "not much of 'Scream' is that gruesome", but observes that Craven "wants things both ways, capitalizing on lurid material while undermining it with mocking humor. Not even horror fans who can answer all this film's knowing trivia questions may be fully comfortable with such an exploitative mix."
Scream ranked number 32 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 50 Best High School Movies and number 13 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments. In 2008, Entertainment Weekly dubbed the film a "New Classic" by ranking it number 60 in their list of the 100 Best Films of the Last 25 Years The film received an 84% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com.
Ghostface's mask has become an icon in horror films, and has now become a staple mask during the Halloween season.
The film has been parodied many times on television. During the 1997 MTV Movie Awards, the opening scene was parodied, with Mike Myers calling and terrorizing Casey Becker instead of the film's killer, Ghostface.
One of the unique aspects of the film involved the mystery surrounding the identity of the killer (a plot device that had not been used for some time) and the twist ending in which it is revealed there are in fact two killers, which also became a popular trend amongst the horror revival that followed.
When Billy comes into Sidney's room at the beginning of the movie a cover of Blue Öyster Cult's song "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" performed by Gus Black is played. This song is played in the first Halloween film when Annie and Laurie are on their way to baby-sit.
An alternate version of the music video "Drop Dead Gorgeous" by Republica featuring clips from the film was shown on music networks such as MTV. Although the song can be heard in the film, it does not show up on the soundtrack album. The song was also used in one of the TV promo spots for the film.
The soundtrack album was released on December 17, 1996 featuring songs from the film. A CD featuring Marco Beltrami's orchestral music for Scream and Scream 2 was released on the Varèse Sarabande label in 1997.
When the film was released for sale on VHS in 1997 it was available in several different forms including three collectible covers with one featuring Drew Barrymore's face, one had Neve Campbell's face and the other had Courteney Cox's face. There was also a collector's set which came with the wide screen version of the film on one tape and another tape featuring the movie with audio commentary by Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson. The set also featured a special Scream phone card with 10 minutes of talk time and three large collector's cards with the faces of Drew, Neve and Courteney (the same images used on the special VHS covers).