To mark the twentieth anniversary of Wes Craven’s game-changing slasher, Scream, Wicked Horror presents a week of specially-themed content celebrating the movie’s enduring appeal. In this installment, Nat Brehmer takes a look at what makes Sidney Prescott such an enduring Final Girl.
In the twenty years since the release of Scream, there have been several things pointed out and regarded as the keys to its success. Kevin Williamson’s sharp commentary and witty dialogue, Wes Craven’s superbly tight direction, the simplistic, iconic Ghostface costume, that opening scene, which is one of the most perfectly executed sequences in horror history… There are a multitude of reasons why Scream works as well as it does, and why it continues to endure today.
Having said that, one of the most obvious reasons tends to go overlooked. A story can’t be great without a great protagonist and that’s Sidney Prescott without a doubt. As much as Scream has been embraced by the horror community, it doesn’t get enough credit for its heroine. This is a character who feels real, who feels genuine and who above all else feels like a hero much more than a survivor. She’s not just the last girl standing. She’s a girl who’s tormented and backed into a wall until she starts fighting back.
At the beginning of Scream, Sidney is already in the middle of recovering from one tragedy. We meet her while she’s trying to get over the horrific rape and murder of her mother a little under a year beforehand. Now that it’s approaching the anniversary, she’s already far from fine long before she has any kind of encounter with the killer.
To put it simply, Sidney goes through hell in this movie. Things just keep getting worse and worse for her. She’s grieving her mother and recovering from trauma and her boyfriend is trying to pressure her into sex instead of actually being there for her. Then a killer starts picking off her friends and makes it pretty clear that he’s ultimately targeting her, specifically.
It also becomes clear that the killer may just be the person who murdered her mother, which means that she sent the wrong man to prison (and, consequently, gave him a death sentence). Her father has disappeared and may very well be dead. And finally, just minutes after finally sleeping with her boyfriend, she finds out that he’s been behind everything. These are just some of the things Sidney must contend with in Scream.
It’s a lot. Somehow, Neve Campbell makes it all look genuine and—even more importantly—believable. The dynamic created between Sidney and the killer is interesting even before Ghostface is eventually unmasked (as both Billy and Stu). In most classic slashers, the killer did not target a single girl specifically, she just happened to be the last one left. Even in the original Halloween, Laurie didn’t know why Michael was after her. But none of the Friday the 13th heroines were singled out, nor was Sally Hardesty of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Sidney, on the other hand, is being primed for her role as heroine from the moment we meet her. She’s singled out. She’s tormented, manipulated by Ghostface until she’s finally forced into that amazing third act, which gives her the opportunity to fight back. I’d seen horror heroines get the upper hand on the killer before Scream, but I had never seen a heroine use the killer’s tactics against them.
She uses the phone against Billy and Stu for exactly the same reason they use it: to make people feel paranoid, uncomfortable and on edge. On top of that, Sidney uses the same distorted voice to tease and torment them. She goes a step further into actually wearing the Ghostface costume to attack them. There’s a revenge element of the Scream climax that echoes Craven’s first feature, The Last House on the Left, and even the emotional intensity of something like I Spit On Your Grave. Yes, Sidney consented to sex with Billy, but she consented with Billy the boyfriend, not Billy the killer.
Weirdly enough, Scream 2 might actually be the most endearing moment for Sidney as a character. It’s so different from the opening of the original, because at the start of Scream 2 Sidney is coping so well. She’s level-headed and over it as she is ever going to be. She’s not ignoring the problem, she’s not forgetting what happened, and even when it’s clear that things are starting up again, she tries her best to deal with it. Sidney is trying so hard in the second movie to be okay that it makes it all the more devastating when she realises how bad the situation actually is.
Scream 3 definitely suffers from a lack of Sidney, but the fact that she’s gone into hiding makes sense with her arc carrying over from the second movie. The closure offered from 3 being the supposed closing of a trilogy actually allows for Sidney to be the Sidney we see again in Scream 4. She’s gone through it all and she’s expressed it all through this book. She’s put things behind her.
And even when she’s drawn back into it, she knows what she’s doing and she knows exactly how to handle it. Because not only has she lived through the Scream experience several times before, but she’s older than the killers now. She’s more experienced with what they’re doing than they are. This is a really interesting angle to approach the situation and the character from.
Sidney is a character who has genuinely grown over the course of four movies. Sidney Prescott is one of the most textured, sympathetic heroines in horror history. She is as central to the film and the overall franchise as the iconic Ghostface mask itself. That’s all due to the amazing combined talents of Kevin Williamson, Wes Craven and of course Neve Campbell. Without any one of those three ingredients, she would not have been the incredible, wholehearted and enduring character she is, and always will be.