On the heels of its 25th anniversary and right before the hotly anticipated franchise reboot, we look at the enduring legacy of “Scream”.
By the mid-1990s, the American slasher had all but declined from its vast popularity in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Beloved cinematic baddies like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger were on the downslope; their most recent entries acknowledged mostly as diminishing returns. The genre pivoted toward either corporeal thrills such as The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, or more thematically loaded works like Candyman and In the Mouth of Madness.
But in December 1996, a slasher movie would be unleashed onto an unsuspecting public.
Shattering all critical and commercial expectations and imprinting its mark on the genre for decades to come, this film introduced the world to a killer shrouded in black known as Ghostface. 25 years later, the Scream franchise encompasses five movies (the fifth to be released in January 2022), a television series, a spin-off of that series, and has grossed a total of over $600 million dollars.
But, where did it all start? And why does this particular movie still stand out, all these years later? Join me as we break it down.
Although he initially pursued a career as an actor, 31-year-old Kevin Williamson was fleshing out a script for a darkly funny thriller called Teaching Mrs. Tingle when he began teasing out a treatment about a young woman, alone in her home, who is harassed over the phone and then attacked by a masked killer. In a bid to pay his bills, Williamson secluded himself in Palm Springs and, just three days later, emerged with a completed screenplay entitled Scary Movie.
This project was a tense, impish slasher, inspired by the VHS era and the films that Williamson loved as a kid, such as 1978’s Halloween and 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, and served as a biting commentary on Generation X’s increasing desensitization to violence, on-screen and off.
Through the resulting bid war and pre-production intrigue, Scary Movie ± later re-titled to Scream — was something all too rare: a slasher movie where the script was the star.
It wasn’t the first time that meta-horror would take a sardonic, reflective look at the genre – Slumber Party Massacre, Return to Horror High, and Student Bodies, among others, covered similar ground in the ‘80’s – but it was among the first times that this approach was woven into a story that took itself and its stakes seriously.
A narrative where the characters casually drew allusions to horror films of the past, ribbing them for their illogical exploits, while also making the same mistakes when they are themselves being mercilessly pursued.
Ironically, Scream’s closest relation might be director Wes Craven’s 1994 horror-fantasy, New Nightmare. Speaking of which…
The Craven Effect.
Laced with wit, seemingly endless genre references, multiple red herrings, and a shrewd ‘whodunit’ mystery at its core, the only way Scream wouldn’t end up a classic is if the director simply didn’t understand it. Luckily for everyone involved, Craven – whose very own A Nightmare on Elm Street is evoked numerous times in the screenplay — was designated to helm.
At one point a humanities professor, Craven was a filmmaker deeply interested in human complexity, and deliberately brought sociological, philosophical, and even satirical elements to the vanguard of his extensive filmography.
Bolstered by Williamsons’ sharp and devious screenplay, Craven was an ideal choice for Scream, as his stylish mise-en-scène honors both the humor and savagery of the material. From the opening fifteen minutes to the first attack on leading character Sidney, to the protracted, go-for-broke climax, there is no shortage of spectacularly crafted set pieces.
Furthermore, as a noteworthy filmmaker within his genre, he could assemble a fine team of creative collaborators, inarguably one of the finest ever enlisted to a gory slasher.
Frequent Cronenberg cinematographer Mark Irwin provided moody lighting and ingenious framing. Editor Patrick Lussier, who would later direct an enjoyable 3D remake of My Bloody Valentine, kept the film clipped and feverish with absolutely zero seconds of dead air. And finally, composer Marco Beltrami made his feature debut on Scream, executing his prodigious talent with an experimental, eclectic musical score that is equal parts Hermann, Donaggio, and Morricone.
The Janet Leigh Moment.
The phone rings. A young girl of high school age politely answers. A man with a low, captivating voice is on the other end. So begins the movie, in one of the most referenced/parodied/discussed opening scenes in genre history.
Although Drew Barrymore was initially cast as Sidney Prescott, scheduling conflicts permitted her from taking on the role. Instead, she opted to play the doomed Casey Becker. This turned out to be a great boon for the production, as the film was able to take full advantage of Barrymore’s considerable popularity and acting skills, while giving the audience a shock that she is among the first to go.
At first skeptical of the caller, Casey escalates to utter panic when she realizes that not only is the source of the voice much closer than believed, but he has her boyfriend, Steve, bound and gagged just outside her living room doors. This is where Barrymore’s performance hits its apex as she fearfully participates in a movie trivia game with both her and Steve’s lives on the line.
When Marion Crane in 1960’s Psycho was murdered in the now-infamous shower, it was a shock because the marketing and opening heavily suggested that Janet Leigh, the film’s star, was indeed the main character. Same with Angie Dickinson in 1980’s Dressed to Kill, and now Barrymore.
Even when Casey is on the ground, mort