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, mortally wounded, there is still that hope that she will pull through and escape. Alas, she is crudely taken out, and viewers in 1996 were left with the impression that no character was safe.
The Final Girl(s).
In the grand tradition of the “final girl” – the lone female survivor who, by resourcefulness, strength, and/or sheer luck manages to survive her attack – Scream has not one, but two of them.
Canadian actress Neve Campbell, gaining popularity on the new series “Party of Five”, was cast as Sidney Prescott. When the audience first meets Sidney, she is only a year removed from the brutal murder of her mother, conflated with pressure from her boyfriend, Billy, to lose her virginity. Whereas many previous leading ladies – think Laurie Strode, Alice Hardy, Nancy Thompson – gained nuance as their films went on and the danger zeroes in on them, Sidney was somewhat unique because she arrives to us already a three-dimensional character with an entire movie’s worth of traumatic backstory.
For her part, Campbell gives her complete self to the role, ensuring that while Sidney may be terrified of what is happening to her and her friends, she is never a victim, and even finds ways to turn the table on Ghostface time and time again. Her arc in the role throughout the series is gradual, harrowing, and ultimately empowering.
Fresh off the success of the hit TV comedy “Friends”, Courtney Cox lobbied for the role of Gale Weathers, a hardened, cutthroat tabloid journalist who believes that Sidney has accused the wrong man of her mother’s slaying and is determined to uncover who is behind this new rash of slaughter.
With her tenacious knack for harassing teenagers, and going above and beyond to get the scoop, Gale could easily be a repellant character. But it is a testament to Cox’s skills as a comedienne that Gale is always charismatic, and a joy to watch.
Let’s Look at the Suspects.
In addition to the sterling work by Campbell, Cox, and Barrymore, this might be a good time to acknowledge the faultless cast that facilitated Craven’s vision and brought Williamson’s whip-smart dialogue to vivid life.
The affable, boyish charm of David Arquette as Deputy Dewey Riley. The seductive mystery of Skeet Ulrich as Billy Loomis. The unbridled, unhinged livewire known as Stu Macher, portrayed by Matthew Lillard. The sassy, fiercely protective Tatum Riley, played by Rose McGowan. Jamie Kennedy as the lovelorn yet chronically suspicious video geek, Randy Meeks.
Far from being mere suspects or meat for Ghostface’s chopping block, the actors of Scream formed a cohesive ensemble, with each role cast and played to perfection.
Finally, it would be remiss to not mention the cast member that all horror fans know, but they might not have seen: Roger L. Jackson as the tantalizing, menacing voice behind Ghostface.
One Hell of a Party.
While most horror films have a banger of an opening, sustaining that amount of suspense straight through to the end is no easy task. Scream all but obliterates most third acts in memory with a relentless, 45-minute dénouement.
It begins with a raging after-curfew party set at Stu’s isolated house and ends with only a handful of surviving characters. Along the way are some terrifically fiendish sequences: Tatum’s garage door murder; Sidney attempting to keep Ghostface out of a locked car; the proclamation of “rules” on how to survive a horror movie; Gale discovering her dead cameraman on top of the news van. And let’s be honest, Jamie Kennedy (as Randy) yelling at Jamie Lee Curtis (as Laurie) to turn around, when the killer is creeping in behind him, will never be anything less than cosmically brilliant.
This all cumulates with the twist that Ghostface is the pairing of Billy and Stu, the former acting out from maternal abandonment and the latter, well… “peer pressure”.
Having two killers behind the mayhem was not without precedent – 1981’s Just Before Dawn pulled this off rather well – but it was rare up to this point. This reveal was not only shocking the first watch, but it continues to hold up under scrutiny.
A truly great twist allows the house of cards preceding it to click into place — and this one is dynamite.
Scream opened on December 18, 1996, to stellar reviews and would go on to earn an astounding $173 million in ticket sales.
From 1997 through the early 2000s, there would be a slew of slasher films with attractive teen stars and glossy production values (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, Cherry Falls, etc.) but also the return of self-referential horror: Behind the Mask: The Rise and Fall of Leslie Vernon, Tucker & Dale vs Evil, and Cabin in the Woods come immediately to mind.
Even in movies that weren’t overtly meta, such as Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, it became instantaneously common to hear characters acknowledging other horror movies with the films themselves. Haughty critics would decry some of these efforts as carbon copies of Scream. To me, that is a bit reductive.
What cannot be denied is that Kevin Williamson and the great Wes Craven yielded a collaboration so distinct, so refreshing yet singular, that every film since which plays in even remotely the same ballpark must contend with it to some degree.
Awesome article on one of the best horror movies EVER!
Love the article and the breakdown, brings back a lot of memories watching this with my friends when it was first released!
Cat Yudain wrote:
Always a fan of your reviews, Rob! Awesome read. Can’t wait to see more from you.
Andy Piantanida wrote:
Fantastic op-ed. Thank you for noting the time in horror film history when “Scream” was thrust upon us. Also, having somebody phenomenally valuable like Drew Barrymore die in the first few minutes? You knew you were getting truly quality entertainment again from the horror industry. Bravo Rob!
S Michael wrote:
STU: Yeah, we put her out of her misery, ’cause let’s face it Sidney, your mother was no Sharon Stone, hmm?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, but she was sharin’ somethin’!
I heard that in the audience at about the third viewing. The impact of this franchise cannot be understated. It definitely breathed new life into slasher films and horror in general.
Recently rewatched this film this past Halloween when it popped up on cable. It still held my attention through commercial breaks and all. Fantastic breakdown Rob, loving your in depth analysis.