By the mid-nineties the generation who spent their Saturday nights in front of VCRs and in theatres following the exploits of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees were well into adulthood. The slasher movie boom, which grew out of the twin successes of Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), had lived well beyond its expected shelf life, much to the chagrin of critics. But by the late eighties the sub-genre was dead, the latest Halloween, Elm Street and Friday the 13th instalments barely making back their production budgets. It seemed there wasn’t anything left for the slasher film to say.
Screenwriter Kevin Williamson thought otherwise though. Eight years after the slasher genre had died his Scary Movie script aimed to introduce a new audience to the joys of the slasher film, and for double the impact he wanted to entice slasher fans of old back to cinemas as well. With such a potentially large target audience his screenplay was a hot commodity, so much so it produced a bidding war between Hollywood studios in early 1995. Miramax eventually won the battle and placed the film in the hands of one of the genre’s luminaries, director Wes Craven. The resulting movie, Scream (1996), was one of the surprise hits of the year. Twenty-two years on it remains the perfect combination of clever wit and top scares.
The building blocks of Scream’s success are varied but its most renowned triumph remains its self-aware script. Craven wasted no time at all in deploying this tool and the opening scene was shockingly fresh at the time, even to the most hardened slasher fan. At the time of filming, the biggest name in the cast was Drew Barrymore but to let us know that Scream was going to slice up the rulebook, Barrymore’s screen time was limited to the ten minute prologue. Craven made no secret of the fact that this was a trick borrowed from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), when top billed star Janet Leigh was killed early the film’s run time. Psycho was nearly forty years old at the time though, making it a twist worth stealing. It made for a starling opening, with Barrymore on painfully good form as ‘teen’ Casey.
Equally shocking to the viewer in this first scene were the frequent references to classic slasher films, the first hint that Scream was fully aware of the rules that it was supposed to play by. The killer torments Casey over the phone with a tense horror quiz, the answers to which get the more knowing members of the audience nodding sagely. It makes for an unsettling set-up, having the characters discussing the very films we are referencing, films that would normally allow us to gauge the situation before us.
Realising that the killer knows how this scene is supposed to play out, it quickly becomes apparent that all bets are off. In essence we are taken back to a time when an audience had no idea what was going to happen next during a stalk and slash film. The comfort provided to those already familiar with the likes of Black Christmas (1974) and When A Stranger Calls (1979) had been erased. The phone induced stalking plays out afresh and delivers on its promise of real terror; witness Casey attempting to call out to her parents only to realise her throat has been damaged to the point where talking is no longer possible.
Craven, having taken the audience down a peg or ten, left himself a blank canvas on which to weave some exceptional scares. The subsequent hour and forty six minutes ensured that the excellent opening was no fluke. Before making the movie, the director stated that he wanted to make a film about a group of horror film fans who suddenly found themselves in the very situations they were used to watching on screen. Williamson’s script allowed him to do just that.
Like the audience, Craven and Williamson knew all the rules of the slice and dice film, revealed rather bluntly when horror expert Randy (Jamie Kennedy) explains the three key rules to surviving a slasher movie, ‘Number one, you can never have sex’. Placing faith in the audience’s ability to reference the knife-kill movies of years gone by, Craven then proceeded to turn these rules around, thoroughly unnerving the viewer in the process. Witness Casey backing out of her house during the opening scene; as the camera follows we expect her to stumble right into the killer, but she doesn’t.
Having told the audience that he was not going to be held back by the expected scenario clichés Craven starts to have all kinds of fun at the viewer’s expense. Once we grasp the concept that all the old rules are out of the window, the goalposts are moved all over again. No better example of this is the offing of Woodsboro High School’s headmaster, Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler). Following on from a moment where Sidney shuts a cupboard door to reveal an unexpected empty room, Himbry does exactly the same with his office door. But this time the killer is right there and leaps out for a fatal attack; a cinematic double bluff.
At this stage most viewers gave up second guessing the shocks in store. The audience were now totally at the mercy of Craven; a scary prospect indeed. The most ingenious use of this formula busting tool sees Sidney finally sleep with her boyfriend Billy. Only minutes earlier Randy has told his High School chums that those characters that have sex during slasher films are doomed to be slaughtered. This leaves a huge question mark over Sidney’s head, the audience fretting over the fate of their supposed ‘final girl’.
The fun Craven had in destroying the old clichés is equalled by clever quips on the slasher genre itself. The fact that the characters know about the horror films in our own video collection not only creates some superb black humour but places the film in a more authentic world. At the time there was also a very up-to-date feel to the tools of trade utilised by the Ghostface (as Craven’s Munch inspired scream-faced villain became known). It was one of the first outings for the mobile phone as a plot device and their use in the story is inspired; watch out for the terrifying reply to Casey, ‘I want to know who I’m looking at’.
There are so many examples of this dark wit on display it is a mark of Craven’s talent that he still kept the film on the scary movie tracks for the duration. Take a look at Sidney dismissing the heroine’s actions in most horror movies, stating ‘...they run upstairs when they should be running out of the front door’, which is quickly followed by Sidney herself legging it upstairs when the killer gives chase. The moment when Tatum enters the garage for more beer will raise a smile and her proficiency throwing a beer bottle borders on slapstick. Such was the comedic potential of the script Scream itself was deconstructed in 2001 by Scary Movie (2001). But in Craven's film none of the laughs come at the detriment of the scares on offer.
For those viewers whose interest in the golden age slasher movies is on a par with Craven and Williamson, there are many tributes to spot throughout the film. John Carpenter’s Halloween runs in parallel with Scream at times, most notably when Randy chooses to play the film at the climatic house party. The use of Carpenter’s theme music, as the film plays on the TV in the background, is a stroke of genius, once again providing the perfect accompaniment as police Deputy Dewey nervously scopes the house for the murderer. Look out also for Casey’s father state ‘Go down to the Mackenzie’s house’, a line straight from Halloween, Casey scream ‘It’s Jason, I saw that movie twenty god damn times’, a line straight from Halloween IV (1988), and Billy’s surname ‘Loomis’, the same as Donald Pleasance’s character from the series, itself a tribute to Marion’s lover in Psycho. Many other classics of the genre are referred to and it is a fun challenge to find them all amongst the frights.
The super smart script and Craven’s interpretation of it are not the only stars of the show. In the wrong hands Scream could have been a very different film. Something that is often overlooked in the horror genre, and the slasher film in particular, are the performances of the cast. The film was shot at an opportune time, with many gifted young actors on the verge of breaking through and Craven was able to gather together an excellent group of young performers.
Many of the actors had yet to receive their big break, but the abilities that would take many of them onto subsequent success can be seen all over Scream. Neve Campbell, fresh from television’s Party Of Five, is stunning in the lead role of Sidney, creating a slasher heroine the likes of which had not been seen since Jamie Lee Curtis took to the streets of Haddonfield. She manages to garner maximum sympathy from the audience, displaying a rare mixture genuine vulnerability and underlying resilience.
In turn, Sidney’s boyfriend Billy is played with equal skill by Skeet Ulrich. With just a look he manages to turn Billy from doting boyfriend to potential murderer and his exchanges with Sidney are key in grounding the movie between the bouts of slasher trivia. Watching the film for a second time it’s worth while keeping an even closer eye on Ulrich’s performance to see all manner of subtle nuances. This is an actor who never forgot the drive behind his character, and what exactly Billy’s role in the story was.
Elsewhere, Courtney Cox does incredibly well to break away from ‘good girl’ Monica she was renowned for playing in the television series Friends at the time. She instils just the right balance of bitchiness and affability in the meddling reporter Gail Weathers. It is easy to see why she eventually went on to marry her co-star David Arquette, who plays the inept police Deputy Dewey, as there was an obvious connection on screen between the two. Such was the popularity of their budding romance, Craven added a brief shot at the end of the film showing Dewey being placed into an ambulance, just to indicate he was still alive.
But the unsung hero of the film was Matthew Lillard in the role of Stu. Williamson admitted that the part was painfully underwritten, but it was turned around by Lillard’s delivery of his lines. He steals nearly every scene he’s in and Craven was taken aback by his ability to ad-lib dialogue, lines that went on to be some of the best in the film, in particular his ‘Houston we have a problem’, ‘I always had a thing for you Sid’, and much of the dialogue on the phone with Sidney at the end of the film. In one supporting role Lillard managed to display his flair for both comedy and high drama.
To juxtapose the violence, Craven managed to find a wonderful setting for his film, the town of Healdsberg, Santa Rose, in the heart of California’s wine country. The idyllic nature of the sprawling detached houses and the tree lined avenues created an effective contrast similar to the one crafted by Carpenter in Halloween. The huge farmhouse used for the final scenes was constructed by an elderly couple who both died a month after its completion. The family to whom the house was left kindly allowed Craven’s crew to take it over for a night, to do with it as they wished. Craven used the house to full effect, creating one of the best slasher movie finales of all time. Craven was not so lucky at the town’s high school. The school board did not want filming to take place on the school grounds due to the adult content of movie. The film crew thus had to transform the local community hall into the school finally seen in the film.
All of this was coupled with a great soundtrack by Marco Beltrami, knowing use of some popular songs songs (keep ears alert for a moving rendition of Blue Oyster Cults’ ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ by Gus, and a classic from Alice Cooper), a furious pace, and frighteningly real effects, free of any CGI interference. The result was one of the most outstanding films of the nineties.
While Scream’s post-modernism and slasher film tributes pulled in the critical plaudits, horror fans were just happy to have a decent offering in cinemas after the barren years of the late eighties and early nineties; as such the film made $173million off of a paltry $15million budget. Twenty two years later, the ingenuity of the script has dulled somewhat but the real triumph of the film remains; it’s still an excellent scary movie. The melding of horror and comedy had been tried before and whilst it produced some fine movies (An American Werewolf In London (1981), Gremlins (1984)), the laughs were usually came at the detriment to the scares. Miramax boss Bob Weinstein was clear in his request that Williamson’s script be made into a scary movie first and foremost, not a comedic one.
Weinstein need not have worried. Craven, an old hand at horror by 1995, ensured all the key aspects were present; an abundance of effective jump-scares, a gripping whodunit storyline, an iconic killer, and a final twist that on first viewing is incredibly difficult to predict. The countless red herrings keep viewers glued to the screen and tensions high. The finger is pointed at everyone from the police chief (the shot of his familiar black boots), Sidney’s dad (the mask is identified as a ‘Father Death’ costume), Sidney’s mothers original killer Cotton Weary, Gail’s cameraman (see the look he gives Gail when she tells Sidney there’s still a killer on the loose and an innocent man on death row), to Deputy Dewey (he is often absent at key moments early on) and Principal Himbry (see his alternative use of the scissors on his desk). All of this is topped by an array of set-pieces that became some of the best in slasher movie history.
The success of Scream prompted a second-coming for the slasher film as studious sought to create their own slasher hit. As was the case in 1978, slasher films were cheap to make, so the financial gamble was minimal. Whilst some good horror films followed, I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Urban Legend (1998), the high points were outnumbered by the low points, the likes of Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998), Psycho (1998) Cherry Falls (2000) learning little from the litany of failed films from the original slasher boom. In trying to emulate Scream’s financial success studio heads forgot that the movie came from a master filmmaker bringing to life a brilliant script.
Even before Scream was filmed Williamson was approached about two potential sequels as part of the bidding war on his screenplay. After a test screening of Scream wowed the Miramax executives Craven was also contracted to direct two more entries. Scream 2 (1997) arrived just a year later. Despite doubling the budget the production was troubled. Craven was given a tight six week filming schedule by Miramax in order to achieve their desired December 1997 release date and Williamson had to contend with a leaked script in one of the first cases of internet movie meddling. The result was a film that failed to match the fun and the frights of its predecessor.
While the premise of Scream 2 served to bring back memories of the campus slasher films of the eighties such as the excellent The House On Sorority Row (1983), the cheesy Sorority House Massacre (1986) and the underrated horror-comedy Return to Horror High (1987), the film itself failed to take advantage of the college setting. Windsor College felt decidedly empty and ‘un-college’ like. The only scene that did invoke the classroom setting was an incredibly irritating scene featuring self-satisfied teens discussing film theory with the sort of comments you'd expect from a twelve year-old rather than college level students ‘You’ve got a hard-on for Cameron’. Thanks to the success of the first film Craven was able to pull together an even more impressive cast with small roles given to the Omar Epps, Timothy Olyphant, Laurie Metcalf, David Warner, Rebecca Gayheart, Portia de Rossi, Jada Pinkett, Luke Wilson, Heather Graham, Tori Spelling and Joshua Jackson, but the increased star power didn’t result in increased quality.
Only two moments from Scream 2 stand out twenty one years after the film’s release; Sidney and Hallie’s escape from the crashed police car as perhaps the best scene in the entire franchise, and Jerry O’Connell’s horrendous canteen serenade as the worst. The reveal of Scream 2’s killers was also anti-climatic, one of them seeming to go against the plot logic of the first film and the other a forgettable character offering a poor Billy Loomis/Skeet Ulrich impression. Whether this disappointing final reveal was a result of Williamson making last minute changes to his script following its leak on the internet remains a debated topic to this day.
To complete the then trilogy a third film arrived 2000, Scream 3 (2000). Craven was once again in the director’s chair but Williamson had moved on, with Ehren Kruger taking over scripting duties. Whilst no worse than the second instalment it was also no better. The trick of a self-aware horror film had also long been ditched, leaving behind a relatively by the numbers thriller which, despite teasing “all bets are off” took zero risks. With all of the main cast still intact by the finale, Scream 3’s climax had a hum of desperation as it fell back on soap-opera plot twists in an attempt to link it to the original film.
A lukewarm reception by critics and paying customers made a fourth instalment an unlikely prospect, but against the odds Scream 4 (2011) arrived ten years later. Under the tagline “New decade, new rules” Craven assembled all the original stars for what he hoped would be a last hoorah; the result was more like a last sigh. The returning cast members were now wearing heavy plot armour, and with zero chance of Sidney, Dewey or Gale being in danger genuine scares were few and far between. The new characters joining them were universally unsympathetic, the killer’s motivation beggared belief ‘You were always so fucking special … well, now I'm special’, and the story repeated scenes that were all more effectively utilised in previous instalments. The result was an indifferent response from critics and fans alike.
In 2015 the franchise moved away from the big screen, debuting on television with a ten episode series simply entitled Scream. The title was the only thing retained, the characters, setting and even the iconic ghostface mask jettisoned, begging the question why tie the show to the franchise at all, except to lazily pull in a guaranteed audience of fans. The show had few high points and struggled to extend the slender plot of a traditional slasher across four-hundred plus minutes of television. Despite a lukewarm response to the series a second season arrived in 2016. Season 2 improved on some of the first seasons failings but also repeated too many of its mistakes. Still not learning the lesson from failed slasher franchises before it, a third series has been commissioned and the Scream franchise looks set to drag itself on even further away from the brilliance of its original outing.
See also Scream 2 (1997), Scream 3 (2000), Scream 4 (2011)