By the time Scream opened in theaters more than 25 years ago during the Christmas holiday season, no one probably was expecting it to be a big hit. Horror movies by the mid-1990s had become a step up, just barely, from porno movies and whatever Pauly Shore and SNL spinoff movies that were being released.
The Silence of the Lambs had won the Grand Slam of the Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Lead Actor, Best Lead Actress). Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt and one of the most revered actors Denzel Washington along with Kevin Spacey back when he was respectable had made Se7en. Both were about serial killers. Isn’t that basically what slashers were?
Yes and no. Apparently a lot of real-life serial killers were making the movie industry put its nose to the grindstone. After Body Parts opened, people were criticizing it as the Jeffrey Dahmer case was making news. Even an action comedy like Kuffs with Christian Slater was criticized for its PG-13 violence. And the Friday the 13th movies had run out of steam. Same with the Halloween movies and New Line Cinema had killed off Freddy Krueger. But Wes Craven had revived him with New Nightmare, which got some better reviews than the previous movies.
But many horror movies were still not liked. So, that’s why they weren’t called horror movies. Silence and Se7en were psychological thrillers. Jurassic Park about dinosaurs eating people was science-fiction action-thriller. And Craven was doing Vampire in Brooklyn, which Eddie Murphy was contractually obligated to do to move away from Paramount Pictures. People were expecting Love at First Bite, but it was more like Blacula with violence and gore mixed in with humor. The movie bombed.
Production on Scream had been problematic. They were wanting to film the high school scenes at the Santa Rosa High School. It’s just that a killer named Richard Allen Davis had been convicted of killing Polly Klaas in a case that gripped America, not just California. Kevin Williamson, who had wrote the script, was loosely inspired by the Gainesville Ripper case involving Danny Rolling in Florida.
Williamson later said that he was house-sitting when he thought there was a prowler or intruder in the house. After calling a friend and walking around the house to make sure he was alone, Williamson said he began to tell the basic plot of Scream, originally called Scary Movie, to the friend.
When Scream was advertised in the late Fall of 1996, a lot of people were thinking it was a movie with Drew Barrymore and Courtney Cox in the leads. Barrymore had rebuilt her career in the early 1990s and Cox, who after several years of appearing in TV and movies, was now a rising star with Friends. When audiences went they were expecting Barrymore to be in the movie longer. But she was only in the first 15 minutes or so.
SPOILER ALERT FOR ANYONE WHO HASN’T SEEN THIS MOVIE IN THE PAST 25 YEARS!!
Barrymore’s character, Casey Becker, is brutally killed off rather early. Even Janet Leigh had a bigger role in Psycho. And for those who were thinking that Casey would only be injured, that wasn’t the case. A serial killer wearing a Ghostface mask and dresses like a Druid is killing teens in a California town. With Barrymore’s character dead, everyone was fair game.
The movie switches to focus on Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) whose mother was killed the year before. She has a boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) but he says to her they’re relationship is more “edited for television” rather than the NC-17 he thought they’d have. During their first scene together, they reference The Exorcist. Movies had been referenced before in movies, but it was often few and far between. It was almost as if there was an unwritten role you didn’t take about any other movies in movies unless the classics.
Movies pretty much are a part of our lives we were afraid to admit existed. We go out to movies on dates. Blockbuster Video, Movie Gallery and Hollywood Video, among a lot of of other independent companies were popular hotspots in towns and communities. We’d bump into people and ask for their advice on if they had seen this or that. Sale of VHS tapes at the time were becoming cheaper so people could buy their favorite movies. Satellite TV was becoming popular so you could see more movies than the regulars.
And most of the people who were going to go see Scream in the 1996-1997 winter were raised on movies, most importantly, those above-mentioned horror movies. Almost everyone had seen one or all of the slasher franchise movies that came out throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. It was like an ode to the fandom that was beginning to gain traction in the general public. Trekkies, devoted fans to Star Trek and the movies were becoming more popular. And George Lucas had decided to re-released the Star Wars original trilogy with better special effects and new scenes in theaters in the winter of 1997. And Star Wars fans, who were just kids in 1977 were now adults.
So, by 1996, it was hard to present another slasher movie to audiences without acknowledging that horror movies actually exists. “What’s your favorite movie?” is what Casey and Sidney are asked by the killer. The idea also that the killer would communicate with their victims was a new twist to Scream. Yes, Freddy Krueger talked, but after a while, it just came to Freddy cracking jokes and Robert Englund mugging for the camera.
Also, slasher movies often gave us the most obnoxious characters that you would root for the killer. And the killer in most of these movies was often a wronged person, so it was more of a revenge movie about a masked killer getting back at the people who had wronged them or someone close to them. This is what makes Scream different because the characters are somewhat likable. We like Casey because we like Drew Barrymore.
And the actors in the cast weren’t the typical of the slasher genre. Scream cost about $15 million to make in the mid-1990s which was three or four times more than most slashers of the era made. Campbell had appeared on Party of Five since 1994, the same year Cox, who plays TV crime reporter Gale Weathers, had appeared in Friends. Many of the actors in slashers were maybe in one episode of a successful TV show. Or they had appeared in a failed TV pilot. Actors were cheaply hired. A lot didn’t have much on their resume before and not much after.
But not Scream. Also in the cast was David Arquette, brother to the more famous Rosanna and Patricia and son of Lewis, as the gullible young law officer, Dwight “Dewey” Riley. Linda Blair of The Exorcist fame had a cameo as did Craven, dressed as Freddy Krueger sorta. There was also the Fonz himself, Henry Winkler, in a role as the strict principal of the high school. This wasn’t the typical horror movie.
And that’s what some people liked about it and what others hated. I had a roommate in college who wasn’t a fan, because he was more of a fan of the old-fashioned horror movies directed by George A. Romero, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento to name a few. Yes, Scream was trying to be a middle of the road horror movie to pull in the kids who were busy laughing at the Pauly Shore/Adam Sandler movies but didn’t go to horror flicks, but also a tip to those who had seen movies like Sleepaway Camp and Silent Night/Deadly Night and probably had VHS taps of them.
The plot also had a twist that most slashers didn’t do by having two killers, Billy and his friend Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) who had killed Sidney’s mother, Maureen, because she had an affair with Billy’s father, leading to his parents’ divorce. Billy blamed Maureen and got a love for killing. Stu mentions earlier he dated Casey before she dumped him. So, he was out for revenge there. Their goal is to set up Sidney’s father, Neil (Lawrence Hecht) and along the way kill Stu’s girlfriend and Dewey’s sister, Tatum (Rose McGowan) as well as think they kill Randy (Jamie Kennedy) who knows about horror movies and a lot of other things.
Randy helps bring some changes to the movie because usually the goofy character in slasher ends up dead, sometimes rather early, but Randy survives after getting shot. Yes, Billy and Stu use handguns, something no other slasher killer has used. It’s usually sharp objects that are used to kill people. Scream was more or less breaking its own rules.
Arquette had done such a great performance that they decide Dewey survives. He was originally supposed to die. You’ve seen the Dewey character before in horror movies. He was the sympathetic law officer who unfortunately who was killed in the final act. Four of the main characters survive. A character like Neil would also be killed in the final act. This wasn’t And Then There Was None. There also was some finality to the movie. Most horror movies leave on a scare, but this one ends with the killers dispatched. And there was a happy ending somewhat.
Well, until the next movie. Scream‘s popularity produce a sequel that was filmed quickly during the summer of 1997 and writer Williamson had wrote another movie I Know What You Did Last Summer with a slasher vibe. Both this and the Scream sequel were hits. And more movies were released during the late 1990s where well-known actors and familiar faces were being made over the next few years with The Faculty and Urban Legend to name a few.
But following the Columbine High School massacre, things changed with the new millennium as horror movies portraying high schoolers as murdered victims changed. This of course, led to horror movies in the 2000s to be rated PG-13, which was like making a porno but leaving out all the nudity and sexual content. Then torture porn movies, or Gorno, like the Saw movies became popular. Or there were the Final Destination movies, which could portray high schoolers die gruesome deaths but from a Rube Goldberg style that made no sense.
And now the fifth Scream movie, just called Scream itself, has been released and is already considered a hit after a few weeks. So, a new generation is becoming aware of the franchise that started out as a sleeper hit.
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One thought on “How ‘Scream’ Changed Horror, For Better And For Worse”
Some fans may still be able to watch and enjoy slasher films today, even with all the real life tragedies for teenagers in recent years, and some may not. Speaking as someone who can find something favourable in all sorts of films, I always applauded the heroine, whether she’s played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Neve Campbell or Jennifer Love Hewitt, who bravely confronts the killer in their climactic showdown. But I discontinued with the Scream franchise after Scream 3 and I’m still quite happy with that decision. Thank you for this article.
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