1996 Miramax, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

!!! WARNING CONTAINS SPOILERS !!!

It’s probably not quite true to suggest that horror movies were dead before Ghostface spilled Drew Barrymore’s guts 25 years ago. But the genre was certainly on life support.

The first half of the 1990s was very much a transitional period for horror as a whole, with the multiplex-friendly hack and slash of the 1980s running out of steam and the genre pivoting towards more prestige stories like Misery and The Silence of the Lambs. The latter movie, lest we forget, was one of only three films ever to win the Big Five prizes at the Oscars. The days of teenagers flocking to the cinema to scream in each other’s arms on the back row were seemingly over.

Then a smart, cine-literate spec script called Scary Movie arrived on the desk of Miramax and its Dimension Films label. The writer was an aspiring scribe in his twenties called Kevin Williamson, who had been inspired by a 1994 news report about the Gainesville Ripper and the five college students he murdered in a four-day killing spree. He listened to John Carpenter’s soundtrack for Halloween while he worked on the script and littered his movie with references to the slashers of the 1970s and 80s boom period.

Of course, that script would go on to be renamed as Scream, with the Scary Movie title used by a more overtly spoofy genre homage four years later. A scrappy, low-budget production with gallons of gore and a scalpel-sharp sense of self-awareness, Scream would go on to redefine its genre and give teen-focused popcorn horror a much-needed shot in the arm. Or perhaps a slash across the throat?

SLASHING IS SMART

Scream sets out its stall from the first scene, which remains the most iconic element of the movie. In a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho, the film kills off its biggest name and ostensible lead character very early in the story. Barely five minutes of screen time has passed by the time Barrymore’s Casey has flunked a horror movie quiz – that Jason Voorhees question is the oldest trick in the book – and subsequently been disembowelled by a killer in a Ghostface mask. It’s a sharp shock and a very tense horror sequence, not to mention a clear sign that this is a slasher movie with a brain in its head.

Certainly, Scream is a rare example of a slasher in which the usual rules can’t possibly apply, because the characters have seen all of the same films that the audience has seen. In this world, cinephile knowledge is currency to help you survive. It’s notable that two of the teenage survivors at the movie’s end – Neve Campbell’s Sidney and Jamie Kennedy’s Randy – are the ones who show most awareness of genre tropes and conventions. Randy famously explains the “rules of surviving a horror movie” to the assembled crowd at the third act party, while Sidney remarks earlier on how predictable slasher movies always seem to feature a “big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door”.

That’s one of the many genius moves of Scream. Characters aren’t necessarily given the right to survive by being virgins or due to their moral purity, despite Randy’s assurances about how set in stone those rules are. They make it to the end credits because they’re clever and make smart decisions, often based on the films they’ve seen and their understanding of how stories work. It’s notable that Rose McGowan’s Tatum becomes a victim, given that she refers to one scary situation as being “like some Wes Carpenter flick”. Sorry Tatum, but that’s a cock-up strong enough to lead to death in this world.

Skeet Ulrich’s character’s famous line in the gore-drenched third act is that “movies don’t create psychos; movies make psychos more creative”. But, what he didn’t realise is that they also make potential victims cleverer and more likely to avoid the swinging blade of the monologuing psychopath. It’s no coincidence that the killers in Scream are far less efficient than the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. They’re decidedly human creations and, therefore, can be thwarted – or at least slowed down – by well-placed freezer doors and bedroom doors wedged in the right place.

WANTING WES

Scream benefits from an elegant and engaging tonal balancing act, managed with aplomb by Williamson’s script and the direction of the late Wes Craven – an undisputed horror maestro. Craven was famously reluctant to take on Scream, having become concerned about being pigeon-holed as someone incapable of going beyond horror. He also worried that he’d already done the meta thing very recently with New Nightmare in 1994, which used the established aura of Freddy Krueger to tell a postmodern tale about the process of making a scary movie.

But as Craven would eventually realise, Scream is not just a second attempt at New Nightmare. It’s an entirely different beast and one which, in many ways, reflects Craven’s changing opinion towards the genre as a whole. New Nightmare feels like a filmmaker working through their own, complex views about something they helped to build. It’s about the potentially dangerous and damaging effect of horror on the people who watch it, and indeed those who spend their time creating it. Often, it’s almost a live therapy session for Craven, carried out by himself.

Scream, on the other hand, has a remarkable push and pull. It clearly loves horror, but there’s also a sort of strange contempt at its heart, as if Craven has decided to put everything he has left into it. It feels like a man deciding that, if he has to make his final slasher, he might as well make it nasty, blood-soaked and shot through with a cracked moral compass about the role of horror fiction in society. While the movie stops short of blaming violent cinema for the way people act in real life, it doesn’t wave it away as blameless, acknowledging that films have some degree of moral duty. There’s a cynicism to the film that feels very in keeping with the Gen X culture of the 1990s. As it happened, Craven would return to direct three subsequent Scream sequels, having clearly fallen back in love with scary movies and relishing the chance to reinvent his work again.

But it’s too simplistic to refer to Scream as an act of reinvention. It’s more than that. Scream takes apart the scaffolding that had help up an entire movie genre for decades, points at the Oz-like man behind the curtain and prevents anyone from seeing slashers in the same way ever again. Slasher movies now have to come with a wink, a nudge and something more than the usual tropes. Without Scream to roll out the extremely red carpet, it’s difficult to see a studio taking a chance on anything as fun and genre-aware as Happy Death Day or Freaky.

Credit must also go to the actors when it comes to the success of Scream. It’s a beautifully cast film across the board, including Neve Campbell’s twist on the “final girl” and the unhinged improv comedy of Matthew Lillard as killer Stu. Lillard, in particular, approaches his character with a level of intensity that is a pure delight. He has spoken about how much of the dialogue during his killer reveal alongside Ulrich’s Billy Loomis – his surname another element borrowed lovingly from Halloween – was born of improvisation, and he certainly gives the character both barrels to an absurd, almost Jim Carrey-like degree. He’s helped by the presence of the quieter, even more terrifying Ulrich, who looks more like a creepy serial killer than just about anybody else in history, while also having a sort of Johnny Depp in Nightmare on Elm Street charming vibe about him.

Jamie Kennedy’s Randy, meanwhile, is very much a character ahead of his time. He’d now be an active Reddit commenter and almost certainly the host of a CinemaSins-style YouTube channel about movie plot holes and goofs. In the more innocent movie analysis world of the 90s it’s endearing but, if he disagreed with you on Star Wars: The Last Jedi several decades later, it’d almost certainly be a nightmare of endless Twitter threads and commentary about the Mary Sue trope. Courtney Cox, meanwhile, gives Gale Weathers more shades than you’d expect of a depiction of gutter tabloid journalism, and David Arquette skewers the toxic masculinity of the police service as the brave but hapless Dewey.

BACK FROM THE DEAD?

Interestingly, Scream is often spoken of as revitalising the slasher movie. But, when you look back, it didn’t really have that effect. Sure, the likes of I Know What You Did Last Summer sprang up in the wake of the success of Craven and Williamson’s film, but those were every bit as indebted to the slashers of the 80s as they were to Scream’s hyper-referential style. It was still the old workhorses of the genre that dominated, with new Halloween movies coming out in the years after Scream and Jason Voorhees returning for 2002’s Jason X, as well as scuffling with Freddy Krueger in 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason. By the end of the 2000s, Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street had all been given poorly-received remakes. The successful end of the horror market was being dominated by found footage and torture porn. Slashers were as dead as they were before Scream.

Scream’s impact actually made it much harder to make a slasher movie work. Audiences now demanded more from these stories than the usual tropes and tricks, which Williamson and Craven had shone a blinding and critical spotlight towards. They’d now ask why that character ran into the basement, why they didn’t pick up the phone to call for help and why they weren’t more immediately wary of the weirdo in the mask lurking behind a bush. Rather than being the start of a golden slasher era, Scream was the end of the genre’s heyday.

That’s why the sequels are so interesting. They talk self-referentially of inherent diminished returns and, despite frequently entertaining moments, they never come close to matching the violent invention of the first movie – a self-fulfilling prophecy in that respect.

A fifth Scream movie – directed by the Radio Silence team behind the excellent Ready or Not and with most of the original cast in place – is on the way in 2022 and will face a tough task in matching the generation-defining job done by the first film, without Craven or Williamson to help them this time around. It remains to be seen whether it will live up to what came before, or whether audiences will be left looking like they’ve seen a ghost(face).

Photo: 1996 Miramax, LLC. All Rights Reserved.