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Anatomy of a Scene: Scream

6 min read

The late great Wes Craven lived by one horror mantra, that a film should open strong and scare the audience really well. If you achieve that, you need not scare them that much again until the third act. The opening of his 1996 film is a prime example of this. The typical slasher opening formula was completely shaken up by the perfect simplicity of what screenwriter Kevin Williamson, and Craven's direction achieved.

Craven sets out the table with great ease. , the biggest name in the film, is in her kitchen making popcorn. Her landline rings, and she answers. A voice speaks and appears to have the wrong number. Much like A Stranger Calls which itself has its origins in old campfire tales of the babysitter, we expect that this will be the first of many frights. 

Craven keeps the camera on Barrymore's Casey. Atypical for horror, the scene is brightly lit. This isn't a scary campsite or abandoned building, this is a middle-class suburban house. We can see everything in sight, everything is lit. There are no shadows to hide in. Barrymore's dress sense is also atypical, instead of a scantily clad woman or a buttoned up virgin, Barrymore is dressed casually, in a cream coloured sweater and jeans.

Craven deliberately lets us know the geography of the house, the kitchen connected to both the front hall and the living room, the living room looking out into the back yard. He carefully places these moments with ease, while we follow Barrymore from room to room. It's impressive to see him sow seeds of what will come, Barrymore picks up a knife while casually talking to the mysterious voice – the sinister yet at times personable Roger L. Jackson – all while the popcorn cooks on the stove.

Dimension Films

It might seem like a background detail, but the popcorn serves as a marker of tension. Like The Godfather which employed the boiling of a kettle to indicate a rising amount of tension in a conversation, Craven lets the ever-growing foil pack of popcorn indicate where we are in the level of threat and tension. It's at a simmer as the conversation goes from a simple misunderstanding or “wrong number” situation to a discussion on horror films.

Here, Craven also lays out what would become even more obvious later – this film is self-aware. Discussions turn to Craven's own A Nightmare on Elm Street, the voice on the phone stating they were scary while Barrymore derides all but the first, stating the sequels “suck”. A witty, in the know jab at New Line Cinema milking the cash cow without Craven's involvement. These moments of trivia and subtle jokes help both release the tension, and build up the world we're entering into.

If Casey knows the tropes of a slasher film, she's safe surely? The fact that the voice is friendly makes this feel less like a horror film and more like the start of a romantic comedy. However, using what we know of the legend of the babysitter, wherein a teenage babysitter is bothered on the phone until the police inform her that the call is coming from inside the house, we can intuit that maybe that is happening here.

It's only when the voice on the phone asks for Casey's name again because he wants to know who he's looking at that we realise we have stepped fully into horror territory. Craven's framing puts Casey right by her back porch doors, meaning she can look out, but also meaning anyone can look in. Its here Craven begins to use much of the tension he has built. It being 1996, this would be one of the first times a cell phone could be used, and that particular gimmick had never been used in a horror film previously.

After Casey locks the doors, turns the lights on outside and hangs up on the caller, Craven pointedly cuts to the popcorn. Now the foil is completely inflated, steam coming from it, we're shown an indication that while the tension has been built, Casey has made all the right choices so a release valve can be turned. The audience can relax.

Dimension Films

When the phone rings again, Craven smartly shows us the kitchen once more. The popcorn is now smoking as the voice on the phone becomes harsher warning to Casey “if you hang up on me again I'll gut you like a fish”.

Craven begins building up the real frights by having the doorbell ring, the phone goes off, as Barrymore's performance becomes more hysterical. The brilliance of this sequence is that the voice comments on his choices, not asking who's there, mocking the tropes of the genre. It's at this point when the caller has Casey at her most upset that he reveals he's tied up her boyfriend and hurt him. 

It's also an interesting point that the voice announces he wants to play a game, an obvious precursor to the Saw franchise. Craven uses the Marco Baltrami score sparingly, offering it to underline moments of panic, or violence like the sight of Casey's boyfriend Steve being murdered.

At this point we see the popcorn completely on fire, offering us an indication that building tension is finished and it's time for all out terror. The fact that the killer can be anywhere makes for a more tense situation. Yet Craven still makes sure we understand geography. He shows us Casey's parents returning home, offering enough hope that she can survive. 

The laws of horror films dictate that the biggest star is the final girl, and Barrymore was the biggest star of the film. In this respect it calls to mind Psycho, the idea that Hitchcock would kill off his leading actress Janet Leigh after half an hour was unheard of, but here Craven opts to do it after ten.

The finale of this opening sees a physical confrontation with the ghost face killer, offering us our first glimpse of the iconic mask. Craven makes sure that he pulls every trick to make the first appearance of mask stick. The jump scare, the pounding music, even Barrymore's reaction all leave a lasting impression. 

That Casey hits Ghostface in his face to escape is once again a sign that this should be our heroine. She has physically attacked him instead of surrendering, allowing an audience to believe that she has earned the right to survive. Seeing her parents entering the house as she is being stabbed to death offers us the most obvious indication that this film will be toying with our expectations.

Craven closes this opening by having the parents hear what's happening over the phone, before leaving the house and finding Casey strung up on a tree, brutally murdered. Craven makes a point to zoom in on Barrymore to hammer home that the biggest star of the film is now dead, and anything can happen. It's made all the worse by the inclusion of her cream sweater. The blood is more easily shown in the almost plain background of the knitwear, illustrating just how finite and real her attack is.

Taking a well-worn formula and tweaking it, Craven reminds us why he is a master of the slasher genre. It's here he riffs on his past work like Last House on the Left. It's a grueling sequence of horror but one that sets up Craven's ability to craft terror even while breaking all the rules. It has become so iconic, and so mocked even by its own sequels that it's hard to state just how revolutionary the sequence was when it came out. Craven and Williamson slyly poke fun at the more traditional route they could have taken in the sequel Scream 2 wherein we see the film-within-a-film called Stab. This time we see Heather Graham clad in very little going for a shower. This acts as a way of poking fun at the usual sex = death of slasher films. There's a reason it became so iconic.