Released in 1996, Wes Craven’s Scream revitalized a horror genre that at the time, was considered to be in decline. In the 90s many films were released straight to video. Those that did get a cinematic release were usually underwhelming sequels to popular and established franchises such as Halloween and Friday the 13th.
A blend of mystery, black comedy, and of course slasher horror, Scream took a meta approach to the genre, satirizing many of the clichés seen in those classic films. Yes, there was still a masked killer terrorizing teenagers, but it focused on (and sometimes made a mockery of) the strategies that were used in other films of the genre. Everything was touched on. The idea of a final girl, infamous use of the line ‘I’ll be right back’ and even the killer having a final scare up his sleeve just when you thought he was dead. It was incredibly entertaining to watch as all the tricks in the slasher handbook were toyed with. It was even more satisfying when female protagonist Sidney realized what was happening, and proceeded to turn the tropes against the killer. All this helped make Scream a classic in its own right.
What Scream Means to Us
Since this came out when I was ten, and its sequel was the first horror movie I remember feeling excited for, I feel like I should be a helluva lot more nostalgic for this than I am. The only reason I can think of is, that I don’t associate it with my childhood. Nostalgia never kicked in because I’ll never get over the fact that this is as old as it is. It’s the quintessential 90s horror movie and yet, it still feels fresh.
Every slasher after it became self-aware but since this one still did better than the rest, it doesn’t feel like the dusty old grandfather who started a lineage but more like the cool role model he patterned himself after. The horror films I love, I can pin to a time and place and both will remind me of the other. Child’s Play reminds me of 94 for example, but I’ve never pinned Scream to a timeline memory. It’s an ethereal piece of timeless art that has stuck with me for 25 years and it’ll continue living with me because of how good it is. The beginning alone is enough for it to get a permanent spot in my mind and that’s just one of a dozen iconic moments in this film. If it wasn’t for Wes Craven’s previous masterpiece, this might hold the record for the horror movie with the most memorable scenes and lines.
The Opening Scene
Scream’s writer Kevin Williamson was a self-confessed horror junkie, having watched all the classics from the 70s and 80s numerous times. Because of this familiarity with the genre, he wanted to make something different.
I wanted to write a horror movie that I’d want to watch. But how do you scare an audience when all the magic tricks have been exposed?
The answer is summed up in the opening scene. Not only did this introduce the self-aware style that the movie would be known for, more importantly it subverted expectations. Killing off Drew Barrymore within the first 15 minutes was a bold move. But one that paid dividends. She was a well-known actress at the time, having starred in E.T. and multiple other films in the 90s. Initially penciled in to play Sidney, it was Drew herself who wanted to be the character killed off in the opening scene. I think the casting rejig worked out for everyone involved. She is perfect for the part and we really see the fear in her eyes when she realizes she’s dealing with more than just a prank phone call. As the scene progresses the game of cat and mouse between the killer and her plays out brilliantly, with trivia about old horror movies being used to make the viewer feel like the events they were watching unfold could actually happen in the real world. Unfortunately for Drew’s character, it ends up with her being viciously murdered. From then on as a viewer, even as we see tropes played out in a comedic way, we always know to fear the unexpected.
After filming had completed, Wes Craven encountered repeated conflicts with the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system (MPAA). They wanted him to tone down and in some cases obscure some of the more graphic and intense scenes in order to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating. Cinemas often refused to show films with this rating due to increased difficulty in attracting an audience. Dimension films were desperate for the less-restrictive R rating, but the producers felt the demanded cuts would remove key elements from the film and reduce its quality. This included some major changes to the all-important opening scene. Trying to please the producers whilst also ensuring an appropriate rating for the movie was a catch 22 situation. So Craven did what he felt he had to and lied to the MPAA, claiming he had only one take of the opening scene and therefore unable to replace it with something less intense as requested. Remarkably this resulted in the MPAA allowing the scene as originally intended.
I’m a director who can do something very well but am not allowed to put it on screen. And they ultimately get you, as they did on this one, on intensity. They say, it’s not a specific shot, it’s not blood, it’s just too intense.
The opening scene wasn’t the only time the MPAA had issues with the content. In total, Craven had to send eight different cuts of the film to deal with complaints. Other problematic scenes included the throat-cutting of Kenny, the final stabbing scene between the two killers, and the length of time spent watching Tatum being crushed by a garage door. It seemed unlikely that the film would be able to achieve an R rating without further significant cuts but in the end, executive producer Bob Weinstein personally intervened and contacted the MPAA. The case he put forward was that the film was misunderstood, that it had multiple comedic and satirical elements and this counterbalanced the more intense scenes. He believed they misunderstood the film and to which genre Scream really belonged, and that they were focusing too much on the horror elements. The MPAA reviewed their decision and the film was granted an R rating.
Scream received positive reviews on release and was a financial success, earning $173 million worldwide. That made it the highest-grossing slasher film in history until the release of Halloween (2018), although it still remains the highest-grossing in adjusted dollars. Following Scream’s release, many studios rushed to capitalize on its unexpected success which brought us films such as I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend to name a few. It also influenced the spoof movie franchise Scary Movie which went on to have four sequels.
Scream itself has had three sequels with another in the works, along with a television series that aired for three seasons. It launched the careers of multiple actors, broke box office records, and gave us one of the most recognizable and memorable masks ever seen. All in all, it’s fair to say that it’s one of the most influential horror films ever made.
What are your fond memories of Scream? Do you have a fun fact or piece of trivia on the film? Share it in the comments below!