Mon. Jan 17th, 2022


Way back in 1996, Wes Craven directed a $15 million slasher flick featuring a handful of rising TV stars, The Fonz, and at least one Drew Barrymore. The film was called Scream, and while reviews were decent enough, no one could have predicted the extraordinary success this little-horror-movie-that-could would achieve during its theatrical run.

Scream went on to gross an astonishing $173 million worldwide, spawning four sequels (including one that releases next week), a TV show, a legion of stars — namely Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, and Skeet Urich — and, even more astonishingly, managed to reinvigorate a dormant slasher genre that had more or less played itself out in the late ’80s. Studios scrambled to capitalize on the film’s extraordinary success, resulting in rip-offs such as I Know What You Did Last Summer (penned by Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson), Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, Urban Legends, The Faculty, Jeepers Creepers — to say nothing of the Scary Movie franchise — and countless others.

So, what led to Scream’s overwhelming success? There is a myriad of possible answers, explored below, all of which might have contributed to the beloved horror franchise’s longevity.

Lack of Options for Teens

One could point to a lack of teen content at the time of Scream’s release. December 1996 was flooded with adult titles such as Jerry Maguire, Evita, One Fine Day, The People vs. Larry Flint, Hamlet, and Mother, but, other than, say, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, there weren’t many “fun” options for young adults.

As such, Scream stood out as the perfect counter for moviegoers seeking edgier entertainment.

New Blood

Keep in mind that, up until that point, the highest-grossing slasher film of all time was John Carpenter’s Halloween, which earned $70 million in 1978, per The Numbers. Such films were considered box office successes due to their relatively minuscule costs, which is why so many studios jumped at the chance to create their own low-budget horror icon. For example, the Halloween franchise from Carpenter’s classic to 1989’s Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers collectively cost just over $21 million to produce, but earned well over $100 million in ticket sales.

Yet, for whatever reason, studios abandoned the slasher genre in favor of more “prestigious” horror fare such as the Academy Award-winning Silence of the Lambs, Candyman, Misery, and Interview with the Vampire. Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers were relegated to direct-to-video status, or sent into early retirement. While the ’90s certainly gave birth to a handful of horror icons, notably Hannibal Lecter, Pennywise (from the 1990 TV mini-series IT), Annie Wilkes, and Candyman, none — aside from, perhaps, Lecter — resonated much with the younger crowd.

In other words, the world was ready for a new class of horror icon, paving the way for Ghostface to begin his reign of terror.

Into The Metaverse

At its core, Scream is essentially a slasher movie about slasher movies. The clever commentary sprinkled throughout Kevin Williamson’s script helped remind older audiences why they loved (and needed) those schlocky ’80s horror films, and simultaneously introduced younger viewers to a genre that had heretofore been forgotten.

Seriously, there’s some ridiculously clever stuff in Scream that drove audiences wild in ’96. My favorite scene involves a van, a TV, and a 30-second tape delay:

I love how Jamie Kennedy’s Randy becomes the star of his own movie-within-a-movie with Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott standing in as his audience.

Indeed, there are so many unique layers to this sequence. We actually see the same story beat play out three times from various perspectives: Randy watches Michael Myers stalk Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween on his TV; in the van, Sidney watches Ghostface sneak up on Randy on her TV; and we (the audience), having been informed earlier of the 30-second delay between the real-time events and the footage on Sidney’s TV, watch Ghostface sneak up on our beloved heroine on our own TVs.

Genius.

Wes Craven didn’t necessarily reinvent the slasher genre — Scream is, after all, rather formulaic — he just gave us a unique new way to look at and experience it.

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An Overreliance On Pop Culture

Watching the flick recently — my first viewing in over 20 years — I was surprised at how inaccessible Scream is to anyone who didn’t grow up in the ’90s. Characters speak in pop culture references and discuss political issues that were relevant at the time, all of which plays well with an opening weekend crowd but doesn’t have much appeal to someone unfamiliar with, say, Tori Spelling.

No matter. At the time, the numerous potshots at everything from 90210 to the O.J. Simpson trial resonated with audiences, which is just as well because — save for that iconic opening scene — the first two thirds of Scream are rather sloppy. The film devolves into a surprisingly bland teen drama packed with stock characters, wooden performances, and a by-the-numbers, even convoluted, plot.

Visually, the film looks artificial, which may have been by design, with the town of Woodsboro coming across more like a movie set crammed with inexperienced extras than an actual lived in location. Nearly every adult in the film (save for Henry Winkler) looks and acts like a stowaway from one of those horrible General Insurance commercials.

There’s a sense that Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson know they have something, they’re just not quite sure how far they’re allowed to go.

Indeed, up until the third act, Scream plays out like a fairly rudimentary slasher, albeit one that knows it’s a fairly rudimentary slasher. Clever or lazy? You decide.

Even so, back to that opening scene which ranks right up there with Psycho in terms of shock value. Drew Barrymore was notably featured in all of Scream’s advertising, including and listed amongst the main stars on the film’s poster. Killing her off in the opening 10 minutes set a precedence that anyone among the main cast could bite the dust at any moment, which certainly adds a certain frenetic energy to the proceedings.



At any rate, the climax, set during a party, raises the bar considerably. Here, the various plot threads and characters come together to deliver plenty of fun twists, turns, and grisly mayhem. I already mentioned the 30-second tape delay bit, but I was also quite keen on the famous “Rules” sequence, in which Jamie Kennedy’s character explains how to survive a slasher film to his fellow partygoers — and cheekily prepares the audience for the grand finale:

Speaking of the grand finale, Scream’s big reveal — that it was Sidney’s boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and his best friend Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) all along — actually works extremely well. Later entries in Craven’s franchise, notably Scream 2, unravel once the killer(s) reveal themselves, mainly because the culprits (and their motives) aren’t very interesting.

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Billy and Stu, however, are on a completely different level — two men desensitized and ultimately seduced by the evil media. “Watch a few movies, take a few notes,” Stu proudly proclaims about the killings. “It was fun!” The film posits these two young men as victims of a world overrun by violent films, a corrupt media, and an increasing lack of parental guidance — a powerful statement that more or less sums up the ’90s.

Ironically, Billy and Stu’s willingness to kill off their close friends for sport without any feelings of remorse or empathy make them more monstrous than the actual monsters in the films they try to mimic. Fittingly, the pair’s downfall stems from an inability to discern reality from fiction — they stab each other numerous times without thinking about the deadly consequences — and a clear disregard of genre tropes; Billy, for example, breaks Randy’s rules and pursues Sidney alone.

Of course, Stu dies via the very object that fueled his insanity — a television set — whilst Billy meets his end due in large part to Sidney and Gale’s knowledge of slasher tropes, abruptly closing a loop that began and ended with an obsession for horror cinema.

Ultimately, Scream worked so well in 1996 because it’s quite literally a film stuck in 1996. And while it may not resonate as well with modern audiences, its views on media violence and the impact films have on impressionable young minds are chilling enough to strike a chord with any viewer.

By admin