“Do you like scary movies?” With those five words, Wes Craven’s Scream injected fresh blood into the veins of the horror movie back in the 1990s. Now a quarter-of-a-century old, it’s easy to forget just how game-changing this 1996 slasher movie was. Scripted by Kevin Williamson, making his breakthrough here before he’d go on to create teen sensation Dawson’s Creek, Scream set out to toy with the tropes of the horror genre in a way no film had ever done before.
This week sees the release of the fifth film in the franchise. Simply titled Scream, it’s the first entry in 11 years, since 2011’s Scream 4, and the first not directed by Craven who died in 2015. Taking over the reins are Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, who made the highly watchable 2019 comedy-horror Ready or Not. At the centre, Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott returns to the quiet town of Woodsboro, as another killer begins stalking teenage victims.
The original Scream was nominally inspired by the real-life case of the Gainesville Ripper – aka Daniel Harold Rolling – who murdered five students in Florida. But it was really influenced by the world of, well, scary movies. Take the opening scene, as Drew Barrymore’s blonde Casey talks to a mystery caller on the phone, as he goads her into discussing her favourite horrors. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street. “It was scary,” he coos. “Well the first one was,” she replies, “but the rest sucked.”
It was the perfect in-joke given Craven directed the first Nightmare on Elm Street, starring Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger – the ghoulish dream-haunter with razor hands. Ironically, it was Craven’s return to the franchise, with 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, that laid the groundwork for Scream. That entirely meta outing saw Krueger come to haunt his creators, with Craven and Robert Shaye, the boss at New Line, the company behind the Freddy films, playing themselves.
As clever as it was, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare didn’t make the impact that Scream did, although you wouldn’t know it from the early reviews of Craven’s film. “The pic’s chills are top-notch, but its underlying monkish tone won’t please diehard fans. That adds up to no more than modest commercial returns,” noted industry paper Variety, which predicted Scream’s December 1996 release would be “dead on arrival” alongside the season’s more traditional family films.
Instead, this slow-burner set the cinemas alight, grossing $173 million worldwide, making it the highest grossing slasher movie – until David Gordon Green’s 2018 reboot of the Halloween franchise eclipsed it. Suddenly, everywhere you looked, there were "Ghostface" masks – the white rubber face with the droopy mouth, inspired by Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream, that’s used by the killer in the film to disguise his identity.
Every bit as chilling as Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees (the hockey-mask wearing killer in the Friday the 13th films) or Michael Myers (Halloween’s violent entity), Ghostface instantly became a modern horror icon. But there was more to Scream than this, thanks to fiendish plotting and an attractive, fresh-faced cast – led by Campbell, who had come off the back of TV series Party of Five. Joining her were such rising stars as Liev Schreiber and Matthew Lillard, alongside Friends’ Courteney Cox and, of course, Drew Barrymore.
After the 1980s, the era of video nasties and Hollywood pumping out low-budget gore to serve the rapacious VHS home entertainment market, Scream felt like a much-needed palette cleanser. Rather than follow a predictable formula, it cheekily deconstructed the rules that horror films nearly all abide by. “Never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, ‘I’ll be right back.” Because you won’t be back,” explains Randy Meeks, the nerdy video rental store employee played by Jamie Kennedy.
Craven’s film even had the guts to tear up the rule book – notably in that now infamous opening scene with Barrymore. At the time, the former child actor from Spielberg’s ET the Extra-Terrestrial was unquestionably the film’s biggest movie star. But by the end of that scene, she was left slain by the Ghostface killer – a complete shock to audiences. What kind of movie dared bump off its biggest star in the first ten minutes?
When follow-up Scream 2 arrived a year later, Meeks was on hand to serve up the rules that apply to all horror sequels. “Number one: the body count is always bigger. Number two: the death scenes are always much more elaborate … and number three: never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead.” Even more amusingly, it featured a film-within-a-film called Stab, a movie inspired by the Woodsboro killings seen in Scream (and a classic riff on how Hollywood can’t resist gratuitously pinching from real life).
The impact these two films had went far beyond the horror genre – not least in inspiring the crude parody Scary Movie (the original title of Williamson’s first draft for Scream) and its four sequels. Even now, you can see the lasting impression left by Scream on other movies. Just released, The Matrix Resurrections revisits the Wachowskis’ sci-fi extravaganza by putting Keanu Reeves’ character Neo back inside the all-encompassing virtual reality computer programme, as a designer of a trilogy of games called – you guessed it – "The Matrix". All very meta.
Of course, Scream did eventually succumb to what it mocked – with Scream 3 (2000) and the belated Scream 4 (2011) nowhere near as fresh or incisive as their predecessors. That the franchise also inspired a three-series television anthology, set in the fictional town of Lakewood, just added to the idea that the brand was being diluted. There was even a web series and a spin-off talk-show, Scream After Dark, as cast members came on to discuss the latest plot twists.
More recently, the genre has backed away from Scream’s self-referential slasher-style blood and gore, favouring the more character-driven so-called "elevated horror" of films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us and Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar. Yet there can be no doubt that Scream’s impact was enormous – proof that a movie was capable of entertaining audiences and slyly commenting upon itself and the genre it belongs to. Whether 2022’s Scream will manage the same – or simply feel like a rehash – remains to be seen.
Scream opens in cinemas on January 13