Let’s be honest. We are in what could be considered a golden age for horror. Movies, television, books, comics — you name it, and there has been a critically acclaimed version of it recently. However, in the grand scheme of things, the horror industry was not in very good shape. Trust me; I lived through the ’80s and early ’90s. Movies like Friday the 13th: Jason Takes Manhattan, Jason Vs. Freddy and Redneck Zombies did nothing to move the genre forward. Most horror in those days was just a combination of several overused plot points. Those in which a group of people just trudge through until we have one sole survivor who is forever in fear as the credits role.
One of the most common themes focuses of high school- or college-age students being stalked by the killers and picked off one by one. Of course, in just about every movie, you had several of the same moments. The innocent girl who decides to take a walk on the wild side only to get disemboweled. The confident jock who takes a pitchfork through the chest as he goes to tell others there is nothing to be afraid of. And, of course, the token minority character who barely makes it past the first scene. For the most part, the once-classic stories serving as warning against bad behavior had become more comedic release than actual horror. So when did horror become cool again? The foundation lies with the 1996 now-classic Scream.
Everything about Scream makes it seem as if it should fall into the much-maligned high school slasher genre. In the opening scene, Drew Barrymore — who had starred in a long list of mediocre movies since her role in E.T. — presents the classic lead role. Girl home alone, gets a call from whom she assumes is her boyfriend — the only thing is, he is murdered in front of her as she watches from inside the house. Suddenly, the villain is in the house as young Casey (Barrymore’s character) is running for her life. Since Barrymore had been featured in the lead up to the movie, she is sure to escape. Only she does not. And with that, Scream makes it obvious we’re not about to see the same cookie-cutter movie.
One of the things that made Scream work so well is that it did not take the genre too seriously while presenting a true slasher movie. Even though a murderer is on the loose, the students decide to host a party since school is canceled. As the group enjoys some classic slashers of their own, director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson let you know they are in on the predictability of what could happen here. Rose McGowan utters “I’ll be right back,” hinting to not only the audience but even the other characters that she was about to meet her untimely demise. It was meta before meta was a thing.
Craven and Williamson include humor that has a wink and nod to those of us who felt like we’ve seen this before. The use of Jamie Kennedy’s character as an expert on all things horror allowed them to “expose” the predictable plot points without jumping completely into parodies like Saturday the 14th.
It makes sense that Craven is able to make Scream work. He was the architect of many of the same movies that Scream sought to imitate. While others had failed to recreate what had made the legendary John Carpenter successful, Craven’s knowledge of the genre allowed him to navigate the pitfalls while re-imagining the slasher. While the use of humor and acknowledgment of tired tropes added a new take, there is no doubt about it that. At its core, Scream is a true slasher movie in the most classic of the sense. You want blood? You get plenty of it. Do you want jump scares? Yup. You want a twist that you will not see coming? Check. As the credits roll and the blood-drenched survivors make their way back to their friends. You are reminded once again why Craven was considered one of the best horror directors out there.
Just like any successful movie that changes the status quo in Hollywood, studio executives began green-lighting several copycat projects. Several of them were able to take the formula and continue the success. Movies such as I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legends, and even The Faculty were able to present stories that, while steeped in tradition, were also original and entertaining. Urban Legend, in particular, does an excellent job of taking a ridiculous concept and turning it into something of a palpable story.
Unfortunately for the Scream franchise, the exact course that they were trying to correct is the fate that doomed the franchise. Scream 2 allowed for Craven to poke fun at the horror genre once again while creating an entertaining sequel. The third and, yes, even the fourth installment found the franchise starting to slip into the same tired and predictable plot that they worked so hard to lampoon in the original.
With schools and universities starting back up and Halloween just around the corner, Scream deserves a spot near the top of your horror movie schedule.