By 1996, the horror genre was essentially dead. No longer the juggernaut it once was like in the early 80s, a horror film was no longer a guarantee of a large box office gross. Just to give you some perspective: the highest grossing horror films of 1995 were Seven with $100 million (and some of you don’t even count that as horror) and Species with $60 million. No other horror film grossed more than $30 million domestically that year. The slasher sub-genre fared the worst of all with the once lucrative Halloween franchise petering out when Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers grossed a mere $15.1 million domestically. Famed horror directors didn’t stand a chance either. John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned couldn’t even crack the top 100 grossing films of the year (it pulled in just $9.4 million). 1996 looked just as dire for the genre, with the highest grossing horror film being the Val Kilmer/Marlon Brando adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau with just $27.6 million (you could also consider The Ghost and the Darkness, also led by Val Kilmer, which grossed $38.6 million). Even when inflation is taken into consideration, those are some appalling numbers.
This all changed on December 20th, 1996 when Wes Craven’s Scream hit theaters. While it only grossed $6.3 million its opening weekend, positive word of mouth and a lack of other quality horror films kept Scream in the top 10 for nine weeks before leaving it for four weeks. It then clawed it’s way back to the #9 spot during its 14th week of release when it was re-released in theaters. The film would go on to gross $103 million domestically and $70 million internationally for a worldwide box office haul of $173 million ($266.1 million when adjusted for inflation), becoming the sleeper hit of late 1996/early 1997. While those numbers may not seem impressive in an age where the latest Star Wars movie can pull in $155 million in one weekend, they truly were for a horror film (especially a slasher) released at the time.
The context of Scream‘s release is very important to understand. All too often I see readers complain about Scream and comment about how they don’t understand why it was such a big deal and that it isn’t even that good of a film (it is). Others lament the endless slew of second-rate slashers that Scream inspired in the years following its release. The fact of the matter is that Scream was very important to the horror genre and it would not be the same today without the film. So if any of you ever feel like taking pot shots at Scream, just remember its significance to the genre. It’s okay not to like it, but it certainly deserves a modicum of respect.
The origins of Scream are well-documented. Inspired by the real-life story of the Gainesville Ripper murders in 1990, then-aspiring screenwriter Kevin Williamson wrote an 18-page script treatment that would later become Scream‘s famous opening scene. While his other completed script, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, sat in development hell, Williamson spent three days completing the script for Scary Movie (Scream‘s original title), as well as outlines for potential sequels in the hopes that a franchise would attract buyers. The central draw of Williamson’s script was of course the fact that the main characters were all very familiar with horror films and the tropes that plagued them. This was not the first horror film to include meta elements (films like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and even 1960’s Peeping Tom contained plenty of them), but it was one of the first mainstream horror films to directly call out the genre on its bullshit.
The wit and intelligence present in Williamson’ script started a bidding war that eventually left only Oliver Stone and Dimension Films in the running. Williamson sold the script to Dimension Films for $400,000, but the deciding factor was that he knew they would not try to censor any of the graphic violence present in the script since they primarily produced horror films (more on that in a bit). Brought on to direct the film was famed horror director Wes Craven. Surprisingly, Craven was burned out on the genre after his last two genre efforts, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Vampire in Brooklyn, failed to make much of an impression at the box office. It wasn’t until Drew Barrymore signed on to the film that Craven was enticed to direct it (this was after plans for his remake of The Haunting fell through).
Special mention must be made of Scream‘s outstanding cast. What some of our younger readers may not know is that in 1996, none of the cast members were very big stars. With the exception of Drew Barrymore, who was mostly known for her work as a child actor (E.T. and Firestarter) before diving into more mature fare (Poison Ivy and Boys on the Side), the biggest star in the film was Courteney Cox due to her role on the hit NBC sitcom Friends. Bear in mind that in 1996, Cox’s biggest film role was in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective so she wasn’t proven to lead to box office gold. Friends was in its third season so it had just started to become the cultural juggernaut that we know it as today. Neve Campbell was essentially known as “that girl from Party of Five,” Rose McGowan had a few independent films (The Doom Generation, Bio-Dome) on her resumé but nothing major and Skeet Ulrich was an unknown (at the time of casting, at least…he was in four other movies that were released in 1996). So the film was never a sure thing. In fact, it was being pronounced dead on arrival before it was even released. All of them, the ones mentioned above and the ones not (David Arquette, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy and even Henry Winkler), deliver strong performances. While none of them may be revelatory (though Campbell’s performance shot her to stardom), they were all better performances than most horror films experienced at the time.
Before its release, Scream faced a number of hurdles, the biggest of which was the NC-17 rating the MPAA gave it five(!) times. The Big Three or, three scenes that the MPAA took the most issue with, were Steve Orth’s death (you could see his innards falling out after he was gutted), Tatum’s death (her head squish was just a little too squishy) and the entire confrontation between Billy and Stu in the film’s climax. The first two scenes had to have a few shots trimmed (thanks to editor Patrick Lussier, who would go on to direct films like Dracula 2000, My Bloody Valentine 3D and the severely underrated Drive Angry), but the third took a bit more effort. Bob Weinstein himself had to contact the MPAA and remind them that the film was also part satire, and that while the climax was intense, it was also a satirization on teenagers. The film was granted an R rating shortly thereafter.
Scream probably wouldn’t have had the success it would eventually get if it wasn’t for those marvelous 11 minutes that open the film. Not only is it the most well-written and filmed portion of the film (Scream is the prime example of a film peaking early which is why I actually prefer Scream 2), but casting someone like Drew Barrymore in what is essentially a throwaway role was ingenious. The credit should not go to the casting director but rather to Barrymore herself. She was approached for the role of Sidney Prescott and thought that the film would be more effective if she played Casey Becker, Scream‘s second victim (no one ever remembers Steve). She was right. I still remember being seven years old and hearing my mother complain about the film after seeing it in the theater one evening. You see, she isn’t a horror movie fan but she loves Drew Barrymore. So the only reason she agreed to see Scream with my father was because Barrymore’s face was plastered all over the marketing materials. Imagine her shock when that first scene ended. Well played Scream, well played. That scene is what made people go out in droves to see the film. It was the watercooler moment of the year.
From a technical standpoint, Scream excels in every way. It is more than just a competently made film. Wes Craven gets most of the credit, but it is arguably thanks to Kevin Williamson that Scream works as well as it does. Craven was a wonderful director, and he brought a special touch to the film, but the film would be nothing without Williamson’s script. His writing essentially lampooned horror clichés that audiences were so tired of seeing, while also embracing them wholeheartedly. This was his passion project, and you can see that passion in the film’s dialogue.
Similarly, Marco Beltrami does not get enough credit for his score for the film. It’s not as recognizable as the theme’s from Halloween or The Exorcist, but any Scream fan could pick it after hearing a few bars of it. Hell, Dimension films even used segments of Beltrami’s score in place of John Ottman’s rejected score for Halloween: H20, so that has to be worth something, right?
As amazing as Scream is, even a super-fan like myself can admit that Scream is not without its flaws. Most of these flaws I chalk up to Scream being a horror comedy as opposed to a straightforward horror film. They’re intentional flaws. That being said, it’s a little silly to have the characters explicitly state the rules of the horror genre but then go to break them anyway. And how many weapons of death are in your garage? Surely Tatum (McGowan) could have found something to bash the killer’s head in with. Could that garage door even lift a person up? And why didn’t Casey (Barrymore) just call the police? Another common complaint with the film is that it’s not particularly scary (Barrymore’s opening scene aside). That may be true, but if you don’t find Scream terrifying then you must have grown up after it came out because the number of homes with caller ID increased threefold after Scream was released. Clearly, a few people found it scary.
Shockingly, Scream also earned positive reviews from critics. This was rare for a horror film at the time. The only 90s horror films before Scream to get an overwhelmingly positive critical response were The Silence of the Lambs, Misery and Cronos. As of now, it has a 79% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 66 reviews) and a 65 score on Metacritic (and to all you Scream 2 haters out there: it has a higher RT score but a slightly lower MetaCritic score than Scream). This is basically a fancy way of saying that a slasher movie that no one thought was going to be any good (much less a box office success) beat the odds and managed to accomplish something no slasher had accomplished since Craven’s own A Nightmare on Elm Street: achieve box office and critical success (you could maybe count Child’s Play, but even that never achieved the critical success of Scream or Nightmare).
Nothing written above will change your opinion of Scream (though if you don’t like it, I hope this will help you to see the film in a new light) but you cannot deny the impact the film had on the horror genre. It was an extremely important film that breathed new life into a dying genre. Without Scream, who knows what kind of horror films would be getting released today? So take a couple of hours this week to revisit this classic film in honor of its 20th anniversary. What are your thoughts on Scream? Do you love it? Or do you think it’s overrated? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or shoot me a Tweet. I’ll be happy to discuss anything Scream-related with you. It is my favorite horror franchise, after all.