By Rebecca Ferman, Contributing Writer
WARNING: this may contain slight spoilers for the Scream film and franchise. The author has chosen not to give any major plot points away for those who haven’t seen the movie, but some facts have been revealed as part of a retrospective discussion.
“Do you like scary movies?”
This December will mark 25 years since the horror film Scream hit the big screen. The 1996 movie, which starred Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Skeet Ulrich, and Drew Barrymore, made millions at the box office and is credited with revitalizing the slasher genre. Plot-wise, the film follows a group of high schoolers being stalked by a killer known as “Ghostface” who uses a cellphone to taunt his victims and then a knife to murder them.
Critics and audiences alike loved it for being a different kind of movie: it was a horror film with self-awareness that effectively subverted cliches or expectations that many associated with films before it. It also helped launch the careers of many of its stars, who would later reprise their roles in various capacities. The success of the first film spawned three sequels, a television show, and even a new film slated to come out next year in 2022.
But has Scream held up a quarter of a century later, when so many other modern titles have tried to emulate what it had?
The film’s director Wes Craven was not new to this genre. Before Scream, he had directed horror films The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and most famously the classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, which brought about slasher icon Freddy Kruger. Craven would also be the director for the sequels following the first Scream and assisted in the television show. Sadly, due to his death in 2015, he won’t return for any future installments.
With A Nightmare on Elm Street, which came out in 1984, Craven created a strong female lead in main character Nancy Thompson, portrayed by Heather Langenkamp. She’s kind, smart, resourceful, and able to fight back against evil – someone the audience wanted to root for she faced off against Freddy Krueger. In Scream, he does the same with Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott. Sidney is a likeable, relatable high school girl that anyone would want to see live to the end of the film and defeat the slasher.
These two characters aren’t wholly unique to the horror genre, as most films have what have been dubbed a “final girl” – the one left standing against the murderer or evil. However, the problem with that is that more often than not the other characters featured in the film (usually the final girl’s friends, acquaintances, or family members) have hardly any redeeming qualities, make fairly stupid decisions, and are people that the audience would be okay with watching die or getting murdered. In Scream, that is mostly avoided. Sure, some of the supporting characters are goofy and sometimes tactless on occasion, but you don’t really have an extreme desire to see them die. Randy Meeks and Stu Macher, played respectively by Jamie Kennedy and a scene-stealing Matthew Lillard, are two of the most fun characters to watch in the film. And Courtney Cox clearly enjoys playing the mean news reporter Gale Weathers, which at the time was a huge contrast to her much nicer character on the television show Friends.
The opening scene of Scream with Drew Barrymore is one of the most infamous horror scenes of all time, with it being ranked #13 on Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments.” It completely challenged what the audience was expecting in the film and really hammered home the point that any one character in this film could die – or even be the killer. The film starts with Drew Barrymore’s character picking up the ringing house phone and casually chatting with a total stranger who seemingly dialed the wrong number. They discuss her favorite scary movies for a bit, with some back-and-forth flirting. “Why do you want to know my name?” she asks the caller. “Because I want to know who I’m looking at,” he responds. And it’s right there that everything changes. The playful mood is gone and is replaced with unease. The popcorn cooking on the stove gets more burnt with each passing moment and is on fire by the time it all ends, showing the rising tension and uncertainty.
Throughout the film, the high school characters discuss popular scary films of the time. There’s a whole laundry list of the references made, which includes Friday the 13th, The Exorcist, Carrie, Psycho, and When A Stranger Calls. At a party scene, one character discusses how actress Jamie Lee Curtis is the definitive “scream queen” due to her usually being the last character standing at the end of the movie. Her very own 1978 film Halloween is even playing on a television set during the last act of Scream, really driving home the fact that this film is a love letter to classic slashers.
But besides being a shout-out to the older horror genre, Scream tries to both fulfill and subvert cliches that the movies before it had previously done. The character Randy talks about how there are overall rules one must follow in order to survive a scary film as the group watches Halloween: no sex, no drugs or alcohol, and never uttering the phrase “I’ll be right back.” With those rules, it’s easy to see why others died in their respective horror movies. But Scream has characters that both live and die despite this criterion. In the sequels, these rules were expanded upon and the stakes were raised. Anything could happen now.
The film takes place in California in the mid-1990’s, and honestly, that’s the best time it could’ve taken place. The computers are huge and the phones are the side of bricks. Portable cellphones were only just becoming commonplace (they refer to them as “cellular devices” within the film) and caller ID wasn’t widely used, which are both used as pivotal plot points. (Thanks to the film, caller ID usage increased by 300% in real life.) There’s a scene that takes place at a Blockbuster-esque video store, which is a stark contrast to the streaming services of today. Because of the lower-end technology and the time period it takes place in, Scream would have a hard time being a good horror film today. Anyone could much more easily track the killer with modern technology.
And of course, there’s the characters being self-aware, almost joking to the audience that they realize that this is, in fact, a horror film that they’re in. In one scene, a girl asks her boyfriend if they can keep their relationship PG-13 for the time being, not wanting to venture yet into the sexy rated-R territory. In another, while discussing the murders taking place, the high schoolers talk about what their motivations would be if one of them was the killer and who would be the biggest suspect, drawing on why famous horror villains did what they did. Most famously, a character taunts the killer: “No, please don’t kill me Mr. Ghostface; I wanna be in the sequel!”
Scream has gained a cult following over the years and is arguably responsible for introducing the “meta” into horror. In other words, it’s much more common nowadays to see a character in a horror film reference other movies within the same genre or, for example, say that they won’t do a certain action because that’s how someone would get killed in a horror classic. Much more self-awareness is evident. The movie The Cabin in the Woods, which was released in 2011, is an example of this as well.
Another part of Scream’s legacy is that it helped to jumpstart a new kind of parody film, one not seen in a while. Interestingly enough, the film was originally titled “Scary Movie” during its production. The company that distributed it would later change it to “Scream” just before release. A few years later, the parody film Scary Movie would come out, spoofing the plots of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, among others. While parody films weren’t new to the industry (the works of Mel Brooks stand out as examples), Scary Movie was much cruder and more ridiculous than those before it, paving way for other gross-out parody films that reflected what was popular at the time like Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, and Vampires Suck. (Whether this is a better part of Scream’s legacy is still undetermined.)
The “Ghostface” costume and voice has attained its own legacy as well for their distinct look and sound. Roger Jackson, the iconic voice of the killer, has appeared in all the installments to date. His line “What’s your favorite scary movie?” cemented itself in movie history the moment it was said to Drew Barrymore and is forever one of the defining statements of the franchise.
At the end of the day, Scream is still rather fun to watch nearly 25 years after its original release. The fact that it’s a product of its time works in its favor, and the references to its predecessors show how very similar and yet how very unique it is. There isn’t a movie quite like it, and the title itself is probably the answer to Ghostface’s question about one’s favorite scary movie.
Scream is currently available to watch HBO Max.