20 Years Of “Scream”: When A New Genre Of Horror Was Born

2016 marks 20 years of Scream, Wes Craven’s successful attempt to revitalise horror with the help of Kevin Williamson’s self-referential script. Dan Grant revisits the film which he calls “perfect in every way.”

Scream, Drew Barrymore, Film, Wes CravenIn December of 1996, a month not known for horror, a little film directed by horror legend Wes Craven, was about to change the landscape of horror forever. No one knew it at the time of course, but this modestly budgeted film ($14 million) with a mostly no-name cast, would go on to create a new genre of horror films. It was a shot in the arm that horror needed, because quite frankly, the horror genre was all but dead. By 1996 we were onto our ninth Friday the 13th, seventh Nightmare on Elm Street and sixth Halloween. The slasher film was tired and they were recycling the same ideas over and over again. The highest grossing pure horror film of 1996 was Thinner, which managed a microscopic take of $15 million.

This all changed when audiences got their first taste of Scream. The trailer dazzled us with something we had never seen before. Here was a movie with characters who had seen the same scary movies we had and were now being stalked by a killer who had taken his love of stalk and slash too far. Scream would open to a very modest $6 million dollars but then word of mouth spread like wild fire and soon everyone had to find out for themselves what was so good about this one-word horror film. By the end of its run, it had grossed $103 million in the US and Canada and another $70 million internationally. It took Drew Barrymore’s career into a whole different level of success, and Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox became movie stars, not just silver screen darlings.

“I want you to go down to the McKenzies house and call the police.” Laurie Strode, from Halloween; Casey’s mom, from Scream.

20 Years Of "Scream": When A New Genre Of Horror Was BornThese are the kinds of subtle winks that Kevin Williamson’s script had. It rewarded the audience for being horror fans. It’s like when Stephen King writes a novel and he has reference to other stories, especially the Castle Rock stuff. As a fan, you like feeling part of the story, part of a secret club that knows and understands that “the Giant Saint Bernard killed a few people over in Castle Rock” is actually about Cujo. Williamson took this idea and expanded on it. Besides the line above, he also had Freddy Krueger nods, trivia questions about Friday the 13th, Halloween playing in the background at a party, a Psycho homage where he took a very famous actress and killed her off in the first half hour of the movie. All of this is a reward to an audience for knowing and loving horror.

I grew up loving horror movies. Everything from the great ones like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and the early Fridays, to even the stupid quirky flicks like The Prey or Sleepaway Camp. There is just something sinister yet fun about an unseen force that tries to kill you for no apparent reason except that you are on his turf. Screenwriter of Scream Williamson watched the same films as I did and has a love and an encyclopedic knowledge of them. Although Scream is one of the more original horror films, it’s also a homage to all the great ones from the 70s and 80s. He treats all fans to great memories of films of the past and assumes that he has an intelligent audience. There are so many horror movie references here that even I don’t quite get all of them, and believe me I have seen a lot of horror. But not only is the script entertaining, funny and witty, the film is scary. Not as scary as some of the films that it tries to pay homage to, but that’s okay. Because you will have so much fun trying to pick out references to your faves that the scare factor is just a bonus.

20 Years Of "Scream": When A New Genre Of Horror Was Born

Perhaps the most famous scene in the film is when Randy (a video store clerk with a love of horror movies) pauses Halloween and explains the rules of surviving a horror movie if you are a character in it. Not only is it funny, but it’s so honest and sharp and of course not only is he right but he is telling us basically what is going to happen in Scream. Scream follows the rules because Williamson is smart enough to emulate what works. And that is one of the great pleasures of the film.

I admire a film like this. It is not afraid to take chances and it tries to give all of us former teens who made the genre so popular in the 70s and 80s, something to enjoy. I’m not saying that if you weren’t born in that period that you won’t like Scream, but it certainly helps if you can fondly recall sitting in the basement at the age of 12 watching The Prowler or The Burning or The Gates of Hell. Those of us who rented these films from our local video store are the ones who flocked to the theaters to give this film life. From there, the youth of the 90s caught on and made it a gigantic hit.

20 Years Of "Scream": When A New Genre Of Horror Was Born

Wes Craven is the perfect director for this film. I wonder is Williamson ever pitched this to guys like Sean S. Cunningham or Steve Miner or John Carpenter before going to Craven? I guess I’m glad that he didn’t because Craven certainly adds some nice touches to the film. The cast is also brilliant. We all know the major actors involved here but I want to call attention to Mathew Lillard. His portrayal of Stu should have been the performance that turned him into a major star. He should have received a nomination for best supporting actor. He took his character and added his own twist on him. And because of his tiny idiosyncrasies, he adds so much to the film. A subtle use of the tongue, the facade of hurt just by one of his expressions, a triumphant thrust of the arms, his laugh. They are all forever imprinted in my head as a great character study. His ad-libbed line, “My parents are going to be so mad at me,” gets one of the biggest laughs in the film.

20 Years Of "Scream": When A New Genre Of Horror Was Born

This film started a whole genre on its own, made a name for Lillard and most everyone else involved, revitalised Craven’s career, made Williamson an A-list writer, made horror movies popular again and gave me hours of viewing enjoyment. Not just from this one and its sequels, but it made me go back and watch so many of the older films that I and Williamson liked so much. 20 years later it feels like horror is once again getting stale and it needs that shot in the arm that we got in 1996. Maybe there is another Williamson out there pitching the next revolutionary horror film to Oren Peli or Brad Fuller or even to someone like Tobe Hooper. I hope there is because horror is such a vital and important part of film that we need it to be healthy again.

Film means something different everyone. We all have our favourite films and genres. Horror is unquestionably my favourite genre and in my opinion, it’s also the toughest one to get right.

For me, Scream is pretty much perfect in every way.

Words by Dan Grant

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About the Author
Dan Grant is an author and horror film fan from Canada. His first novel Terrified and Defenseless is now available for e-download from Amazon. Follow Dan on Twitter @baumer72.

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  1. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    True love!

    Wonderful read Dan. I especially liked how you linked the appeal of Scream to how we as fans relate to homage and references to classics and cult favourites of the past. The analogy about Stephen King is spot on. The Dark Tower books were a great example of how a writer brings in elements of previous stories to immerse the reader in the story to a greater degree; you do feel like you’re in that “secret club”.

    Scream is so fascinating because of the way it subverts expectation and plays with convention to both celebrate cliche and break it at the same time. It’s recognisable and conventional just as its unique and unconventional.

    You’re right to give Williamson a lot of credit. It’s his movie as much as it is Craven’s and the whole pop culture/self-referential thing which makes Scream stand out comes from the pen of the Dawson’s Creek creator.

    Importantly, the film stands up perfectly well today. Post-Scream only Scream 2 has come close to matching its qualities while so many are only pretenders. The evolution of the genre into torture porn and found footage has brought with it some good films as well as many bad ones; it’ll be interesting to see where we go from here.

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    Dominic Cuthbert Reply

    First saw this as a nipper and it’s still one of my favourites. Funnier and more scathing with every watch

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    Dan Grant Reply

    Thank you Dan. And as always, terrific job putting it all together. I think Wes was a terrific choice to direct this but I do think this is first and foremost Williamson’s film. Wes certainly brought it to life but the script was unlike anything Hollywood had done before. It’s just a perfect storm of perfection, imo.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Williamson was no one-hit-wonder either. What he’s done in TV is exceptional but he always breathed so much life into films such as The Faculty and Halloween H20 which is definitely one of the best movies from that franchise. I’d also argue he’s responsible for giving us one of the best horror film sequels in Scream 2 too.

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    Dan Grant Reply

    Oh, and I was hooked as soon as Drew Barrymore made the comment about all of the Nightmare on Elms Streets sucking after the original, of course, Wes didn’t do the sequels(Except for Wes New Nightmare) and imo Bob Shaye ruined Freddy Krueger by turning him into Jerry Lewis. Once that line was said, I knew I was in for a special film.

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    Rory Reply

    I remember when I first saw Scream. Thought it had one of the best opening sequences I had seen in any film (then Saving Private Ryan arrived a few years later). But it still ranks as one of the best slasher films, actually far exceeding the qualities of the films that inspired it.

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    Dan Grant Reply

    I agree with you Rory. It was one of the best Beginnings I never seen until of course Saving Private Ryan came out. But I like how the beginning was a not-so-subtle nod to Psycho. I don’t think anyone knew or suspected Drew Barrymore to die in the first 20 minutes of the film.

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    Neal Damiano Reply

    Exceptional piece Dan,

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Scream definitely gave the horror genre the jolt it needed at the time in 96′ Craven did a phenomenal job making fun of himself. There is to many great homages in here starting with Drew Barrymore alone, her on the phone with the calling NH coming from inside the house – of course paying homage to the 1979 suspenseful horror classic “When A Stranger Calls”. And it doesn’t end there, tributes throughout. I’m very happy you mention Mathew Lillard’s performance he is so on point you could tell he’s a horror fan his quirky demeanor works superbly.
    Thank you Wes Craven (RIP) for giving us misfit horror fans something to be happy about again. The whole series is good and I do hope a director comes along and brings slasher horror back again.

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      Dan Grant Reply

      Great reply there buddy. I also agree with everything that you said here. Scream is really one of the seminal Movies of the last 20 years in my opinion. It’s obviously not something that would ever win an Oscar but it’s certainly something, as Dan was saying, that set the table for a lot of other films to emulate.

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        Dan Reply

        Just on the point of stand out performances. Jaime Kennedy is the one that stood out for me. He’s the character I most related to and I think a lot of fans would have been the same because he’s not a tough guy and he gets scared but he’s very funny and his love of horror syncs with that of a large proportion of the audience. He’s also the man responsible for my fave scene when he describes surviving a horror movie.

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          Dan Grant Reply

          Yes, he was terrific in this. I think my favourite part of his, besides the rules for surviving, is when the girl in the video store asks him “What’s that werewolf movie with ET’s mom? and he replies “Howling…horror…straight ahead.” Just another example of awesome writing and a terrific delivery by Kennedy.

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    Courtney Reply

    Really great post. This movie is beyond intelligent and such a surprise from the 90s. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve only recently seen this film, and it stands up well to this day.

    • Avatar
      Dan Grant Reply

      It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. There’s lots of classic films that a lot of us didn’t get the chance to see until we were a bit older. Alright I know for myself personally at the age of 44 I just got around to watching Treasure of the Sierra Madre. These films are classic films and it’s good to discover them at any age.

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