There are two camps involved when discussing Scream, the 1996 slasher film about a killer in a Halloween costume that wreaks havoc on a small town. You either believe Scream is a good movie or a great movie.
Let’s start with the first camp. Why is Scream a good movie? For starters, the story is pretty straightforward to understand. A killer known as Ghostface, who wears a ghost mask and black gown, targets a high school girl named Sidney Prescott one year after the murder of her mother in the town of Woodsboro, California. The killer begins to murder teenagers and townspeople as he fights to get closer to his main target, Sidney.
In two sentences, the main character and plot are established without confusion. It’s a classic “whodunnit,” as the audience seeks to learn the identity of the killer, and why they’re targeting a teenage girl.
Good premise? Check.
Good writing and direction? Double-check.
For the latter, you couldn’t find a better director in this genre than the “Master of Horror,” Wes Craven. As a pioneer in horror, Craven is the mastermind behind the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise as well as cult classics like The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and Swamp Thing.
The script was written by Kevin Williamson, who was an unknown writer at the time. Williamson wrote a script called Scary Movie, which became Scream, that combined elements of a slasher film with a black comedy. Though mostly known for his horror projects, I always find it ironic that Williamson created the teen drama, Dawson’s Creek. Imagine a Scream and Dawson’s Creek double feature. Sign me up.
In terms of its cast, Scream elected to go with established actors at the time instead of unknowns, which was typically common in horror. Neve Campbell was on Party of Five, Courtney Cox was on Friends, and David Arquette had roles in Parenthood and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to go along with being from the famous Arquette family.
All of these elements (premise, script, director, cast) set Scream up for success. Add in a twist ending where it’s revealed Ghostface was not one, but two killers and Scream was an instant, entertaining thriller.
It’s a good movie.
But it’s not just a good movie.
Scream is a great movie. In fact, I’ll go one step further and describe it as brilliant.
The seismic impact of Scream in the horror genre cannot be overstated. Scream combined the meta-humor of a black comedy with the gore and frightfulness of a horror film. Williamson was clearly a huge horror fan as his script is an homage to Halloween. The concept of introducing characters who were self-aware and in on the joke was ingenious. The teens openly discuss horror films and poke fun at the cliches throughout the film. Everybody is a suspect, don’t have sex, don’t have alcohol or drugs, never say you’ll be right back, etc. Randy even explains the rules for survival in a horror film!
I left out one very important cast member, and her presence adds to the genius of Scream. The actress I’m referring to is Drew Barrymore. In 1996, Barrymore was a huge name in Hollywood. Barrymore was very established in pop culture by 1996, having been in E.T., Batman Forever, Guncrazy, and Poison Ivy. She even flashed David Letterman. Barrymore was about to hit the A+list, which is why it came as a surprise that she signed up for a small horror film after reading the script one night.
Barrymore was set to play the leading role of Sidney but had to drop out due to previous commitments. Most stars would leave the project entirely, but Barrymore stayed on and asked to play Casey Becker, the girl who appears in the opening scene. Although she’s in the film for around 10 minutes, it’s arguably the most important scene in the entire franchise.
As Barrymore mentioned on Hot Ones, she wanted to change the rules of a horror film. Most of the time, you never think the main character is truly in trouble since they’ll never die, and if they are murdered, it’s never at the beginning.
Here’s your biggest star in the movie and she’s killed within the first 10 minutes. That’s a Red Wedding-type move. Killing Barrymore was jaw-dropping moment that confirmed nobody was safe. Anyone could be killed at any time. Even Henry Winkler (in an uncredited role)!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a special shoutout to Skeet Ulrich and Matthew Lillard, who played Ghostface as a duo. To steal a phrase from The Rewatchables podcast, this duo gave the biggest heat check performance in the movie. It’s so over-the-top and filled with memorable one-liners, but it fits their characters. Psycho teenage murders are probably going to be a little dramatic and crazy.
Now, Scream is getting a fifth movie this January. It’s not an official reboot, but it appears to mirror themes and ideas from the first film.
Scream rewrote and revitalized the slasher genre, and its legacy should still be celebrated 25 years later.
Besides, if you remove all the humor and violence, Scream is simply an advertisement for landlines.
Leave your thoughts about the movie in the comments below or tweet me, @danny_giro.