F*CK, SCARE, KILL: An Autopsy of Teen Horror SCREAM

F*CK, SCARE, KILL: An Autopsy of Teen Horror SCREAM

Horrorific content by jessicagomez on February 25th, 2021 | Culture | Slasher, Killer, Teen, Meta

A monthly column dissecting teen horror films.

What’s your favorite scary movie?

Such a simple line - yet it transcends through decades, immediately bringing the 1996 slasher Scream to mind for even the most casual viewer. It’s in the simplicities such as these, the subtle nuances that pay such great honor to the genre that scares us, that makes Wes Craven’s Scream a cultural icon.

The self-aware slash fest begins with one of the most harrowing and surprising opening scenes in all of horror. High school student Casey (Drew Barrymore) receives a phone call from a stranger that begins in flirtation. It’s the first time we hear the famous question from a person using a voice-changing device, but it’s only one in a series of horror-related questions, where several iconic films are mentioned. Her incorrect answers - which are meant to be painful for horror fans to watch - result in her boyfriend, and later Casey herself, being murdered by way of multiple stabbings. She tries to escape and calls for her mom (a bit of a When a Stranger Calls situation), but she is ultimately left out to hang in the tree in the yard. Barrymore was originally set to play the lead of Sidney Prescott, but had to take on a smaller role due to scheduling conflicts, with Neve Campbell stepping in as the lead at Craven’s request. But it was a blessing in disguise; killing off the film’s biggest star in the cold open was unexpected - her face was all over every piece of Scream media material - and it set the stage for what was to come. In a decade full of blase horror movies, the scene left an unforgettable impression: horror is not dead, horror can still shock you, no one is safe, and here’s the proof.

Barrymore’s involvement set the stage for a cast that had some cred - Courteney Cox, looking to shed her wholesome image from FRIENDS, was cast as the self-involved reporter Gale Weathers, with David Arquette playing her romantic interest, goofy cop, and Sidney’s friend Tatum’s (Rose McGowan) older brother Dewey; Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich were fresh off of The Craft; Matthew Lillard was mostly unknown at the time but beloved in the cult favorite Serial Mom; relatively unknown comic Jamie Kennedy as Randy was a likeable persona providing comic relief. (His character of the all-knowing video store employee has been replicated ad nauseum.)

The murders of Casey and her boyfriend, for their fellow classmates in the small town of Woodsboro, are strange and jarring, but they mostly bring up memories of a murder that happened the year prior. A man named Cotton Weary has been arrested for the murder of Sidney’s mom, and rumors in town run rampant about whether her mom was sleeping around. But when the killer begins calling Sidney, threatening her life and referencing her mother, she’s not so sure they’ve caught the right man. The killer, donning a Ghostface mask, a new villain created by writer Kevin Williamson ala Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, has an unknown motive. Meanwhile, Sidney is being pressured by her boyfriend Billy to have sex, but a fear of following in her mother’s footsteps keeps her from going through with it - at least, for now. A whodunnit unravels where everyone is a suspect, and the characters are so developed that the fear and mistrust between them can be felt through the screen. The classic elements of slasherdom were a mainstay, but Scream’s commentary on society and of its own genre were completely fresh.

As such, Scream created a subcategory of its own: the meta-horror. While a tried and true horror movie, its own awareness of the so-called “rules” of horror, as explained by film fanatic Randy, keeps it fun as it picks apart the genre. As he links his and his friends’ real lives and the movies, he sounds a warning call to the formula most slashers follow. In short: you can’t drink, you can’t have sex, and you can’t say the phrase “I’ll be right back!” if you want to survive. Scream exploited those rules, calling out slashers for their lack of ingenuity, while turning them on their head; the ultimate survivors of the film all break at least one of those rules. Randy narrating their circumstances set against the backdrop of John Carpenter’s Halloween, some interspersed Freddy Krueger references and Tatum calling their circumstances a “Wes Carpenter film or something”, and the killers referencing old horror movie quotes and blaming too much violence in horror films, all culminate to birth a movie that is somehow a piece of every slasher that came before it, and an infinitely genius endeavor entirely of its own realm.

The soundtrack and sound editing played a large part in making a horror film with comedic elements work. It was the first feature film score for Marco Beltrami, who took influence from Ennio Morricone (The Thing), and the songs for each scene each brought their own life. Wardrobe has been undeniable in the lasting impression of the film on future generations - it is markedly 90s while keeping the cast effortlessly cool. Wardrobe designer Cynthia Bergstrom continued this style of design for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series.

Scream’s success was undeniable; after a slow start with a late December release, the film gained steam and eventually grossed over $100M at the box office. Scream 2, where Sidney goes off to college, was immediately greenlit. Scream 3 arguably tried to get too meta with a movie within a movie, and though it was a commercial success, it has been critically panned. Using Williamson’s original script title for Scream, Scary Movie, a parody of Scream, released in 2000 and was a staggering box office success, and was awarded with a franchise of its own. 

After Scream 3’s reception, the franchise cooled off, and was thought to possibly be dead. But a decade later, Scream 4 was released (and filmed in my hometown!) - to an underwhelming box office, and was thought to be dead once more, especially after Craven’s death in 2015. But an MTV version of Scream beginning in 2015 was a success, and in 2019, a fifth installment, simply titled Scream, was announced. A new duo of directors and a new duo of writers - who all worked together on the fan favorite Ready or Not - have joined, with Williamson returning as an executive producer. The film was delayed but eventually shot during the pandemic, with many returning characters and a host of new cast members. The film is set to release in 2022.

Scream was the first film to give more than a wink and a nod to the true horror fan, discussing horror movies from the opening scene through to the finale. Its own premise, which does not follow most horror rules, created the legend of Ghostface, who instantly became an icon, not just in horror, but of the 90s decade. Due to its comedic elements, its loveable characters and its commitment to keeping the plot as fun and entertaining as it scary, it has one of the highest rewatchability factors of any horror movie. There’s not one piece of it that doesn’t work, and as the saying goes, it’s often imitated, but never duplicated. One of my favorite movies of all time.


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