By the mid-nineties, the slasher film seemed like a bad dream. ‘Horror’ had become a dirty word and filmmakers were instead producing what had become known as ‘psychological thrillers.’ With the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise finally laid to rest with the bloated Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, it was somewhat surprising when its creator, Wes Craven, decided to resurrect the character for his post-modern slasher New Nightmare, in which series antagonist Freddy Krueger would stalk the stars of the original film. This renewed interest in the genre convinced Miramax to option a script entitled Scary Movie, which had been languishing in the Hollywood system for some time now, having been penned by a failed actor-turned-writer, whose obsession with early eighties slashers was evident on every page of his teen thriller. The studio had hoped to hire Craven to direct, but the filmmaker was once again reluctant about returning to the horror genre that, whilst it had served him well, had also typecast him. Eventually, sensing the potential of the concept, he agreed, and the script was finally re-titled Scream.
Late in the evening at an isolated house, teenager Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) is making popcorn as she prepares to settle down to watch a movie. Suddenly the phone rings, which reveals itself to be a wrong number. Yet moments later the man calls back, apologising for the first interuption and expressing interest in wanting to know more about here. Slightly unnerved, she hands up and heads back towards her popcorn but the phone rings yet again, this time the caller growing incrasingly hostile. She demands to play a game, in which her boyfriend Steve (Kevin Patrick Walls), who is tied to a chair in her back yard, will survive if she gets the question right. Unfortunately, she mistakenly answers wrong and Steve is gutted, before the killer comes after her, eventually stabbing her in the chest and stringing her from a tree for her parents to discover.
Meanwhile, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is at home when suddenly her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) appears at the bedroom window. This disturbance attracts the attention of her father (Lawrence Hecht), who is due to leave town for a few days, but when he bursts into her room he finds her alone. The next day at school, Sidney is informed of the gruesome fate of Casey and Steve by her best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan). The previous year, Sidney’s own mother had been brutally raped and murdered and this incident reminds her of the ordeal. When Sidney is attacked in her home the following night, ruthless reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) appears on the scene, who had accused Sidney of identifying the wrong man during the trial of her mother’s death. Tatum’s well meaning but useless brother, Deputy Dewey (David Arquette), is assigned to keep watch on Sidney until the police apprehend her attacker, who is suspected to be Billy.
When the school is closed due to recent events, their eccentric friend Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) decides to throw a house party, which not only attracts the watchful eye of Dewey but also the killer, with Billy now having been cleared of suspicion. Cornering her in the garage, the maniac (disguised in a black robe and mask) slashes her arm, forcing her to try to escape through the small catflap on the door, but when the killer causes the door to lift upwards her head is crushed by the roof. Unsure on whether or not to trust her boyfriend, Sidney finally decides it is time to let go of her past and lose her virginity to him, but soon afterwards, the figure bursts through the door and stabs Billy. But who is the real killer? Is it the crazy Stu, the creepy film geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy), Sidney’s father or even Dewey?
Scream was exactly what the horror genre needed in 1996. Something that not only admitted what it was but took great pride in it. Most of the recent horror films had been dressed up as something more respectable, with The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en gaining critical acclaim despite their roots clearly being in the slasher genre. Kevin Williamson’s screenplay felt fresh and exciting, heavily referencing the films of the eighties whilst also working as a serious horror in its own right. For slasher fans, there were countless moments that would seem familiar, with Williamson paying homage to the likes of When a Stranger Calls and Psycho, whilst the characters would name-drop everything from Prom Night to The Town That Dreaded Sundown. The writer was clearly a fan of this type of movie and that shone through in every aspect of his work.
What was most surprising was just how violent Scream actually was. The opening set piece, in which ‘star’ Barrymore was brutally murdered and hung from a tree (in a scene which echoed Suspiria), set the stage for what was to follow, a no-holds-barred rollercoaster ride in which everyone could be revealed as either the killer or the next victim. Williamson’s use of the whodunit formula, allowing the audience to also guess the identity of the masked maniac, added an interactive element that had been absent from the slasher genre due to over familiarity of the now-iconic villains. The remaining characters were also well developed, with Sidney being the tortured heroine, Randy the film geek, Stu the over-the-top fool and Billy the sinister boyfriend. If Scream has one flaw it is its success, an unexpected hit at the box office, prompting every studio in town to once again jump on the bandwagon and release their variations of the post-modern slasher (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend). Even Scream‘s own sequels suffered from the clichés that the first film had played on so well.