Scream: The Rebirth of the Slasher Genre
Back in the mid 1990s, horror, and more specifically the slasher genre, was on its last legs. Long gone were the days of the Michael-Freddy-Jason reign that dominated the 80s and made horror one of the most profitable genres in cinema. Instead singular critical and commercial successes such as The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en marked the only far and apart signs of the genre’s relevance. And even those were much more psychological and genre bending in nature than the slashers of old.
Enter Scream. Originally titled Scary Movie and released in December 1996. An unapologetic slasher, Scream revitalised and revolutionised the entire sub-genre while providing a much-needed morale boost for horror creatives and audiences alike. At first glance, there was nothing really different about this film. A young teen girl, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is stalked and harassed by a masked killer who hunts down and murders her classmates (normally with some kind of blade). Bolstered by a cast of stars and 90s heart-throbs including Drew Barrymore, Skeet Ulrich, Rose McGowan, Matthew Lillard and Courtney Cox, the film was a sleeper hit at the box office and went on to become the first of four films in one of the decade’s most definitive franchises.
But beyond the iconic horror villain and attractive cast, screenwriter Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven had created something…different. Despite the surface level similarities with its predecessors, Scream wasn’t like Halloween or Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street. The film paid homage to them and subtly referenced them. But unlike any slashers that came before Scream, its characters had seen them. Learned from them. Studied them. And now they were living them. And not only were characters such as Randy (Jamie Kennedy) and Tatum (Rose McGowan) aware of slasher tropes, but the film itself was actively critiquing andusing them. This meta, self-aware approach was the key to popularising an entirely new way of thinking about the genre and sparking the next movement of horror slashers. Though not in the way some people may initially imagine.
Scream wasn’t the Scary Movie type of spoof that the critique of horror tropes might bring to mind. It was a genuinely scary movie about scary movies (hence the film’s original title). An homage and a deconstruction of slasher themes and tropes that we, the audience, were all too familiar with.
I think we can gain a better idea of what distinguished Scream, critically and culturally, from its predecessors through Ghostface’s (the killer) interactions with his victims. For example, the opening scene; one of the most iconic horror openings of all time. For anyone who hasn’tseen it, Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore), who had been marketed as the film’s lead character, answers a call from a stranger who proceeds to discuss and test her scary movie knowledge. He goes on to verbally threaten and harass her, murder her boyfriend and, ultimately kill her and hang her corpse from a tree for her parents to find.
Man: You have to have a favourite…what comes to mind?
Casey: Uh…Halloween. You know the one with the guy with the white mask who walks around and stalks babysitters?
Casey: What’s yours?
Man: Is that the one where the guy had knives for fingers?
Casey: Yeah! Freddy Krueger!
Man: Freddy! That’s right! I like that movie, it was scary.
Casey: The first one was but the rest sucked.
It was one of the few instances a famous and loved actress was cast and killed off in the first scene (à la Psycho), but it was also the first time audiences had seen such in-your-face intertextuality; characters in a slasher film (including the villain) so flippantly discussing slasher films. The audience was essentially seeing itself portrayed on the big screen. And yet despite all that horror movie knowledge, Casey is still killed. In the first scene no less. That kind of familiarity hit quite close to home in a way that the genre hadn’t since the days of Psycho and Peeping Tom. For the first time in a long time, a slasher movie once again made audiences feel that they weren’t safe.
And these characters weren’t only used to discuss these classics and their tropes. Throughout the film, there is a constant sense of both satire and homage. In one scene, Sidney is called by the killer (assuming it’s her friend Randy) and talks about how reductive she finds certain horror tropes, only to fall victim to that same trope moments later. The lines between horror movie and reality were being blurred, making the film all the more entertaining andscary.
‘Sidney: It’s always some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl, who can’t act, who always runs up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting.
*Two Minutes Later*
Sidney pulls on the chain and then - inexplicably turns and…RUNS UP THE STAIRS.’
Even the killers’ actions and motivations are linked to this idea of self-awareness and unpredictability. Sidney’s boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and his best friend Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) are revealed as the two killers (another rarity in horror at the time). Each cites revenge and peer pressure as justifications respectively, but truly they just want to live out their fantasies and emulate the murder style of their favourite horror movie villains. In fact, they base and execute their entire plan on what they’ve seen in movies. Kevin Williamson gave us villains that felt familiar and should have been predictable but weren’t. Even if audiences had suspected Billy, did they suspect that he had an accomplice? Or that his final scenes would see him lose that calm and controlled exterior inherited from his horror villain predecessors?
‘Sidney: You sick fucks - you’ve seen one too many movies.’
And despite their desire to live their Michael Myers fantasies, the tropes they’ve seen and studied aren’t so cut and dry in ‘real life’. Sidney may run up the stairs when they attack her, but she doesn’t just roll over and die at the end because only virgins get to live. Billy and Stu aren’t suddenly impervious to harm à la Jason Voorhees because they’ve got a mask and a knife. In fact, they often take quite a beating. A ‘real’ final girl or even other characters are going to put up a lot more of a fight than their fictional counterparts, and that’s really the charm of Williamson’s screenplay. Scream is as much ‘Classic Scary Movie Slasher’ as it is a satire of one.
As original as it is inspired, Scream is innovative and entertaining in its deconstruction the slasher genre. The perfect ode to and reinvention of a scary movie, it’s absolutely one of my favourite horror films of all time. Not because it’s the scariest or most haunting. Not because of the great performances or the fantastic Old Western-like score. But because of how it inspired new takes on horror and gave us characters who, for the first time in a while, reflected the audiences who watched it. And what’s scarier and more exciting than seeing yourself in a horror movie?