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How ‘Scream’ Shook Up Horror Movies

Now on its fifth film, the franchise started by Wes Craven has gone from changing the language of a genre to chasing its own legacy

Ringer illustration

Blonds have more fun, except in horror movies. When Norman Bates pulled back the shower curtain on Marion Crane in Psycho, it not only opened the floodgates for cinematic gore, but gave directors tacit permission to start offing their ingenues with impunity. In 1975, the heir to Alfred Hitchcock, a 26-year-old named Steven Spielberg, restaged Psycho’s scream-queen money shot in the Long Island surf with Jaws and set box office records. The same formula worked again three years later for John Carpenter in Halloween’s cold open, which made the suburbs suddenly feel as dangerous as the boonies or the beach—while also making the audience complicit in the carnage through voyeuristic first-person camerawork.

Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Carpenter are all directly or indirectly invoked in the virtuoso prologue of Wes Craven’s Scream, which could work as a self-contained short-movie classic. Drawing deeply on the enduring urban legend of the babysitter beset by menacing phone calls (a setup dating back at least as far as Black Christmas), it features Drew Barrymore as a sacrificial platinum lamb named Casey.

Leaving aside the symbolic sadism of killing off one of the most beloved child actors characters in movie history, Barrymore’s casting was, like Janet Leigh’s participation in Psycho, a shrewd exercise in wrong-footing an audience. Just as viewers in 1960 would have expected Leigh to escape the Bates Motel rather than become collateral damage, Barrymore’s celebrity seemed to offer her a kind of protective shield. Instead, screenwriter Kevin Williamson weaponized the star’s fame against itself, setting up a mandate of Darwinian ruthlessness that gave the film its serrated edge. “[You were] sure she’s the star of the movie,” recalled Dimension Films executive Richard Potter in The Ringer’s recent oral history of Scream. “There’s no way she’s going to die. When she dies at the end of that sequence, you’re going to go, ‘Anyone could die.’”

A movie in which anybody could die—and also in which anybody could be the killer—is a slasher fan’s version of utopia, and considering the moribund state of the genre in the mid-1990s, it’s easy to see why Scream felt like a breath of fresh air. In a way, the film was a spiritual sequel to Craven’s heady, self-reflexive New Nightmare, which signaled a postmodern sensibility by imagining a world where his movies had inadvertently channeled dark forces under the guise of multiplex escapism—where Freddy Krueger was simultaneously a goofy movie bogeyman and a demonic entity.

The ’90s are when postmodernism went mainstream, and while it took a while for New Nightmare to become a cult classic, Craven stayed ahead of the curve by signing on for Scream’s brazen act of homage. If Barrymore’s Casey was the film’s seductive, girl-next-door emblem, its most representative character was Jamie Kennedy’s Randy Meeks, he of the encyclopedic knowledge of R-rated franchises and their governing rules. Two years after Pulp Fiction, Kennedy’s nervy, nerdy cadences recalled Quentin Tarantino and his video-store savant backstory as surely as they did the slacker milieu and mindset of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, whose riffs on Hollywood ephemera was the lingua franca of the ’90s indie.

The common denominator between these three movies, all made under the sign of Miramax and their proprietors Bob and Harvey Weinstein, was a barely submerged revenge-of-the-nerds subtext in which trivial expertise trumps conventional competence. In these movies, fans, and obsessives have the upper hand over jocks and homecoming queens. What does Casey really die for, anyway, besides not knowing that the true villain of the first Friday the 13th was actually Mrs. Voorhees? If only she had a geek around the house to help her out with that one.

Reviewing Scream for The New York Times in December 1996, Janet Maslin took issue with the film’s jovial angle of approach, calling out Craven for “[wanting] things both ways” and “capitalizing on lurid material while undermining it with mocking humor.” “Not even horror fans who can answer all of [Scream’s] knowing trivia questions may be comfortable with such an exploitative mix,” she added. But really, having it both ways is what a lot of people want out of horror. Terror and laughter are the two involuntary responses that offer catharsis in giddy, unexpected bursts. And in reality, Scream’s jokes didn’t undermine its shocks (or gore shots) so much as help to recontextualize them for a ’90s teen audience eager to learn where all those cozy, received tropes came from in the first place.

Exhibit A: Neve Campbell’s sad-eyed Sidney Prescott, a moody, indomitable virgin nursing some debilitating personal trauma—characteristics of the archetypal Final Girl, a term coined in 1992 by scholar Carol Clover to describe the sole survivors of slasher movies. Clover’s writing is all about locating the unconscious meanings in genre cinema—the inextricable and moralistic linkage between sex and death that turns nearly every hookup in a horror movie into a crime scene. Her book Men, Women and Chainsaws became a staple of film studies libraries and dorm rooms alike. While Randy Meeks lacks Clover’s academic erudition, he’s very much cut from the same cloth—an observer standing outside the action, deconstructing it. Even as characters are getting disemboweled on-screen, Scream lets its narrative and thematic guts hang out, ready for critical autopsy. Beneath the ritualistic plot about a picturesque small town stalked by a masked killer, what gives the film its satirical hook and visceral kick is the idea that even the hoariest old clichés can still be dangerous, especially when consumed by impressionable viewers clinging desperately to their grasp of movie logic.

Take Craven’s cleverest and most instructive set piece, when Randy sprawls out on the couch watching Halloween. He keeps drunkenly imploring Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode to turn around while the killer creeps up behind him—a terrific bit of staging that incorporates reflections in the TV screen and surveillance footage being recorded in a van outside. The cameraman inside the van sees Randy being stalked and begins screaming his own version of the same warning—“Look behind you!”—only to realize the feed he’s seeing is on a time delay and Ghostface has settled on a different victim. The punch line, perfectly timed by Craven, is hilarious and nasty.

It’s not exactly a hot take to say that the first Scream is the best entry in a franchise keenly aware of, and yet vulnerable to, the law of diminishing returns. When it’s revealed that the Edvard Munch–masked antagonist is one Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich)—the Johnny Depp dead ringer seemingly filleted in front of his lover Sidney—his partner in crime Stu (Matthew Lillard) declares exultantly that “these days, you gotta have a sequel.” The line nods to the inevitable brand extension that neither of Scream’s bad guys will actually live to see. One of the movie’s best jokes is that in trying to make themselves look like credible victims, Billy and Stu end up nearly bleeding themselves out. (You can almost draw a line between their bro’d-out, slack-jawed mutual mutilations and the gang from Jackass.)

Those aforementioned sequels ended up doubling—and tripling, and quadrupling—down on the fractured psyche and mythic resilience of Campbell’s Sidney, who took on an increasingly long-suffering air alongside fellow returnees David Arquette and Courteney Cox. Cox’s Gale Weathers is the prime mover in Scream 2, angling for ratings via a televised reunion between Sidney and the man once accused of the murder of her mother. What’s strong about Scream 2 isn’t the incredibly knotty plot (spun, once again, by Williamson) so much as a few stand-alone set pieces testifying to Craven’s directorial mastery. The prologue, set at the premiere of a Scream-like movie called Stab—based on the events of the first film’s “Woodsboro Massacre,” true-crime style—once again shows Williamson having his cake and eating it too, introducing a pair of Black moviegoers (Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps) who expound on the defective racial politics of slasher movies before falling victim to them; Epps’s death in particular is a keeper, as he’s stabbed through the ear in a bathroom stall in a sight gag loaded with sexual tension and paranoia.

Inevitably, Epps’s death became fodder for the Scary Movie series, which not only skewered Scream’s lily-white casting but proved that it’s possible to parody a parody provided you’re willing to take your act far enough over the top. Scary Movie arrived as part of a wave of teen-oriented gross-out comedies including American Pie and the collected works of the Farrelly brothers, and it was as shocking and visceral as Scream at times, but in a liberated, scatalogical way. In the scene when Anna Faris’s Sidney stand-in finally loses her virginity, the Wayans brothers see There’s Something About Mary’s ejaculation gag and raise it by several hundred gallons. Grounded by Faris’s Leslie Nielsen–worthy deadpan, Scary Movie ultimately helped to canonize its source material by seizing on its strengths and flaws alike with an obsessive, reverent specificity. (God bless Matthew Lillard’s spittle-flecked overacting, but Shawn Wayans has him dead to rights here.)

What’s fascinating is how, starting with 2000’s Scream 3, the series started to play catch-up with its own satirical offspring by toning down the brutality and leaning into an in-jokiness that literally crossed the streams: Both Scream 3 and Scary Movie 3 feature cameos by Jenny McCarthy (well used opposite Pamela Anderson in a send-up of The Ring). Intended as a meta-commentary on the rules and routines of cinematic trilogies, Scream 3 marks the point at which the intricacy of the series’ mythology begins to correspond directly to a total winnowing of emotional affect: The more complicated its revelations get, the less we’re obliged to care, and in the absence of any satisfying violence, the result is a movie that’s forgettable before it’s even over.

As for the longer-gestating Scream 4, its wildly uneven tone betrays the behind-the-scenes turmoil that saw Scream 3 screenwriter Ehren Kruger brought in to rework Williamson’s unwieldy first stab at an outline—a collision of sensibilities that’s never quite reconciled despite a renewed commitment to R-rated gore. The extended, hall-of-mirrors introductory sequence, which keeps cycling through jokey, knowingly half-hearted kill scenes from the fictional Stab movies (each populated by different A-list actresses including Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin), is conceptually clever, even if music-video ace Joseph Kahn beat it to the punch in his wonderful, underrated slasher parody Detention. Unfortunately, the intentionally repetitive, frictionless monotony of Scream 4’s overture ends up aptly summarizing the boredom of the movie that follows. Eleven years later, the early word on the confusingly titled “requel” Scream (which returns Campbell and Cox) is that it’s still caught in the same vicious loop—not surprising, perhaps, but ultimately keeping in line with the implicit limitations of the original. It’s a fine line between invention and inventory, and it’s been a while since the Scream films found the right side of it.

At one point in Scream 4, a character recites an endless list of classic horror remakes in an attempt to save herself from dying, showing off her knowledge and savvy in a way that Casey couldn’t back in 1996. That this roll call doesn’t make a difference in her fate could be taken as a commentary on the limits of cinephilia, but it’s also telling that almost every title she mentions had an inferior sequel. It’s a good joke, but it also points out that a series that once provocatively prodded our fascination and familiarity with horror movies is deferring to the futility of chasing its own legacy, never really trying to create a new one.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.