Ranting & Slashing: Still Screaming Fifteen Years After Wes Craven’s Scary Movie
For a while, successful horror looked to be a thing of the past. With the close of the 1980s it seemed that audience fatigue had set in regarding reigning franchises. 1989 saw minimal box office returns for the Friday the 13th, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, indicating that audiences might’ve had enough of these recurring bogeymen. Original horror wasn’t faring much better, either, with the majority of ‘successful’ movies pulling in around $20-$30 million in final grosses. Budgets hadn’t yet inflated, so these returns were often respectable – although hardly the stuff of blockbusters. Hollywood pedigree stuff like The Silence of the Lambs, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview with the Vampire made bigger bank, but on larger budgets and with considerably more advertising money backing them.
The studios behind these successful horrors were often desperate to emphasize the non-horrific aspects of these productions, often times going to great lengths to convey their film was intended for more than just the horror crowd. And for a while it seemed like successful genre stuff was being labeled as anything but. Psychological thrillers, supernatural dramas, you name it. Horror was on the outs and it didn’t look to be coming back anytime soon.
It certainly didn’t look like Wes Craven’s latest offering, Scream, was going to re-ignite the wavering flames of the genre. I slumped into in a mostly abandoned theater on opening night with a handful of high school friends by my side and a tub of popcorn in my lap. Nobody seemed to be expecting much from a director whose previous effort was best highlighted by a scene of Eddie Murphy in whiteface. Craven has never been Captain Consistency and buying a ticket for the film previously known as Scary Movie had me wondering which Wes Craven was going to show up: The guy who brought us The Hills Have Eyes, or the man responsible for the off-roaders test experimental dirt bike fuel in the desert while the dog has a flashback and the blind girl acts like Daredevil plotline of The Hills Have Eyes part II…
When it was over, I found plenty to enjoy about Scream, even though I didn’t quite love it. It certainly had done enough to appease my admittedly fussy mores: GhostFace was a bona fide slasher icon, a sly psychopath with a penchant for small hunting knives and a one hell of a coarse and creepy phone voice. More importantly, he didn’t reek of franchise desperation in the same way that, say, Dr. Giggles had only a few years earlier. In one regard, Craven had taken the slasher back to its late 70s/early 80s roots by offering a mortal masked madman instead of the undying supernatural murderers dominating the market at the time. There was a mystery behind this body count and trying to figure out whodunit was almost as much fun was wondering who was going to bite it next.
As familiar as Scream felt on one hand, it was the ‘freshness’ of Kevin Williamson’s script that many critics and audiences undoubtedly responded to. These kids effectively recognized the mainstay clichés of slasher lore, and the familiar story was peppered with a self-awareness that prevented Scream from feeling stagnant. Granted, this wasn’t the first time someone poked fun at overused genre conventions, but Craven’s expert direction rendered this the slickest slasher movie ever produced. That it balanced freshness and fun with tension and suspense was an admirable feat. People interpreted this blend as both a parody of the slasher film and a mockery of its fans, although those folks were missing the point. Sure Craven and Williamson enjoyed messing with expectations and conventions, but none of it would’ve worked if there hadn’t been a lean and mean little slasher film lurking beneath the hipness.
It didn’t break any records opening weekend. Beavis and Butthead Do America captured the top spot while Scream debuted at number 4, nestled snugly between Disney’s live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians and the grim George Clooney rom-com One Fine Day. It netted a respectable $6.3 million on 1400 screens but hardly looked like a film poised for blockbuster status. My first indication that this sucker was resonating with audiences came during a random gas station pit stop, where the attendants were marveling over the big surprise opening that saw poster girl Drew Barrymore being butchered at the hands of our resident slasher. Shortly thereafter, classmates began dropping “horror trivia” as if they’d been granted access to some secret tome. A kid I’d never once heard mention any horror film throughout four years of classes butted into a conversation once to state that ”everyone forgets that Jason’s mother was the killer in the first Friday the 13th.” The culmination of Scream’s personal impact came during an afternoon gym class, when a group of cheerleaders who weren’t normally inclined to associate with someone outside of their social circle were suddenly asking me for a handful of scary movie recommendations (”ones like Scream!”). They didn’t much like The Mutilator. Whoops.
Outside of my own microcosm, Scream was taking off everywhere. I took my father to catch an encore viewing a few weeks later and the theater was packed solid with a diverse mixture of teens and adults. My Dad had inadvertently fostered my obsession with the slasher subgenre, so it only made sense for us to catch its resurgence on the big screen. He loved it, immediately declaring it ”better than Halloween!” It wasn’t, and he was horribly wrong, but it, along with the ravenous audience applause at the end, was an example of how this small slasher film was catching on with audiences like wildfire.
Suddenly, horror movies seemed en vogue again. Scream was holding strong in the top five in early 1997 when another genre film, The Relic opened in the number one spot. Its legs weren’t all that great (presumably because the film was horrible), but this one-two punch served as a reminder to Hollywood that horror was still profitable. When April rolled around, Scream was clinging to the top 10 and well on its way to a $100 million domestic gross when another horror film slithered into first place, Anaconda. The Ice Cube/J.Lo creature feature somehow staked out an impressive $136 million worldwide take, and cemented the fact that the h-word was back in the limelight. Most impressive, however, was the weekend of October 17th, where I Know What You Did Last Summer and Devil’s Advocate opened at number one and two, respectively, both garnering solid reviews while yielding strong profits.
Before anyone thinks I’m attributing too much to Wes Craven’s little-slasher-that-could, let me acknowledge the fact that horror wasn’t really dead throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90’s, but it sure as hell was sleeping. And not everything that followed in Scream’s wake was all roses, either. The trend of watered-down violence mixed with recognizable - and young - television stars probably did more to further tarnish the genre’s reputation rather than bolster it (at least in the eyes of hardcore fans). Still, we can’t fault Scream for that any more than we can blame John Carpenter’s Halloween for leading to Offerings. Scream was the right film for the mid-‘90s in that it proved there was life and originality left in the horror film. It also forced some of the rip-offs to be a little more creative than their ‘80s counterparts, resulting in some fairly fun little slasher excursions if you’re into that sort of thing. Instead of the tired escaped mental patient prologue, we got gimmicks that riffed on Craven’s film without copying outright. Some of them succeeded (Urban Legends – Final Cut) while others failed miserably (I Still Know What You Did Last Summer), but that trend soon gave way to another (J-horror remakes) and then another (more remakes and then torture porn) ensuring that horror has maintained a constant and respectable box office pulse ever since.
Fifteen years later, I remain conflicted on Scream. I like its core characters and have always enjoyed the way it ‘modernized’ the slasher. There are moments where it feels a bit too impressed with itself (”this is like something out of a Wes Carpenter flick”) and nobody has ever described The Howling as ”that werewolf movie with E.T.’s mother.” But it has stood the test of time to become a modern day classic. Sure, I still balk at Matthew Lillard’s obnoxious turn as Stu and I’ll maintain that Jamie Kennedy’s Randy shouldn’t have made it to the sequel, but Scream celebrated the slasher film at a time when pop culture couldn’t think any lower of it. That and it demonstrates a love of Prom Night, which has always delighted me. Hard to believe we’re three weeks away from a fourth installment in what is now an undying franchise. So much has happened in the last fifteen years that it’ll be great if Craven and co. can once again deliver another proverbial jolt to the industry – shocking it from the glut of endless remakes once and for all. Enough time has passed that Scream has the potential to be relevant once again (and yes, the irony of looking for relevancy in a third sequel is not lost on me), and we’ll find out soon enough.
Read our review of the recently released Scream trilogy on Blu-ray here.
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