When Scream begins, its opening scene introduces us to Casey (Drew Barrymore), a high school student who is making popcorn to eat while watching a movie at home in her living room. She receives a phone call from a mysterious stranger, who seems rather friendly to Casey despite calling the wrong number, and the conversation soon leads to the topic of scary movies, and which ones Casey likes most. Before Casey knows it, the phone call goes from friendly and flirtatious, to disturbing and horrifying, when this stranger suddenly makes it clear that he’s watching her at that very moment, and he has no intention of leaving her alone or leaving her alive.
As we see her being forced to answer questions about Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, and then having to watch her boyfriend, Steve (Kevin Patrick Walls), die right in front of her, we’re still hoping and expecting this to end in hard-earned victory and survival for Casey. After all, she’s played by Drew Barrymore, the lovable sweetheart who we’ve been watching in movies ever since she was a little girl. There’s no way she’s really going to perish at the hands of some dude wearing a mask of a Peanut-Eyed Ghost.
And yet…that’s exactly what happens. Casey runs away from the knife-wielding serial killer who will soon be known as Ghostface, but he catches up to her and stabs Casey repeatedly, as her last words and dying breaths are heard over the phone by her parents, who have just arrived home and have no idea where their daughter is or what’s happening to her. The moment they both set foot outside to begin searching for her, Casey is found by her parents … dead, disemboweled, and hanging from a nearby tree, as her mother screams in absolute terror, and the camera zooms faster and closer to her bloodied corpse before the screen immediately cuts to black.
If that scene doesn’t convince you that Scream was not playing around, and that Ghostface’s knife was rated E for Everyone, then nothing will.
Life in the small town of Woodsboro, California is turned upside down by the brutal murders of Casey and Steve. As the police investigate the killings, and news reporters like Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) work to uncover the truth in order to score ratings success and increase their book sales, other teenagers like Tatum (Rose McGowan), Randy (Jamie Kennedy), Stu (Matthew Lillard), Billy (Skeet Ulrich), and Sidney (Neve Campbell) all find themselves being targeted as well, while also being forced to wonder when the killer will strike next, and if this killer is someone who they already know.
Scream opened in theaters on December 20, 1996, and what made its approach so unique is not just the fact that it was a horror movie with a cast of familiar faces instead of the usual virtual unknowns. Or that it was a horror movie just as good at making the audience laugh as it was at sending chills down their spines, much of which was courtesy of the teenage characters being witty towards each other, and knowledgeable about pop culture while poking fun at the horror movies that they know, love, and loathe. (Even director Wes Craven got in on the fun, as he made a cameo in Scream playing a janitor with a … peculiar choice of outfit). It also leaned heavily on the fact that it was a murder mystery. Other horror movies and slasher films quickly identify who the villain is that will be attempting to kill the main characters, and we’re only left to wonder just when and where this villain will strike next. With Ghostface, we’re left to wonder not just when and where he’s going to attack, but also who is under the mask that is doing all of the attacking. This makes it even more terrifying for Sidney and her friends as they begin questioning themselves and each other as to who is really the guilty party, and whether anyone can be trusted.
All of this leads to the film’s masterstroke: Towards the end of the film, Sidney is running and fighting for her life against Ghostface, who she has just witnessed killing Billy after the two of them have just had sex for the first time. She runs back inside the house, and sees that Billy is still alive, but badly injured, and encounters Randy, who has also been running for his life from Ghostface. He explains to Sidney and Billy that Stu is really the killer and that he’s gone mad. Billy then responds by quoting Norman Bates (“We all go a little mad sometimes”) before aiming a pistol at Randy and shooting him without hesitation. This is where Sidney (and the audience) realize that all of this time, there has been not one, but two killers. Billy is Ghostface, and is collaborating with Stu, who is also Ghostface.
There are a lot of people who deserve credit for helping to make Scream be the film that overcame a slow start at the box office to become more and more successful with each passing week, thanks to incredibly positive word of mouth, and become the horror movie classic that it is today:
Jamie Kennedy (before he joined Twitter and became an insufferable douchecanoe like too many other celebrities on that hellmouth of an app) as Randy, the film geek/video store clerk who knows plenty about movies, including the three rules on how to survive in a horror movie (“You can never have sex…[you can] never drink or do drugs…never, ever, ever under any circumstances say ‘I’ll be right back’ because you won’t be back”); David Arquette as Dewey, the kindhearted but nerdy deputy sheriff who isn’t nearly as authoritative as he’d like to think, but will do whatever he can to protect his friends from Ghostface; Matthew Lillard as Stu, another film geek/video store clerk who enjoys teasing his friends and talking sh-t when the opportunity presents itself (which only hints at how twisted he really is, and how he enjoys putting his friends through the wringer); Rose McGowan as Tatum, Sidney’s fiercely protective best friend who has no respect for Dewey or his authority as a law-enforcement officer; Courteney Cox as Gale Weathers, who is ruthless, incredibly good at her job, doesn’t suffer fools or serial killers gladly, and whose determination to uncover the truth about what’s happening in Woodsboro leaves her vulnerable to Ghostface’s wrath; Skeet Ulrich as Billy, who at first seems like a loving and committed boyfriend to Sidney, but who is in fact a merciless and manipulative psychopath who blames Sidney for his mother abandoning him and his father, and who will do anything to punish her for it, even if it means killing her mother, killing all of his friends, and convincing one of them to help him do it; and last but never least, Neve Campbell as Sidney, a regular-degular teenage girl who is studious and responsible and enjoys spending time with her friends and her boyfriend while recovering from the violent murder of her mother. Despite learning that her own boyfriend is the culprit behind all of the bloodshed in her life and that of her friends, she refuses to let that break her or stop her from fighting back and walking away victoriously as the Final Girl.
Kevin Williamson was inspired to write the screenplay for Scream after watching a news story about The Gainesville Ripper, as well as his own fears of being home alone with intruders looking to harm him, and of not being able to jump-start his screenwriting career so he could pay his bills. Fortunately for Williamson, Scream grabbed Hollywood’s attention, and he went on to stay very booked and busy. He wrote the screenplays for I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty, did some uncredited work on Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, wrote and directed Teaching Mrs. Tingle (which was originally titled Killing Mrs. Tingle until the mass shootings at Columbine High School), Cursed, and also wrote Scream 2 and Scream 4. (His work on Teaching Mrs. Tingle is what prevented him from writing Scream 3, which was instead written by Ehren Kruger.)
Williamson was also approached about creating his first series for television. That series, which starred (and launched the careers of) James Van Der Beek, Michelle Williams, Katie Holmes, and Joshua Jackson, was Dawson’s Creek, which premiered in January of 1998 on The WB, a.k.a. the greatest television network in all of existence.
It wasn’t until he adapted L.J. Smith’s young-adult book series The Vampire Diaries with writer/producer Julie Plec for The CW that he once again found critical and ratings success on television. It ran for eight seasons, and starred Paul Wesley, Nina Dobrev, and Ian Somerhalder.
He then went on to create the series The Following for Fox, which starred Kevin Bacon, James Purefoy, Shawn Ashmore, Natalie Zea, and Annie Parisse.
The success of Scream also inspired Hollywood to follow in that film’s footsteps, and have Dimension Films and lots of other studios make their own low-to-mid-budget horror films with hot, young, mostly white twentysomethings. I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, Disturbing Behavior, The Faculty, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, Campfire Tales, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Dead Man’s Curve, Cherry Falls, Gossip, Valentine, Soul Survivors, Joy Ride, and the Final Destination series of films.
Because Scream was popular enough to inspire imitators, it was also popular enough to inspire parodies. The most popular parody was the 2000 film Scary Movie (which is what Scream was originally titled), starring Anna Faris, Regina Hall, Shannon Elizabeth, Cheri Oteri, Shawn Wayans, Marlon Wayans, and was directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans.
And in 2015, Scream was developed as an anthology television series for MTV.
Of course, there is one name that truly deserves to be mentioned and recognized for the creation and success of Scream, and that name is Wes Craven.
Craven was already a legend in the horror genre for his films The Last House On The Left (its tagline alone was a stroke of genius, though it wasn’t actually the first horror movie to use it), The Hills Have Eyes, The People Under The Stairs, and A Nightmare On Elm Street. He was originally offered the chance to direct Scream, but was admittedly reluctant to make more horror films, as he was starting to distance himself from the genre. It wasn’t until Drew Barrymore showed interest in the screenplay for Scream and signed on to appear in it that Craven realized that there might be something to this film, and he agreed to direct.
However, it wasn’t without its share of headaches. Bob Weinstein, president of Dimension Films and whose brother we’re all familiar with for too many horrible reasons, didn’t like the Ghostface mask, and he was so unimpressed with the early footage he had seen, he was strongly considering replacing Craven with another director. This led to Craven and his editor, Patrick Lussier, putting together a workprint of the opening scene to show Weinstein and let him know what they were aiming for and how the finished film would turn out. Fortunately, it was enough to win him over, and convinced Weinstein to not only let Craven stay on as director, but add some more money to the film’s budget.
When the producers approached the school board for Santa Rosa High School so they could use it as a filming location, the school board asked to see the screenplay. Upon realizing that such violent content would be in the film, they said no. Despite the fact that there was originally a verbal agreement with Dimension Films, the complaints about a horror movie depicting gory violence in a place of learning became too much (the fact that this occurred three years after the murder of Polly Klaas didn’t help, and had the town’s residents even more on edge about allowing Scream to be filmed in their backyard), and the producers had no choice but to find someplace else to shoot. Craven, however, acknowledged the school board for Santa Rosa High School the best way he could: In the closing credits for Scream, right after the ‘Special Thanks’ section, it reads: “No thanks whatsoever to the Santa Rosa City School District Governing Board.” Santa Rosa High School was used by other film productions in the past, but after this particular kerfuffle, it was practically blacklisted by Hollywood, and hasn’t been used or even approached for any other productions since.
After the release of Scream, Craven would also direct Scream 2 in 1997, Scream 3 in 2000, and Scream 4 in 2011. He also worked outside of the horror genre to direct Music Of The Heart, which starred Meryl Streep, but continued to scare audiences with Cursed, My Soul To Take, and Red Eye, which starred Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy.
Almost a month after his 76th birthday, Wes Craven died from a brain tumor. He is survived by his wife, Iya Labunka, and his two children from his first marriage, Jonathan and Jessica. There was definitely no shortage of tributes from his friends, peers, and former collaborators when the public was made aware of his death.
Devastated to hear the news. Wes was a great friend, fine director and good man. Giant loss. Much too soon. http://t.co/3XnIn8UNIF— John Carpenter (@TheHorrorMaster) August 31, 2015
RIP Wes Craven, my director, my friend. A brilliant, kind, gentle and very funny man. A sad day on Elm St and everywhere. I'll miss him.— Robert B. Englund (@RobertBEnglund) August 31, 2015
The Evil Dead flicks had several homages to Master Wes Craven (Freddie's glove in this case). He showed us the way. pic.twitter.com/JqNK0WHOkv— Bruce Campbell (@GroovyBruce) August 31, 2015
RIP Wes Craven! A pioneer in the genre!— Joe Dante (@joe_dante) August 31, 2015
Today the world lost a great man, my friend and mentor, Wes Craven. My heart goes out to his family. x— Courteney Cox (@CourteneyCox) August 31, 2015
Next month will bring Scream, the fifth film in the Scream series in which someone else takes on the Ghostface identity to terrorize Sidney, Dewey, Gale, and a whole new cast of fresh-faced twentysomethings who will either live to be in the next sequel, or suffer very gruesome deaths courtesy of Ghostface’s knife.
Though it will be directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, who did a damn good job directing the film Ready Or Not, there will only be one Wes Craven, and it just won’t feel the same without him or his presence guiding all of the carnage that we’ll be seeing.
I recognize that hat… 💔 pic.twitter.com/cL009bhKpo— John Squires (@FreddyInSpace) November 8, 2021
For Wes. pic.twitter.com/oGglFwAHDJ— Matt Bettinelli-Olpin (@BettinelliOlpin) December 20, 2021
So to end this look back at Scream in honor of its twenty-fifth anniversary:
Thank you for everything, Wes Craven. And may you continue to rest in peace.