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Single-handedly resuscitating the horror genre, as well as the sagging career of its director, Scream, the 1996 sleeper written by then-Hollywood neophyte Kevin Williamson, brought in a staggering $103 million at the box office and inaugurated a new wave of "teenie kill pics." Self-consciously flagging the hackneyed conventions of post-Halloween stalk-and-slash horror movies, Scream contrived to grip audiences by mixing genuine scares with affectionate spoofing. Originally titled Scary Movie, the name was changed amid concerns that middle America might think this implied it was a comedy. Beyond the startle effects and the self-parody, however, there lies in Scream a scathing critique of the way America's mass-media representatives exploit tragedy for profit. In this respect, Scream more closely resembles Oliver Stone's serial-killer farce Natural Born Killers (1994) than it does Sean Cunningham's stalker classic Friday the 13th (1980).

After unsuccessful stints as an actor and as an assistant director of music videos, Williamson had little trouble selling Scream (only his second screenplay) to Dimension Films, the newly established "genre division" of Miramax. Wes Craven signed on as director immediately upon reading it. Craven, whose past successes in the horror genre include The Hills Have Eyes (1978) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), was at the time mired in a decade-long slump, having directed such duds as A Vampire in Brooklyn (1995) and Shocker (1989). Understandably bored with conventional slasher fare, he saw at once the potential of Williamson's story to bring lapsed horror fans back to their seats while simultaneously initiating a new crop of enthusiasts. In fact, Craven's 1994 contribution to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, which he wrote as well as directed, can be seen as an ambitious though under-appreciated attempt at generating just the kind of reflexive horror that would come to serve as Scream's signature. With a $15 million budget, an experienced director, and an established star (Drew Barrymore) already attached, Scream attracted a bevy of gifted Gen-X actors eager to gain recognition in a popular genre.

The intense ten minute opening of Scream bears a striking resemblance to the award-winning prologue of When a Stranger Calls (1979). An anonymous caller raises the stakes of playing "slasher movie trivia" by threatening the lives of teenage cutie Casey Becker (Barrymore) and her incapacitated boyfriend unless she can answer such questions as "Who was the killer in Friday the 13th? " Like everyone else in Scream, Casey has some familiarity with the horror film subgenre that began with Halloween in 1978. But only copious amounts of insider knowledge are enough to ensure one's survival in this paean to postmodern pastiche. The main storyline centers around the efforts of Sidney Prescott (played with the appropriate mixture of sensibility and sex appeal by Neve Campbell) to avoid the murderous advances of a sadistic slasher film fanatic wielding a very sharp knife and wearing a mask appropriately inspired by Edvard Munch's masterpiece expressionist painting, The Scream. With a nod to the traditional whodunit, the identity of Sidney's stalker is kept a secret until the movie's final scene, and not before each of her high school buddies has exhibited just enough dubious behavior to qualify as a suspect. Only the timely intervention of dirt-seeking newshound Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox, of sitcom Friends fame) is enough to save Sidney, stunned to discover that her assailant is really a pair of male friends who revel in the motiveless nature of their crimes.

Much has been made of Scream's numerous slasher film references and its abundance of in-jokes. Linda Blair (demon-possessed star of The Exorcist), Priscilla Pointer (Carrie), and Craven himself (playing a Freddy Kreuger lookalike) all make uncredited cameos. One of the killers—Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich)—is named after the psychiatrist in Halloween, himself named after Janet Leigh's lover in Psycho (1960). And at one point, Sidney's friend mentions the director "Wes Carpenter," obviously referring to both Craven and Halloween director John Carpenter. At times, however, Scream goes beyond mere self-referentiality, approaching something closer to self-reflexivity. Not only do the characters exhibit insider knowledge about slasher films, they occasionally evince awareness of being in one. Thus, an unwitting victim pleads sarcastically, "Oh please don't kill me, Mr. Ghostface, I wanna be in the sequel!" And in response to Sidney's cry that "this is NOT a movie," Billy states, "Yes it is Sidney. It's all one big movie."

As noted by Isabel Pinedo, Scream breaks in various ways the "rules" of the traditional slasher. There are two killers, for example, and two heroines, both of whom are sexually active. The victims are bright, articulate, even witty. The nerd survives. And the film ends with the killers' unambiguous deaths. Much of Scream's effectiveness, in fact, comes from the setting up and subsequent undermining of audience expectations. It also comes from a blurring of the already hazy line between real-life violence and violent entertainment. Tabloid news reporters in particular are singled out as insensitive instigators of mayhem; one such reporter asks Sydney "how it feels to be almost brutally butchered. How does it feel? People have a right to know!"

Williamson and Craven again teamed up for Scream 2 (1997), which took the self-reflexivity of its predecessor to new heights; there is a film within the film, for example, supposedly a fictionalized account of the "events" occurring in Part One. And like its predecessor, Scream 2 grossed over $100 million at the box office (Scream 3 is in the works.) Williamson's adaptation of a young-adult novel, I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), was another sleeper hit, and his treatment for Halloween H20 (1998) helped make a success of the "final" installment in that dying series. A $20 million long-term contract with Miramax, a hit television show for teens (Dawson's Creek), and permission to direct his own Killing Mrs. Tingle, all serve to ensure a steady stream of Williamson-inspired products. Craven too has reaped the benefits of Scream's success, his desire for cinematic respectability finally satiated with a go-ahead to direct Meryl Streep in 50 Violins.

—Steven Schneider

Further Reading:

Pinedo, Isabel. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. Albany, State University of New York Press, 1997.

Schneider, Steven. "Uncanny Realism and the Decline of the Modern Horror Film." Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres. Vol. 3, No. 3-4, 1997, 417-428.

Williamson, Kevin. Scream: A Screenplay. New York, Hyperion, 1997.