Scream – Redefining Horror in the Modern Era

What’s your favourite scary movie?

It is the mid nineties, the horror movie industry is all but dead having been on the decline for years after being flooded with cheap direct to video titles, unknown actors and endless sequels to the well established franchises of the 1970s and 1980s, completed with more tired, bored, old clichés than you can shake a bloody murder weapon at.

The genre is in desperate need of something or someone to come along and shake things up, inject some life into a dying industry, enter Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson with hit Slasher film Scream.

At almost 18 years Scream is the oldest film on our list of modern horror films, and in its lifetime has acquired a cult following as well as achieving both critical and financial acclaim becoming the highest-grossing American Slasher film, earning over $170 million worldwide.

The small and peaceful town of Woodsboro becomes a bloodbath when two teenagers turn up dead and gutted almost a year after Sidney Prescott’s (Neve Campbell) mother was brutally murdered in their home. A masked killer known as Ghostface begins haunting the town picking off residents one by one, nobody is safe and everyone is a suspect. With her father out of town and her classmates dying it is up to Sidney, selfish, local tabloid reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), Deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and film geek Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) to figure out who it is behind the mask and if Sidney’s mother’s killer is really the man on death row.

So Scream has all the usual ingredients for a typical Slasher horror film:

  • A sleepy, backwoods town in North America.
  • A predominantly teenage cast.
  • A strange, psychopathic masked killer slowly picking off the residents of the town.
  • A bladed murder weapon.
  • A teenage party.
  • “The Final Girl”.
  • Underage (or barely legal) sex.
  • Useless adults and law enforcement officers, save for maybe one or two adult characters.
  • Blood, guts and gore.
  • A dark secret and/or collective guilt regarding events that make up the film’s back story.

And as we’ve seen over the last 18 years, plenty of sequels and spin offs, including 3 sequel films (Scream 2, 3 & 4) and spoof horror film Scary Movie which not only borrows many elements from Scream including its opening sequence and Ghostface killer, but is also a reference to Scream’s original working title.

All the trappings of a run of the mill, direct to video Slasher movie all ready to contribute to the decline of its genre.

But wait, there’s more!

There just has to be doesn’t there? Otherwise, if Scream was just your average, forgettable, modern Slasher film, it would have no place on our list of horror films that re-defined the genre would it?

The first thing that sets Scream apart from those that have gone before is its casting choices including: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, and Drew Barrymore. While the Slasher sub-genre had traditionally attracted fairly unknown or emerging actors, Scream went the other way with a very well known cast. You just know this film is looking like being something special by the list of names it attracts, these kinds of stars wouldn’t sign up for roles usually reserved for the unknown or those trying desperately to cling to some sort of acting career. And then goes one step further by killing off Drew Barrymore, easily one of the most famous members of cast, within the first five minutes. And if a film can kill off one of its biggest name in the first scene, what can it do with the rest of its plot?

Well Scream is not just any old Slasher movie, same as those that had gone before it, save for a few minor adjustments such as location, character names and what mask the killer will hide behind. There is no denying it is inspired by Slasher films from the 1970s and 1980s, Halloween is reported to be one of writer Kevin Williamson’s favourite films, but it is also partly based on the story of real-life serial killer Danny Rolling, aka the Gainesville Ripper, who murdered 5 students in Florida and 3 members of the same family in Louisiana throughout 1989 and 1990.

Along with its big name cast and its real life serial killer serving as inspiration, Scream’s big selling point that set it apart from other horror films was that it was self aware. This is something that at that time totally unique to Scream, it knew it was a horror film, and it had fun with that fact.

The fact that the film is self aware brings in a comedy element to the film but unlike Scary Movie and other spoof films it manages to remain a ‘proper’ horror film and not descend into completely taking the mick out of the genre.

However it is the character of Randy Meeks who really shows just how self aware the film is, he is a cinematic encyclopaedia full of film facts and theories along with his part time job at the local video store and his rules for surviving a horror film. Whenever anything eventful happens in the film Randy finds a parallel between that and scenes from a film, usually a horror film, almost as if he has problems differentiating between real life and fiction.

Due to his extensive knowledge of all things horror related, Randy has a list of rules for surviving a horror film, a similar set of rules were used for the film’s posters prior to release, which he reveals to everyone at Stu’s party as the teens sit around drinking and watching Halloween, the rules are:

  • You may not survive the movie if you have sex.
  • You may not survive the movie if you drink or do drugs.
  • You may not survive the movie if you say “I’ll be right back”, “Hello?” or “Who’s there?”

These rules fit into almost any teen horror or Slasher movie and whilst they are met with mocking and scepticism by the other partygoers Randy is a devout believer in them, and at the end of the film he believes the only reason he is still alive is that he is a virgin, again showing the blurred lines between reality and cinema where Randy is concerned. The rules are also another way that the film takes the clichés of Slasher films and runs with them, turning them into something different.

Instead of trying to distance itself from its roots in the Slasher films of the 1970s and 1980sScream exploits the genre and its clichés for all they are worth, providing a humorous examination of the horror genre. So, whilst Scream has all the usual clichés and trappings of your well known Slasher films, its big name cast and self aware attitude re-ignited the Slasher sub-genre, not only helping to re-define the genre in modern times it literally breathed new life into the American horror industry and helped re-energise the genre and make it a success once again.

No, please don’t kill me, Mr. Ghostface, I wanna be in the sequel!

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