At the risk of dating myself, I was in high school throughout the mid-90s and for a while there, it seemed to me that financially successful horror was a thing of the past. When a new movie opened in theaters, you had to make sure you caught it that weekend, otherwise it could be a year before you got to rent the videotape. Looking back on it now, it feels like another reality altogether.
At the end of the 1980s, audience fatigue had set in for the genre’s biggest icons. 1989 saw dreadful box office returns for the Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, indicating that the world might’ve had enough of these recurring bogeymen. During the early 90s, original horror offerings fared well on occasion, and budgets hadn’t yet inflated, so these returns were respectable, though hardly the stuff of blockbusters. Pedigree offerings such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview with the Vampire made bigger bank, but on larger budgets and with considerably more advertising money spent pushing them.
The studios behind successful horror movies were often desperate to emphasize the non-horrific aspects of these productions, going to great lengths to convey their film was intended for more than just the miscreant “horror crowd.” And for a while it seemed like successful genre stuff was being labeled as anything but horror. Psychological thrillers, supernatural dramas, you name it. Horror was on the outs and it didn’t look to be coming back anytime soon.
Even Scream’s TV spot refers to it as “the new thriller from Wes Craven.”
And in the early winter of 1996, it certainly didn’t seem like “the new thriller from Wes Craven” was going to re-ignite the genre’s fire, either. I remember slumping into a mostly abandoned theater on opening weekend, a handful of high school friends by my side and a tub of popcorn in my lap. Nobody seemed to know what to expect from a director whose previous effort was Vampire in Brooklyn, but reviews for Scream were incredibly good and the buzz, difficult to ignore.
While he’s probably my favorite genre director, and possibly my largest creative influence, Wes Craven had never been Captain Consistency. Buying a ticket for the film previously titled Scary Movie had me wondering which Wes was about to show up: The guy who brought us the white-knuckle thrills of The Hills Have Eyes, or the man responsible for the “off-roaders test experimental dirt bike fuel in the desert while their dog has a flashback” plotline of The Hills Have Eyes part II.
The beautiful thing about Wes Craven, though, is that he was always full of surprises, and when Scream was over, I was delighted. It was a slicker picture than anything else he’d made, but still so recognizably Wes. A tight-rope of playful stalk-and-slash bits, barbed media criticism, and a good-natured examination of “modern” horror conventions (many of them, long since played out).
The film had certainly done enough to appease my admittedly fussy slasher mores: GhostFace was a bona fide icon right out of the gate. 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 another refreshing aspect, Craven had taken the slasher back to its late 70s/early 80s roots, offering a mortal masked madman instead of the undying supernatural murderer that had dominated the genre just before going out to pasture. There was a mystery behind this body count and trying to figure out whodunit was almost as much fun as wondering who was going to bite it next.
Scream didn’t break any records on opening weekend. Beavis and Butthead Do America captured the top spot while Scream debuted at number four, nestled snugly between Disney’s live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians and the George Clooney rom-com One Fine Day. It netted a respectable $6.3 million off 1400 screens but hardly looked like a film poised for blockbuster status.Except…
My first indication that Scream was resonating beyond its core audience came during a random gas station stop, where two attendants were marveling over the opening scene’s big surprise: Drew Barrymore being butchered at the hands of our resident slasher. “They make it look like she’s the star,” one of them was saying in utter disbelief.
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 a horror film during four years of classes butted into a conversation to remind my friends and I that ”everyone forgets Jason’s mother was the killer in the first Friday the 13th.”
But the culmination of Scream’s personal impact came during an afternoon gym class, when a couple of cheerleaders suddenly hit me up for scary movie recommendations (”ones like Scream!”). Thanks to Craven and Williamson for making my lifelong pursuit of horror knowledge into something that finally served a social purpose. Too bad I was almost to graduation. And it turns out those cheerleaders 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 couple of weeks later and the theater was packed solid with a diverse mixture of teens and adults. See, my Dad had fostered my obsession with the slasher subgenre, so it only made sense for us to catch its resurgence on the big screen together. He loved it, immediately declaring it ”better than Halloween!” as soon as the credits rolled over ravenous audience applause.
Suddenly, horror movies seemed en vogue again in a way they hadn’t for a long time. Scream was holding strong at the box office in early 1997 when another genre film, The Relic smashed into the number one spot. Those legs weren’t all that great, but this one-two punch was an incredible reminder to Hollywood that horror was alive and well. When April rolled around, Scream was still 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 staked out an impressive $136 million worldwide take, and cemented the fact that the genre was back in business.
Most impressive, however, was the weekend of October 17th, 1997, when I Know What You Did Last Summer and Devil’s Advocate opened in the number one and two spots, respectively, both garnering solid reviews and yielding strong profits. Not only were horror films dominating the box office, but they were once again part of the cultural lexicon. Once again, they mattered.
Scream was exactly the right movie for the mid-‘90s, proving that the horror film was capable of originality and surprise (as well as critique and introspection). Sadly, the “second slasher boom” was relatively short-lived, giving way to another phase (J-horror remakes) and then another (more remakes and torture porn). But here’s the wild thing we don’t often realize: Since 1996, horror has maintained a steady and respectable presence in our lives in a way it simply hadn’t, pre-Scream. Whether we’re talking about the teen horror films that followed, or the trends that morphed out of that, there just hasn’t been another genre dry spell like those years leading to its release.
All these years later, Scream is an all-timer for me, even though nobody has ever described The Howling as ”that werewolf movie with E.T.’s mother.” It celebrated the slasher film at a moment where pop culture couldn’t think any lower of it (while also demonstrating a genuine love of Prom Night, making it a forever real one in my mind). It’s hard to believe we’re three months away from a fifth installment in what is now an undying franchise. And it’s even more difficult to believe that the great Wes Craven is no longer with us to shepherd GhostFace into the future.
Scream was a real “through the looking-glass moment.” It’s easy to forget that now when horror is so embedded in the mainstream that it’s probably never leaving. Back then it was the slasher movie for my generation, yes, but it was also so much more.