After having previously tackled the cinematic output of Wes Craven three times in the past year over on my personal blog (not including my formal Scream 4 review for this very site), I figured that I was all but done talking about my favourite horror movie director of all time. I was content that I had said all that needed to be said about his career, his hits, his misses, and his most iconic films.
Then I was approached with the idea of revisiting the Scream films in time for Halloween. Just like Craven was hesitant to take on the first Scream film because he was burnt out on horror, I had to think twice about whether I wanted to delve back into a topic I had already spent far too much time on.
After watching all four Scream films again on Blu-ray, I find it a bit strange that I haven’t devoted more time to talking about a series of films that single-handedly revived the slasher genre with a blend of genuine terror and self-reflexive humour. So here now begins a four week long look back at the history of the now seminal series that has been slaying audiences since 1996.
Much like the first film in the Scream quadrilogy, the history of one of horror’s most successful and beloved franchises began with a phone call. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson received a call from his literary agent that his potentially groundbreaking screenplay for his Lois Duncan adaptation Killing Mrs. Tingle had fallen into what was known as “development hell.” The script, which had been purchased by a major studio, languished for so long that it looked as if it was never going to be made. It would later be bought by Dimension Films, was renamed Teaching Mrs. Tingle in light of the Columbine tragedy, and would become Williamson’s directorial debut in 1999, despite having been written in 1992.
Taking on rewrite work wherever he could get it, Williamson was barely making ends meet. In danger of losing his house and his livelihood after staking so much on the potential success of his first major screenplay, Williamson took a job housesitting for friends in an effort to make ends meet. One night, while watching a television news show, Williamson became taken by the story of a Florida-based murderer.
The unseen inspiration for the Scream films belonged to a serial killer named Danny Rolling, better known as the Gainsville Ripper. Rolling, who was captured by police in 1991, was found guilty of mutilating and decapitating five high school students and posing them to create a work of art. Rolling stated upon pleading guilty to the murders that his goal was to become a “superstar.” (He would later be connected to an unsolved 1989 murder in Louisiana with similar staging of bodies.) During his tenure in prison before his execution via lethal injection in 2006, Rolling continued to pen poetry and create paintings in an effort to be recognized as a serious artist.
The idea of a killer taking “life imitating art” seriously stuck with Williamson, who would sink the last of what money he had into renting an apartment on the outskirts of Palm Springs, California for ten days in a last ditch effort to save his writing career. The move was also done to emulate one of Williamson’s favourite writers of teen films, John Hughes, who would often sequester himself for days at a time to simply write and do nothing else. If Hughes could write National Lampoon’s Vacation, Weird Science, and The Breakfast Club together in one nine day span, Williamson thought he could at least churn out one excellent script in the same amount of time.
Written in just a shade under ten days, Williamson submitted his script, titled Scary Movie, to his agent. The film was a wry blend of Williamson’s favourite slasher movie conventions (a genre he was also a huge fan of) and Hughes’ knack for crafting believable teenage characters. Williamson, who was already being lauded for his dialogue in the yet unfilmed Tingle script, returned from Palm Springs with a story about a group of small town teenagers falling prey to a serial killer who knows the ins and outs of being in horror movies. The killer would use horror movie conventions, and occasionally trivial details, to trap and stalk his prey. Utilizing the rules set forth by the horror films of the 70s and 80s that stated that promiscuous sex, investigating scary noises, and answering the phone would get one killed, the masked killer would come to claim the lives of unsuspecting teenagers who think they have the upper hand by knowing what to expect. The film would also function as a twisty whodunit with a big reveal of the killer in the final act.
Almost as soon as the script was on the market, a massive bidding war started between studios and production companies who saw Scary Movie as the necessary kick in the pants the horror genre was looking for. After almost a decade worth of diminishing sequel returns and unoriginal ideas, horror films had become persona non grata at most studios. They were cheap to make, but they almost always tanked. Even the most notable horror success of the early 90s, Clive Barker’s Candyman, didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. Freddy and Jason were dead for the time being. Michael Meyers and Leatherface were still around, but they had both been last seen in laughably awful sequels that would see Meyers become a druid and Leatherface become a cross dresser with Matthew McConaughey as a brother. Other than Candyman, the only new horror icon to be created in this dark period was the Leprechaun, and the only new film in that pipeline was set to send the diminutive gold seeker into space. This is the kind of disarray the horror world had fallen into.
The price of the screenplay kept rising in value, and studios and investors kept dropping out until only two entities remained. Director Oliver Stone, who was keen on turning Scary Movie into an extension of his work on Natural Born Killers, and Dimension Films.
Dimension was founded by Bob and Harvey Weinstein as a precursor to their eventual success with Miramax Films. The first ever film released under the Weinstein’s genre imprint was 1981’s slasher classic The Burning, a film that gave the brothers much needed capital to become the studio that would be responsible for winning more Academy Awards than any other distributor from the mid-90s to the early 2000s.
Once the Weinsteins had won the bidding war, the search for a director began. Horror maven Wes Craven always stood out as the primary choice for the film, with Dimension head Bob Weinstein heralding him as the best suspense director since Alfred Hitchcock. Craven, however, had maintained that he wanted nothing to do with the genre that made him a household name. He felt as if he had been simply been going through the motions on his past few films where he felt more engaged as a writer than as a director. Despite constant pleadings from Williamson and the Weinsteins, Craven passed on the project several times not because the quality wasn’t there, but because he was simply burnt out on horror.
After being turned down by George Romero and Sam Raimi, the Weinsteins once again approached Craven with the project, this time with Drew Barrymore attached to star as the film’s heroine Sidney Prescott. While Craven was intrigued by the idea of making a film with a star like Barrymore, it was the admonishing of teenage fans to “make one more movie that kicks ass” that led to him stepping back into the director’s chair.
It wasn’t exactly a bait and switch to get Craven to come on board when Barrymore ended up not being the lead in the film. Barrymore genuinely did agree to play the role of Sidney until about five weeks before shooting when the actress decided she wanted to only appear in the film’s opening sequence as Casey Becker. Barrymore, who was beginning to get a lot more job offers at this point following a rocky transition between her childhood career and her adult career, insisted that she loved the opening sequence more than anything else in the film and that seeing her die in the opening scene would have a greater impact on the audience.
Craven was tempted to walk away from the film after losing his star, but he had grown too attached to the material. While not exactly thrilled at Barrymore’s early departure, Craven saw the newly revised opening as a way to reference not only Janet Leigh’s appearance in Hitchcock’s Psycho, but also as a callback to his own A Nightmare on Elm Street which kills off the young woman seen in its opening sequence thirty minutes into the film.
The search for the new Sidney came down to three primary names: Alicia Witt, Brittany Murphy, and Neve Campbell. Reese Witherspoon was also approached, but she turned the film down before reading for Craven. The role ultimately went to Guelph, Ontario native Campbell, then star of TV’s Party of Five and member of 1996’s ensemble teen horror film The Craft, whom Craven thought struck a nice balance between being tough and vulnerable,
The rest of the casting was filled out mostly by people who auditioned for the parts through regular channels. Skeet Ulrich (playing Sidney’s boyfriend Billy) was seen as being “the next big thing” and was hired by Craven for looking similar to Nightmare on Elm Street’s Johnny Depp. Young actors Matthew Lillard (as Billy’s best friend Stu), Jamie Kennedy (as movie nerd Randy Meeks), and Rose McGowan (as Stu’s girlfriend Tatum) were hired for bringing a much needed sense of humour to a film that was going to take its jokes as seriously as its kills.
For the now iconic roles of news reporter Gale Weathers and local law enforcement officer Dewey Reilly, the casting process was a bit different. David Arquette was originally approached to play the role of Stu, but he felt he was a bit too old to play a teenager. Craven agreed and allowed him to read for the role of Dewey, which Arquette would turn into the much needed heart that the franchise desperately needed to function as well as it did.
The role of Gale Weathers wasn’t so much cast as it was given to the Friends actress Courtney Cox who lobbied heavily for the job after Janeane Garofalo turned it down. Cox agreed to a pay cut to be in the film simply because she was a huge fan of the script. Craven and Williamson still asked that Cox audition because based on her television work, neither was convinced that she would be able to be “bitchy” enough to play the hard nosed reporter that would gladly place her cameraman in danger in service of a great scoop.
Despite the script clearly spelling out the identity of the killers at the end of a red herring filled mystery, Williamson’s script wasn’t specific about the look or sound of the killer. All that Craven had to go on was that the killer was masked and that he used a voice box to disguise his voice. Williamson felt the majority of his creative energy should have been spent working on the dialogue, characters, and plotting. He flat out said that the look and sound of the killer was “not my problem.”
Craven and the special effects experts at Gregory Niccotero’s KNB drew up hundreds of conceptual designs for masks and costumes, but none really stuck. Instead, Craven turned to a mask found at a previous location scouting exercise, a simple, elongated ghost faced mask to be the most believable for the story. The mask functions as almost a blank slate, and for a film where the killer needed to be entirely obscured from the audience in every possible way it proved to be the most effective. The Weinsteins were hesitant at first, since the design of the mask was something that needed to be purchased from the rights holders, but after seeing how some of the aborted ideas looked, they granted Craven the ability to use the mask.
Also, being the first film of the new digital age to use cellular telephones as a major plot device, the focus on the killer until the big reveal was more about the sound than the look. For the sound of the killer across all four films, Craven required voice actor Roger Jackson to be on set all the days that the killer’s voice was to be heard. While a stunt double would appear on screen as Ghostface and take all the physical punishment, Jackson would be sequestered to a trailer on set and away from the actors to keep his identity secret. To this day, no actors on any of the Scream films have ever gotten a look at Jackson per Craven’s orders.
The shoot itself wasn’t without incident, as the production was forced to move from Santa Rosa, California to Sonoma after the local school board and parents objected to the extremely violent content in the film. Of particular note was the objection to the murder of the fictional Woodsboro High School principal Arthur Himbry (an uncredited Henry Winkler) which took place on school property.
The film’s lengthy climax would also prove problematic. The second half of the film takes place entirely on a single set and for continuity and budgetary purposes had to be shot largely in sequence. It was also written on the page by Williamson as a single scene with different sub-scenes and cuts to exteriors on the same property. The second half of the film took approximately 17 days with an average of 20 working hours per day to complete.
Once the film was finished and submitted to the MPAA for ratings approval, Craven hit another roadblock when the film was given the dreaded NC-17 rating. Censors objected to several specific moments of violence in the film, mainly in the opening sequence with Barrymore, a death involving a garage door slowly opening with someone caught in it, and a scene during the big reveal of the killers where they repeatedly stab each other. All of these scenes were easy fixes. The opening was sped up with shots of strewn entrails cleverly obscured. The garage door sequence cut away for a few key seconds, and the stabbing sequence was cut down by about thirty seconds and cropped to focus more on reaction shots. But there was still one problem the MPAA had with the film, and it came down not to violent content, but a line of dialogue.
The MPAA was not going to let the film pass because of one of the film’s most iconic lines; one that would stand as the calling card of the entire franchise and describes the M.O. of the murderers.
“Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative.”
The MPAA believed that they line was inherently insensitive, and in a way, a slight against their job to police multiplex fare for parents of young children. Craven and Williamson protested fervently to no avail on their own on the grounds that while cuts to the violence were somewhat understandable, changing the dialogue that the plot of this film hinged upon was outright censorship. In the end, it was Miramax head Harvey Weinstein who would make the MPAA see things his way, by convincing the ratings board that the film was actually a satirical comment on societal norms.
It was at this point where the Weinstein’s changed the name of the film from Scary Movie to Scream. No real reason for the change was given except that the brothers found the title of the movie too telling and generic. Craven and Williamson weren’t sold on the title, but as long as the film was in the can and released, they were on board.
While Harvey had done a huge favour for Craven in getting the film past the censors, Bob Weinstein over at Dimension was about to take an even bigger risk with Scream that was almost unheard of. Dimension had slated Scream for a Christmas release on December 20th, 1996 (a rare Saturday opening) opposite the similarly teen themed animated TV spin-off Beavis and Butthead Do America and the George Clooney starring romantic comedy One Fine Day. The notion was that horror movie audiences often had nothing to watch over the long and financially lucrative Holiday season. It was hoped that the modestly budgeted $15 million production (then the second largest in Dimension history following the troubled production of The Crow: City of Angels) would at least triple its investment by January before making its way to the even more lucrative home video market where Dimension titles traditionally earned the majority of their gross.
The film opened to generally positive critical notices, but opened to middling grosses amidst a crowded field of largely family oriented fare (the live action John Hughes penned 101 Dalmations remake, Jingle All the Way, The Preacher’s Wife) with a weekend gross of $6.4 million. The traditionally long Holiday week known for giving boosted grosses to mostly all the films in release led to Scream boosting its take to almost ten million in the second weekend, but also watching it slip into fifth place. The film had served Dimension’s gamble well and made close to $30 million in the first ten days, but at the end of the holidays, things got even more interesting.
In the third week of release Scream pushed past the ten million dollar mark and rose to third place, a rarity for most three week old films, especially for an R-rated release in the dead zone of early January. The film remained in the top ten throughout the month of January, dropping as low as sixth place (but still making $7 million for the weekend) before jumping back into third place on the weekend of January 31st behind Jerry Maguire and the re-release of Star Wars. The film would not drop out of the top ten at the box office until Valentine’s Day weekend when seven new releases took spots in the top ten, but by this point Scream had very quietly amassed over $80 million and was still pulling in over a million dollars a week outside the top ten.
So successful was Scream that Dimension re-released the film for late shows in many markets on April 11th, which would shoot the film from 34th at the box office to 9th. By mid-May, the re-release was still pulling in over a million a week, and production on the now seemingly inevitable Scream 2 was fast tracked for release by the end of 1997. By early June Scream had passed the coveted $100 million mark at the box office. Scream was finally pulled from theatres on July 25th, 1997 by Dimension who wanted to focus on the upcoming sequel and home video sales of the film. It’s 219 day run on the box office charts was something unheard of in the modern age of multiplex releases that make most of their money during a film’s opening weekend. Not since the late 1980s had a film had such a long and quietly profitable run.
As for the film itself, it is nearly impossible to talk about horror films today without bringing up the original Scream. The film would inspire countless imitators (including Williamson’s own I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, and the Kevin Spacey produced Cry_Wolf) and an entire series of parodies that used the original title of the film to poke fun at nuances that were quickly becoming genre conventions (which were also ironically produced through Dimension Films and became a profitable franchise in its own right).
Scream saved not only the horror genre from the shallow grave it found itself buried in, but also saved the career of Craven as a director. Scream plays to Craven’s two biggest strengths: literary wit (although in this case the text is previously made films including his own) and the creation of tension within confined spaces. Next to Roman Polanski, one would be hard pressed to find a filmmaker as well versed in claustrophobic settings as Craven is. The opening sequence at Casey Becker’s house and the finale at Stu’s are cat and mouse tour de forces. They are scenes of sustained terror confined to one single location, a common Craven calling card also seen in The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, The People Under the Stairs and the terminally underrated Red Eye. All these films find Craven at his best as a director. He seems almost energized by limitations and he crafts his most visually stunning films when forced to work within enclosed spaces. On films with larger visual planes like Vampire in Brooklyn and The Serpent and the Rainbow, his directorial style is perfunctory at best, but here Craven has the chance to reenergize and it feels like watching the re-birth of a great director.
Williamson’s screenplay is often taken to task simply for being a bit too clever for its own good. The dialogue can come off as a bit too snappy and self-aware even for a film that is built around already knowing all the answers. Where Williamson excels, however, is with his sense of characterization and plotting. Every character in the film has a full story arc regardless of how long they survive on screen or how long they disappear from the story. These characters are all placed into a plot that makes the audience guess who the killer is based on a combination of logic and character traits. When Ghostface is finally unmasked, it is the final piece of the puzzle for this film, but it leaves a lot of ethical questions unanswered to hang a sequel onto.
There isn’t much to be said about the cast for the most part. Everyone is just really good at what they do. Campbell and Ulrich were exactly the right choices for their parts. Lillard and McGowan are a bit too over the top, but it makes sense that their characters find themselves aligned the way they do. Kennedy strikes the perfect balance of sympathy and unease as the most likely suspect for most of the film. Cox definitely shows how bitchy she can truly be, and Arquette is just barely a step away from showing audiences that he is the true MVP of the franchise with his portrayal of a good natured doofus in far over his head.
Craven and Williamson know exactly what the audience of a horror film is looking for and they teamed up to give a film that delivers no more or less what the audience expects. Williamson also knew that if the movie was a success that a sequel would be necessary.
At the end of Williamson’s draft for Scary Movie was a five page outline for Scary Movie 2, a film that would delve deeper into the role of films (and more specifically sequels) on a pop culture obsessed populace. The film was greenlit by the Weinsteins in January 1997 with a $20 million budget that would be increased by double the amount by the time the original crossed the $100 million mark. The pressure and stakes were higher, but a plan was already in place. The production of the second film wouldn’t be without problems, but most of those problems would come from outside influences rather than ones within the project. It also would have oddly more historical context than the original film.
The Complete Scream Collection is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Alliance Home Entertainment. It has proven an invaluable asset to the construction of this series.