'Scream' at 25: How Wes Craven's iconic horror rewrote the rulebook

'Scream' at 25: How Wes Craven's iconic horror rewrote the rulebook

Wes Craven was no stranger to redefining genres - prior to 'Scream', he had already redefined the horror genre twice.

'The Last House On The Left' was one of the 1970s most notorious films and helped usher in the more realistic, matter-of-fact sensibilities of 70s horror that was realised perfectly in the likes of 'The Exorcist' and 'The Omen'.

In 70's horror, the typical horror film lent itself to a more documentary-like or raw style of filmmaking, which elevates a genre like horror.

'The Exorcist' director William Friedkin had a background in documentary filmmaking, so by shooting the horror classic the same way he would a documentary, it helped the horror sink in even more for audiences.

'The Last House On The Left' is nowhere near the same league as 'The Exorcist' in terms of quality or cultural impact, but it helped shape the horror genre in another way.

'The Last House On The Left' was also a key moment in indie film history, as it followed the blueprint laid out by George Romero's 'Night Of The Living Dead' to a tee - made on the cheap, and turn a good profit.

Without the likes of 'Night Of The Living Dead' or 'The Last House On The Left', there simply would not have been a 'Blair Witch Project', 'Saw', or 'Paranormal Activity'.

Craven began booking steady off off the back of 'Last House On The Left', while his producer Sean S. Cunningham achieved success of his own with 'Friday The 13th' in 1980.

Craven had made cult films such as 'The Hills Have Eyes' and 'Swamp Thing' but mainstream success was eluding him.

Inspired by a story he read in the Los Angeles Times about a Cambodian War refugee who was too scared to go to sleep and wrote a horror film based around the idea.

That article inspired 'A Nightmare On Elm Street', which was recently added to the National Film Registry.

Following the success of 'Elm Street' Craven found himself mentioned in the same hushed, revered tones as John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and Tobe Hooper and was dubbed the "Master of Horror."

Craven waived all rights and ownership to the 'Elm Street' franchise as a condition for producer Robert Shaye to finance the original film, so while Freddy Krueger rapidly became a pop culture icon, Craven saw very little of that money.

The period between the original 'Elm Street' and 'Scream' can be described as either Craven's most prolific or most fallow period of his career, putting out films such as 'Serpent and The Rainbow', the underrated 'Shocker', Jordan-Peele influencing 'The People Under The Stairs', and the nadir, 'Vampire In Brooklyn' starring Eddie Murphy.

Out of the blue, a script by screenwriter Kevin Williamson started a Hollywood bidding war.

Five major studios ended up in the ring trying to woo Williamson, and the price kept rising - keep in mind, this was a time when the likes of Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas were making millions of dollars from mere spec scripts.

Williamson's script came along at just the right time, because by the time of the release of 'Scream', Hollywood realised paying Black $5 million dollars for 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' and Eztherhas $2.5 million dollars for 'Showgirls' was a folly.

The bidding war created by the 'Scream' script would most likely not happen today.

Oliver Stone of all people was interested in buying the script and making it an extension of 'Natural Born Killers', with Dimension Films the last two entities standing as the scripts price went higher and higher.

Stone blinked, and Dimension secured a coup.

A pre 'Trainspotting' Danny Boyle was offered the directors chair, as were Sam Raimi, George Romero and one-man film studio Robert Rodriguez, but all turned down the chance to direct.

Craven, in need of a hit and seeing Drew Barrymore had signed on, stepped into the director's role.

In Craven's words, he wanted to “make one more movie that kicks ass".

The rest is horror movie history.

Oil And Water

Originally titled 'Scary Movie', Willamson's script was everything a 90's Hollywood producer would sell their grandmother for.

It was smart, witty, post-modern, and in Craven's case, a chance to dip his toes back in a familiar pool.

In 1994, Wes Craven returned to the 'Nightmare On Elm Street' franchise for 'Wes Craven's New Nightmare', which was ahead of its time in a lot of respects.

The premise of that movie involved Freddy Krueger coming to life and haunting the cast and crew of a fictional 'Nightmare On Elm Street' film, with original star Heather Langenkamp playing herself.

'New Nightmare' was too cerebral and high-brow for audiences who expected a Freddy Krueger movie, and Craven's previous flirtation with the role of media violence, 'Shocker', also struggled to perform.

Prior to a career behind the camera, Craven was an arts lecturer at a college and was a philosophy graduate.

Craven was a gifted screenwriter as the first 'Elm Street' movie can attest, but as 'Red Eye' proved later in his career he's at his most effective working off someone else's script.

Combine a seasoned, veteran director with bona fides in the genre and a young, fresh screenwriter and you get horror movie history.

The Blu-Ray commentary features Craven and Williamson sharing some fun behind the scenes stories, and the chemistry between them is like a seasoned old police detective being partnered with a young hotshot partner.

Craven approached media violence in his films from an academic perspective, Williamson's exposure to violence came from being part of the "raised by VHS" camp that spawned the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Williamson's approach to violence is Gen X "live and let live" which stands in direct opposition to Craven's bible school and academic bent.

The finished product is a halfway house of the duo's sensibilities, and it's all the better for it.

"What's your favourite scary movie?"

The opening sequence of 'Scream' is still an exercise in terror and pacing 25 years later, and is incredibly potent after all this time.

The gradual build-up of tension, the playful dialogue, Craven's long tracking shots, Drew Barrymore's blocking and sharp editing make the opening scene one of horror's most iconic opening sequences.

In the commentary, Craven says the opening is what gave him the most grief with the MPAA, the board that grants film ratings in the United States.

The ratings board took significant umbrage with the graphic violence on display in the famous scene, with the film being granted an NC-17 rating multiple times.

Craven recounts a meeting with a member of the MPAA, praising the opening scene as very effective, very well-directed, and a great example of an NC-17 rating.

An NC-17 rating is prohibitive for nearly all film studios, and a terse back and forth exchange from the 'Scream' camp and the MPAA began.

'Scream' had slasher movie DNA coursing through it, and graphic violence is an inherent part of the slasher film.

Craven was no stranger to violence in his films, with 'Last House On The Left' famously being banned in the United Kingdom for years over its content and the original 'Nightmare On Elm Street' having a scene where Johnny Depp is spat out of his bed in a blood geyser.

The horror landscape of the 1990s was much more about psychological terror than out and out gore, and 'Scream' brought it back to the masses.

Following the critical and commercial success of 'Silence Of The Lambs', studios favoured horror and thriller films that were more cerebral than gory.

'Scream' walks the line between its slasher movie roots with some smart, winking commentary on how the media reports on violence.

'Scream' helped usher in the era of the character being aware they're involved in events that are reminiscent of a film.

In the modern-day, the practice has become old hat thanks to the likes of Ryan Reynolds vamping to an unseen audience that they're in a film, but 'Scream' feels fresh and subversive all these years later.

Despite horror movie VHS' and timer delays on cameras serving as major plot points, Williamson shows that he has a keen awareness of the role technology plays in a horror setting.

Much like the films of Paul Verhoeven, 'Scream' works for everyone in the room watching it.

It's possible to watch and enjoy the film as a straightforward slasher movie or approach it as a commentary on the role violence plays in the media.

On the surface, Craven and Williamson appear to be a water and oil pairing, but that's all forgotten about by the time the film stages a cat-and-mouse chase through Drew Barrymore's house while Ghostface rattles off film trivia.

The final act of the film takes place over the course of one night, and Craven's thriller chops are in full force here, and by this stage of the film, the audience is none the wiser as to who the killer is.

When the violence escalates in the final 15 minutes, it feels earned.

Casting A Net

We've spoken at length about how the talent behind the camera helped shape 'Scream' into the modern classic it is, but the cast also deserves some acclaim.

The dialogue is clever and oh-so-hip, but needed a cast to spin the lines into gold.

The core cast of Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard and Rose McGowan make the dialogue sing, but the films MVP is the pairing of David Arquette and Courtney Cox.

Cox, of course, was perhaps one of the most famous people in the world at the time with 'Friends' well on its way to cultural domination, and her against-type role as Gale Weathers is one of the films many high points.

Her ruthless, vindictive behaviour in pursuit of a story wouldn't work without Cox playing the sweet and sour side of the character.

The final set-piece is entirely dependant on the audience believing the animosity between Campbell and Cox, and both actors sell it perfectly.

When an uneasy alliance is formed between the pair in the face of danger, the audience is fully on board with it.

Ulrich and Lillard's unhinged descent into madness is also sold beautifully by the duo, with Lillard's improvised line of "my mom and dad are gonna be so mad at me!" another of the films many high points.

Jamie Kennedy quickly became the fan favourite of the franchise in large part because the audience could project themselves onto him.

His encyclopedic knowledge of horror films and their tropes and conventions served as representation for a good chunk of the films fanbase, and his performance is that of a film nerd who has learned to act.

David Arquette is the heartbeat of the film, serving as the only authority figure capable of tackling the Ghostface menace, a supportive brother to Tatum, and a love interest to Gale.

Arquette and Kennedy were both slated to die in the original script, but test audience reaction towards the characters and their actors' performances proved so positive additional scenes were shot to ensure they were kept alive.

Released the week before Christmas in the United States, 'Scream' became the rare film that grew week by week, and one of the last genuine word-of-mouth hits in the pre-internet era.

By the time the film arrived on Irish shores in the summer of 1997, production was well underway on a sequel, and by that stage, the horror landscape had been redefined by Wes Craven once again.

Not many directors can claim they reinvented a genre, but for one director to do it three times in a career is nothing short of iconic.

'Scream' helped bring horror out of the pun-infested, comedic doldrums and ushered in a new era of smart, media-savvy, teen-driven horror films.

2011's 'Scream 4' was a decent attempt at bringing the franchise and genre into the smartphone era and is better than most people give it credit for, but the 2022 instalment will be the series' biggest test yet.

'Scream 3' essentially finished off the franchise and the self-aware slasher seemed tame in the wake of 'Blair Witch' and the wave of psychological Japanese horror, but perhaps 2022 will be the time for Ghostface to show audiences why they became a horror icon to begin with.

The new 'Scream' will be the first film in the franchise to not have Wes Craven involved as he passed away in 2015, and Kevin Williamson is not on board to write, however Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, the directors of the excellent 'Ready Or Not', are stepping behind the camera.

Can they capture the same lightning in a bottle Craven and Williamson did in 1996?

Or are we tempting fate like the characters in a horror movie?