It's never been accurate to say that horror movies were "dead," but they were certainly in poor health in the mid-1990s. A new sub-genre, the slasher movie, had emerged in the '80s, only to wear out its welcome with uninspired sequels and cheap imitations. Traditional horror subjects -- haunted houses, vampires, demonic possessions, etc. -- had gone mainstream, with arty offerings like Silence of the Lambs (1991), Bram Staker's Dracula (1992), and Interview with the Vampire (1994).
Gore-fests got a much-needed shot in the arm and hatchet to the face 20 years ago this week, when Scream hit theaters and changed the rules by acknowledging that there were rules. Part of the problem, you see, had been that the target audience for slasher movies had grown up watching slasher movies and knew the tropes too well. Meanwhile, Hollywood kept cranking out formulaic sequels populated by characters who'd never seen a slasher movie and did dumb things like going into the basement or saying "I'll be right back." It's frustrating to watch a movie whose characters are less savvy than you are.
In 1995, Kevin Williamson, part of the watching-slasher-movies-on-VHS generation, recognized this oversight and corrected it with a screenplay he called Scary Movie. Using a basic slasher whodunit as his framework, Williamson wrote in characters who, like him, knew the genre inside and out and would notice the similarities to what was happening in their town. Here, at last, was a slasher movie for smart alecks who'd seen too many slasher movies! Which, at that point, included pretty much everyone.
Director Wes Craven, who'd made several of the films that Scary Movie was responding to, passed on it because he was committed to a remake of The Haunting, then came back when The Haunting stalled. (That remake arrived in 1999, directed by Jan de Bont.) Bob and Harvey Weinstein, operating under their Miramax off-shoot Dimension Films, had approached other directors in the meantime, but found that they tended to look at the screenplay as pure comedy, a satire of teen-slasher flicks. Craven saw what Williamson was going for: a movie that deconstructed horror movies while being scary in its own right. (Craven had tried something similar with New Nightmare, in 1994, but it was a minor hit at best.)
The gambit worked. Aided by a title change to something more audience-friendly, positive reviews, and a ginned-up controversy about the film's rating (a Weinstein brothers specialty), Scream had a decent opening weekend, then benefited from word of mouth. The opening sequence, with Drew Barrymore -- who'd eagerly joined the cast on the strength of the script -- quickly became legendary for its pitch-perfect mixture of self-awareness and gore.
In the years that followed, people who made horror films had to reckon with the fact that audiences now expected those films to acknowledge their own formulas. No longer could you get away, for example, with having characters show up at a lonely, out-of-the-way motel without someone referencing Psycho. The line "I'll be right back" was ruined forever. Basically, the people in horror movies couldn't be idiots anymore. This was a major restriction.
When all was said and done, Scream was the 13th highest-grossing film of 1996, the best showing for a straight-up slash-and-kill horror movie in several years. And what happened next? I Know What You Did Last Summer cracked the top 20 in 1997 (as did Scream 2), followed in 1999 by The Blair Witch Project -- a film whose success, like Scream's, hinged on the fact that it took place in a world where people had seen horror movies before. Urban Legend (1998) and Halloween H20 (1998) both reflected the the new "meta" sensibility; Final Destination (2000), Jeepers Creepers (2001), and Freddy vs. Jason (2003) would follow. By 2000, the genre's reentry into the mainstream was confirmed when the ninth highest-grossing film of the year was a horror spoof. Coming full circle, the spoof was called ... Scary Movie.
When Scream was released, on Dec. 20, 1996...
- It opened in fourth place, perhaps indicative of the skepticism we had toward horror movies at the time. The top film that weekend was fellow newcomer Beavis and Butt-head Do America; new releases One Fine Day and My Fellow Americans opened in fifth and ninth places. Also in the top ten: the previous week's Jerry Maguire, The Preacher's Wife, and Mars Attacks!; and from a few weeks earlier, 101 Dalmatians, Daylight, and Jingle All the Way.
- NBC had the top five shows on TV: ER, Seinfeld, Suddenly Susan, Friends, and Fired Up (which benefited from the post-Seinfeld time slot and has been forgotten by history). The Single Guy, Home Improvement, Touched by an Angel, NYPD Blue, Frasier, and the news shows (60 Minutes, 20/20, Primetime Live) were also in the top 20.
- SNL had done the "Celebrity Jeopardy!" sketch for the first time a couple weeks earlier, with Sean Connery (Darrell Hammond), Burt Reynolds (Norm MacDonald), and Jerry Lewis (host Martin Short). The basic gag -- celebrities are dumb -- was in place, but not nearly as pronounced as it would get. And Connery didn't say a single filthy thing to Trebek.
- The hot toys this Christmas were the new Nintendo 64 (which only had two games available) and a demonic doll called Tickle Me Elmo.
- Pop-Up Video was new on VH1, giving college students a new excuse to watch music videos during the day.
- Renowned astronomer Carl Sagan died on this very day, presumably of non-Scream-related causes. Marcello Mastroianni, the great Italian actor from many Fellini films, had died the day before.
- Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, The Edge of Seventeen), Tye Sheridan (young Cyclops in X-Men: Apocalypse), and pop singer Lorde were all less than two months old.
- While driving to the theater to see Scream, you might have heard some of these exceedingly popular songs on the radio: "Un-Break My Heart" by Toni Braxton, "I Believe I Can Fly" by R. Kelly, "No Diggity" by BLACKstreet, "Don't Let Go (Love)" by En Vogue, "Pony" by Ginuwine, and -- still going strong after dominating the summer -- "Macarena" by Los Del Rio.