If you were a fan of slasher movies, 1996 was a dire time indeed. Hollywood studios had largely stopped producing the horror subgenre, save for the odd hybrid vehicle (the sci-fi slasher of Species, the cartoonish evil of Leprechaun), and the iconic killers of the ’80s—Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers—had either devolved into needlessly complex mythos or unintentional self-parody, and sometimes both. The first half of the decade was littered with the cinematic corpses of would-be slasher hits, brought low by the one truly fatal implement of death: audiences not giving a shit.
The rare creative exception, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, was a direct antecedent to Scream, at least conceptually. It re-envisioned Freddy Krueger in the “real world,” where the nightmare-dwelling being is made manifest in our reality, one where Freddy actor Robert Englund and original Nightmare On Elm Street star Heather Langenkamp play themselves, as does Craven himself. The metatextual tweak to the then-tired franchise was a creative shot in the arm, and though it didn’t set the box office on fire, it set the stage for Scream’s brilliant deconstruction of the genre.
Of course, deconstruction is only half the story. What makes Scream so effective, and so timeless, is that it’s both a winking and self-referential breakdown of the tropes of the horror genre and a nearly flawless embodiment of the same. Like Cabin In The Woods, it manages the extraordinary balancing act of delivering actual scares (more so than Cabin) while being a whip-smart critique of how scares are manufactured. By the time the film’s tour-de-force opening sequence ends with Drew Barrymore being gutted like a fish, audiences knew they were seeing something special. So special, in fact, that the $14 million film ended up taking in $173 million worldwide and ushering in a new era of slasher films, a renaissance of sorts for a genre that had mostly languished in drive-ins and on VHS since the mid-’80s. Slasher fans rejoiced—for a couple years anyway, until the boom swiftly faded, done in by the same causes that fell so many other eruptions of a style or genre, of any medium: The host of imitators are never as good as what inspired the affection in the first place.
Nonetheless, the spawn of Scream constitutes a fleeting resurgence of a horror subgenre that has struggled to make much of a dent since its heyday. (Though current circumstances—from the popular Friday The 13th game to the outsize opening-weekend gross of Happy Death Day—have led others to suggest we may finally be getting a new revival.) The slasher narrative is as simple as a knife in the head: Some tragic event creates a killer who then seeks bloodthirsty revenge for that primal trauma, and audiences hoot and cringe in equal measure as characters lose their lives one by one, often in unexpected or inventive ways, until a resourceful “Final Girl” manages to defeat the monster. Scream followed this formula to a T: the death of Sidney Prescott’s mom, the masked ghost-face killer (two, really, but one of whom turns out to be motivated solely by that trauma), and the offing of people in increasing numbers until Sidney single-handedly stops them. Kevin Williamson’s script justly deserves praise for its cleverness and tactic of treating the audience like it was in on the joke, but ultimately, it was Craven’s ability to still deliver a pulse-pounding horror flick and ideal date movie that drove the film so far into the black.
Realizing there was a fresh market for a style of movie that studios had written off as niche material, Scream’s gonzo profits ushered in a wave of subsequent slashers trying to capitalize on a new generation’s discovery of the subgenre, as Gen Xers and Gen Yers alike learned (or re-learned) the fundamental pleasures of a good old-fashioned murder spree by a crazed killer, supernatural or otherwise. Unfortunately, most of them failed to understand the true reason for Scream’s popularity: It was a great movie. The movies birthed by Craven’s blockbuster took all the wrong lessons, and in doing so, helped to soon quell the very affection that led to their existence in the first place.
Mistaken lesson #1: Audiences just want to watch young people be killed.
The first of these films is probably the one that benefits the most by association. I Know What You Did Last Summer was also written by Scream scribe Williamson, and it occasionally shows promise as a stand-alone horror film. The plot (loosely based on a 1973 Lois Duncan novel) finds four friends who hit and kill a man with their car and cover up the incident, only to be stalked a year later by someone who supposedly knows their crime. The movie is textbook slasher: An unknown assailant with a fisherman’s hook slowly eliminates people one at a time, each with a slow-burn build to the kill. But Williamson ignores his own advice, making the movie predictable and a bit pedestrian. No one, save for the heroine (Jennifer Love Hewitt, passable as a Final Girl), is very likable, with several characters being outright assholes, primarily Ryan Phillippe’s inexplicably douche-y rich kid. It’s harder to care about someone dying when you actively want them to disappear from the screen. And when the film itself proceeds so straightforwardly, and you know that even Hewitt’s dim-bulb boyfriend (Freddie Prinze Jr.) will survive, much of the fun is lost.
Still, I Know What You Did was at least moderately entertaining, hitting the expected beats and delivering bloody results. More importantly for the slasher revival, it was another giant hit, earning $125 million and proving that people would continue to turn up for a rowdy murder-based film. And it kept to the basic expectations of a horror film, in that it didn’t try to sugarcoat its brutal narrative. It also didn’t try to cutely ape Scream’s meta conceit, which is where a number of followers got lost.
Mistaken lesson #2: Scream worked, so just do that same “meta” thing.
Balancing horror and comedy is fiendishly difficult. The two rarely work well together, which is why the successes become so lauded (Evil Dead 2, An American Werewolf In London, Dead Alive). But incorporating a postmodern meta angle to a film is arguably even harder, at least to get right. Characters commenting on their own predicament as though they were the armchair jokesters of MST3K is almost never as smart as a film’s creative team thinks it is—something for which Urban Legend serves as Exhibit A. Perhaps the most shameless of the Scream rip-offs, the film’s premise (someone is killing college kids in the manner of well-known urban legends, leading to all sorts of lazy horror references) makes explicit how badly it wants to be a rehash of Craven’s hit series. Unfortunately, it lacked a good script, decent direction… really anything but the same cast of fresh-faced teen-show stars as all the other slashers. Thinking something is smart when it’s not is a far worse look for a film than just admitting the stupidity of it all and rolling with it.
Mistaken lesson #3: Every poster doesn’t need to look the same.
It’s as unfair to blame Scream for permanently altering the look of subsequent slasher posters as it is to fault the film for the derivative nature of later imitators. But Scream’s faces-on-a-black-background style became the de facto look for almost every studio horror slasher of the next 10 years. Just look at the collection of posters above without thinking every successive one is just a case of déjà vu. Hollywood has a nasty habit of taking whatever succeeded most recently and then running it into the ground, and in this case, it doubled down on the strategy to a ridiculous degree. When these were the images provided for the later slashers, no wonder audiences started to feel like they’d already seen this movie.
But the main reason for the short-lived nature of the revival is much the same as the cause of any revitalized genre ebbing away again: Most of the films simply weren’t very good. In addition to running their own properties into the ground (I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend both became trilogies, their final installments banished to direct-to-DVD purgatory), the movies were often almost shockingly lazy and uninspired. Perhaps the nadir of the revival is Valentine, a 2001 slasher that manages to make killing Denise Richards boring. Five self-absorbed narcissists with no redeeming qualities are preparing for Valentine’s Day as an unknown killer starts picking them off one by one, and since no one behaves like a recognizable human being, it’s hard to muster an “oh, the humanity” when they die. One of the other common mistakes made when people who don’t understand the slasher genre try to make one is thinking audiences want to watch awful people die. We don’t—there are very low stakes when someone who has shown no propensity for basic human decency is bumped off. What makes the deaths matter is our fondness for the characters. Scream’s Tatum (Rose McGowan) may be kind of mean, but she’s also a fiercely protective and caring friend to Neve Campbell’s Sidney. Just because most characters are going to die doesn’t mean the basic rules of storytelling should be abandoned.
While the subgenre sputtered along in the 2000s, powered largely by listless and derivative remakes or sequels of older, better slashers (Halloween: Resurrection, Toolbox Murders, Black Christmas), the wave of renewed popularity had receded. There were still great ones being made (our own film editor, A.A. Dowd, will stump for Cherry Falls), with quality even among the remakes (Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes is a particular high point in that regard), but they were no longer the focal point of the studios’ horror output. Instead, new and previously under-the-radar styles of horror came to dominate America’s multiplexes, primarily Asian horror and what is disparagingly (and often unfairly) referred to as “torture porn.” As the post-9/11 country looked to other countries’ nightmares and extreme gore to take their minds off more real-life monsters, the slasher once more became just another occasional staple of a horror diet, rather than the money-printing bonanza it was in the wake of Scream. The slasher will never go away—to paraphrase Cabin In The Woods, punishing young people for being young will never go out of style—but for a brief, bloody moment, it was back on top of the pile of bodies horror routinely pulls into the multiplexes.