Due to its box office bonanza the independently made Halloween 1978 seized the attention of Hollywood. John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s film grossed a worldwide $70 million1 - $243m in today’s language.
If there were 70s movie brats2 then there were 70s horror bastards. George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead 1968 removed horror from the classic/gothic and cemented it in the contemporary psyche: horror was not to be observed – it is to be experienced. In Romero’s wake Wes Craven made The Last House on the Left 1972, Tobe Hooper filmed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974 and John Carpenter helmed Halloween.
Hollywood weren’t the only ones mesmerised by the Halloween box office. Sean S Cunningham, the producer of The Last House on the Left, recounts in Going to Pieces: The Rise of the Slasher Film 2006 how he intended to extend the concept of Halloween to its extreme: to show as much gore as was
tastefully legally possible.
So he produced and directed Friday the 13th 1980 which took almost $60million3 ($168m adjusted) worldwide. That film was distributed by Paramount. A Hollywood punt had paid off. The rest of the industry jumped on the bandwagon.
There’s gold in them thar hills.
There’s gold in them thar hills.
Let the mainstream accuse the 80s of excess and let the horror folk remember it as the renaissance. That decade birthed folklore in Freddy, Jason, Chucky and Pinhead. It was inventive with An American Werewolf in London 1981, Poltergeist 1982 and Monkey Shines 1988. It catered to a youth market. It was a good time to be a teenager.
It was also a time of opportunism. Output was laden with rip-offs (My Bloody Valentine 1981), sequels (Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers 1989), and direct-to-video exploitation (Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland 19894). At the end of the 80s the creative boom had led to bust. Inevitably so did profitability.
Western culture shifted in the 90s. Reagan was retired and Thatcher was deposed. The media promulgated a more caring sharing decade. Horror movies took notice. The People Under the Stairs 1991 directed by Wes Craven and Candyman 1992 espoused social issues. This was reminiscent of 70s horror and hinted at the genre being cyclical in popularity.
As successful as these films were5 6 this was not to be the case. There were two movies indicative of a broken cycle: Popcorn 19917 satirised the genre. Its finger was pointed not at horror films themselves but at the audience. Said audience rewarded it with a domestic box office of $4.2 million. Back in 1991 that was a flop ($6.8m today).
Wes Craven’s NewNightmare 1994 was an exploration of the Freddy phenomena in a fictional context masquerading as reality. It threatened to break kayfabe but didn’t. It never winked at its audience. It never cracked a smile. It also flopped.
New Nightmare’s original ideas can be found in Wes Craven (and Bruce Wagner’s) 1st draft of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors written in 19868. New Line Cinema rejected the story. It turned out they were right to. The audience was not ready in the 80s. They were not ready in 1994.
Then along came Scream 1996.
Nothing can convince me Kevin Williamson had not seen Popcorn and was inspired to write his own take. This in itself is not a criticism. The criticism comes in his not acknowledging it.
There have been instances of lifting/borrowing/inspiration/plagiarism throughout cinema history; Walter Hill (The Driver 1978) swore he had never seen Le Samuoraï 1967; Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs 1992) kept mute re City on Fire 1987 until challenged by the press. The opening scene of Jeepers Creepers 2001 is carbon copied from an episode of Unsolved Mysteries9.
Scream’s curtain raiser itself is homage to When a Stranger Calls 1979 though this was acknowledged after the fact. Within the now famous Drew Barrymore sequence a packet of popcorn plays a prominent role. It’s an insider reference – not an admission. Be that as it may though Scream’s concept and template is identikit to Popcorn there is a difference.
In 1989 Vince McMahon of the WWE (then WWF) admitted wrestling is scripted (fake). In the 90s there were TV shows that exposed trade secrets: one of the more infamous was Breaking the Magician’s Code 1997 in the age of David Copperfield. In 1995 the DVD hit the home entertainment market and quickly became the ‘most successful consumer product of all time’10. It arrived replete with ‘Behind the Scenes’ and ‘the Making of’ extras. Some of which were broadcast on television before the actual release of the movie.
The audience wanted more. In 1996 they were ready.
The difference between Popcorn and Scream is humour. Scream smiles at the audience and winks at the same time. Craven and Williamson invite the viewer in on the joke. The movie breaks kayfabe by deconstructing the genre as if it wasn’t part of it. It was fun. Still is.
Drew Barrymore’s curtain raiser establishes the tone. The viewer is seduced and trusts the director will entertain and not offend. Craven delivered. Scream is not original in concept but it is brilliant in execution. It is the culmination of Craven’s oeuvre from A Nightmare on Elm Street 1984. It is his apex.
He couldn’t do it alone. Kevin Williamson’s script is satirical, witty and observant. The ensemble cast is pitch perfect. They play it like a comedy until they start to scream. Their performances are convincing because they communicate with each other. It is their dialogue and not their characters that let on to the audience.
Scream dropped jaws and opened eyes. Its worldwide box office was $173 million11 - $243m today. It wasn’t the catalyst for this present boom in horror – that honour goes to the Blair Witch Project 1999. It has its faults. The dénouement is convoluted and Sidney’s multiple fist fights with armed male killers is hokum. It isn’t perfect.
It didn’t have to be. It was a scream.
That’s what horror is supposed to do.
“She looked dead – still does.”
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