Looking Back at Scream’s Legacy of Revitalizing the Slasher Genre

In the eyes of many horror fans, Scream is considered a modern classic, a new capstone atop the mountain of ‘70s and ‘80s slasher films that took what it had seen and infused satire, after running everything through a tightly-meshed strainer. It was a new and refreshing dish for those who had feasted upon killers like Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees for almost two decades, deciding to splay the insides of the films, like their victims, openly discussing the clichés, tropes, and triumphs of the horror genre with clever subversions. The movie was revolutionary, but not the perfect savior some like to remember it as; equally problematic and potent. Scream didn’t so much as drag the genre by its hair out the front door and into the ‘90s with a cherished opening kill scene, as it gave the industry a stern and sincere push. 

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Scream raised the bar for the genre, but it also misled a lot of studios on how to proceed and made everyone feel like they were in on the joke and too hip for slashers now. It wasn’t just a clever script from Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek, Vampire Diaries), a clash of references and scenes that borderline on being meta, or the beginning of trendy self-awareness, but a project that dared to re-legitimize horror. The movie was given a questionable release date after a long battle with the MPAA but still managed to be a success, to the point of giving Wes Craven’s career new life after he had almost given up on horror, instantly establishing itself as a new player in the game. It brought in established actors and subverted the audience by killing one of them off in the opening scene (even if that was due more to scheduling conflicts) while having the air of mystery that led fans to try and figure out who the killer was.

Ghostface isn’t an uncaring shape or unstoppable beast, but a “cruel sense of humor” on top of persistence, style, and coy mannerisms. The killer isn’t scary because of any powers he or she might have, but because their intentions are never good and anyone with a secret could be under the mask. Each murder has a motivation behind it, nothing is random and unexplained, but murder with purpose and vile intent. All of the trauma and horror is themed, connected to family and other strong relationships, with trust as a luxury. The main character was more relatable because she came from a dysfunctional and broken home, not to mention being forced to reside in a nightmare where her mother’s actions were the catalyst.  

The original victim of Scream, Sidney’s mother, made her daughter a target but also forced her to unravel more about her family’s past than she ever bargained for. Facing down a half-brother and a jealous cousin didn’t help matters either, but through it all, Sidney Prescott prevailed. As a character, she breaks many of the rules and tries to upend several tropes, not only being aware of what the smart thing is to do, fighting back, and facing her fears, but she has sex and lives. More importantly, Sidney accepts her flaws and the pain she’s been through, learning to fight back, still living her life, and making a difference, even in the one film we see her in hiding. This final girl is also given credit for helping to make horror into a genre with more feminism and a place where female characters can flourish. She goes from Scream Queen to badass survivor, and so far, hasn’t been sacrificed to the knife just to feed the plot of a new installment.

Possibly the best horror film of the ‘90s, Scream felt new and relatable because it had a cast of characters that were fleshed-out, not just memorable through their deaths, who were a bit more believable because they watched and knew the horror movies, understanding the tropes and tired of the same old massacres like we were. But being a success in the film industry – especially in a genre that can make a ton of overhead – comes with its own problems, namely sequels.

Randy says it best in Scream 2, “By definition alone, they’re inferior films,” and that’s coming from a man who still found a way to show up for the third movie on a prerecorded tape. The original sequel did well, but Scream 3 goes “too meta” and loses much of the edge that made the movies stand out. Over a decade later, the series returned in a better fashion, but still with its shortcomings. Scream had trouble outdoing itself, ramping up the scares, kills, and reveals. This is no more evident than when watching Scream 4’s opening scene, a pivotal part of any film in the franchise. It’s an issue of escalation versus evolution, something that plagues all sequels, but it’s even harder for the movies that innovated at one point. It wasn’t the first movie to use horror tropes like this, but Scream was a new property that did it well, crafting them into the dialog without having to fully be the story, combine that with a great cast, a fantastic score, and some timing for a new hit. The problem is, not everyone can do that.

Scream spawned several other movies in the genre, but it wasn’t just fresh IPs, as it also helped revive classic franchises like Halloween with H20. Scream had helped push the film that inspired it back into the limelight, coming full circle.  

The films that Scream’s success spawned never found the right mixture, taking too much or too little of the meta without learning why the change needed to happen in the first place, so something like Urban Legend or I Know What You Did Last Summer felt stale already because it didn’t copy enough of Scream in the right parts, while other films and some revitalized franchises took too much without innovating on the character and storyline, causing gaps in tone and relatability. This injection of freshness that the series brought was also poison for filmmakers that didn’t fully grasp what made Scream special. So many people saw the success but didn’t understand how to apply the formula with their own ideas. The more successful version of these attempts was perhaps the parodies, namely Scary Movie, which was actually the original title for the film before the studio changed it. 

Now we have a fifth Scream movie that comes over a decade after the fourth film. Could the new one do something fresh and show that the series is still clever and hasn’t become what it once attempted to satirize? Or is the idea of a fifth entry in a film series that picked on other movies for doing the same thing frightening enough? Even Ghostface himself has become a bit of a joke now, appearing in video games and as a comical meme. Scream‘s legacy is set, but for the future to be bright then the latest entry will have to once again catch lightning in a bottle as the first one did.


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