Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘Scream’ (1996)

by Ben Martin

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)

Twenty-five years ago, the horror genre was on life support. In turn, the slasher subgenre was as dead as a doornail. But, that all changed with Scream (1996) — a movie that brought together fresh new talents & a master of horror to deconstruct the genre in a darkly comedic fashion. Of course, one Scream always leads to another. As such, I’ll trace how the best horror movie of the 1990s became a franchise, which will soon be finding new life next year with a legacy sequel/reboot under the same title. But first, let’s go back to that single phone call that started it all with Scream (1996)!

To say that Scream (1996) was a surprise would be an understatement. Not only were audiences pleasantly surprised, so was the film industry as a whole. See, in the 1990s, horror was well on its way to being buried as releases at the time were few. But, I suppose that’s understandable as the viewing public were treated to a deluge of the genre the decade prior. The most popular subgenre of the 80s was the slasher flick, after all. And one guy who had soaked up all those movies was uber-fan and screenwriter Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek).

Back in 1995, Williamson was a struggling writer. Like many of us, he had a car payment to worry about; and was late on rent and all his other bills. Without a day job to fall back on, the young writer was desperate for a break. Luckily for Williamson, he had recently learned of the Gainesville Ripper out of Florida. This serial killer served as a giant spark of inspiration. Thus, he locked himself away for a weekend and wrote what was then titled “Scary Movie.” A fitting title considering the subject matter, but perhaps not ominous enough.

Soon after that, Williamson’s agent put the screenplay for “Scary Movie” on the market. As the story goes, it went on a Friday and  by Monday, the script was the focus of an intense bidding war among the studios. And why wouldn’t it have been? After all, the scenario mixes comedy and horror as expertly as a world-class bartender mixes your favorite cocktail. 

Unsurprisingly, the studio that ended up acquiring the rights to “Scary Movie” was essentially the home for horror in the mid-to-late 90s: Dimension Films. The studio ultimately ended up changing the screenplay’s title to Scream, but the previous title would not go to waste, though, as Dimension Films later released the Scary Movie spoofs, a franchise inspired by Scream itself.

Seeing the potential, Dimension head honcho, and Scream executive producer, Bob Weinstein (Sin City) offered it to just about every director the studio had in their stable. Oddly enough, though, this multitude of filmmakers turned the project down because they didn’t understand the screenplay’s tone, finding it to be too comedic. So, since the in-house talent all passed, the Dimension studio head did the next logical thing. He offered the helm to master of horror Wes Craven (1939-2015). Alas, Craven was not initially interested in Scream either, but for different reasons.

Like many genre writer-directors, Craven had begun to feel pigeonholed by horror. As a result, the idea of doing “something full of blood and guts again” was not the least bit appealing to the director at the time. Well, that is until a teen-aged fan approached Craven and told him flat-out, “I just saw The Last House on the Left (1972) and loved it! I wish you’d do something that really kicks ass again!” Hearing a fan reference his debut feature film as a high point understandably made Craven bristle a bit, feeling he’d lost his street cred as it were. 

Due to this unexpected push, Craven immediately reversed his position on Scream and accepted the offer to direct. At the same time, he didn’t simply want to help this movie to repair his reputation as an uncompromising genre filmmaker. No, Craven was savvy and saw that Scream offered him multiple opportunities. Thus, Craven agreed to do the film if Dimension’s sister company, Miramax Films, would finance and release his musical drama, Music of the Heart (1999). Since the studio was keen to make Scream, they immediately agreed to Craven’s stipulation and signed the deal for both pictures.

Scream was the hottest script in Tinseltown and now it had a cult director attached to it. Even still, the movie needed some star power to center its ensemble around. Enter Drew Barrymore amid a triumphant Hollywood comeback after a small role as Sugar in Batman Forever (1995). (Go ahead and take a drink as I mentioned Batman Forever in yet another article.) While Barrymore had been out of the limelight for a while, she still boasted enough marquee value to headline a movie. Hence, the actress initially signed on to play Scream‘s lead heroine, Sidney Prescot.

However, as production approached, the actress decided she didn’t want to play the lead. But instead, the much more minor but pivotal role of Casey. Barrymore cited that her playing Casey would be much like the Psycho (1960) twist with Janet Leigh, and she was absolutely right. Craven knew it on some level, too, as the director immediately cottoned to the change. Beyond serving as the film’s first meta-commentary on the genre, the opening sequence becomes even more engaging and terrifying as it makes the viewer immediately feel unsafe. This opening with Barrymore lets us know that Scream will not pull its punches. Fittingly, all of Barrymore’s scenes were shot during the first week of production, which immediately set the tone for the shoot and the movie itself.

Still, the brilliant bait-and-switch would require Craven and crew to find not only a new lead, but an ensemble cast capable of pulling off Williamson’s slick, meta dialogue. Skeet Ulrich (Riverdale) was among the first cast. Many of us, including Craven, noticed Ulrich had the same qualities as a young Johnny Depp, whom the director had worked with on A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Around this same time, Craven approached Canadian actress Neve Campbell to replace Barrymore as Sidney. Having seen Campbell in the television series Party of Five (1994–2000), the director felt she had a certain innocence the character needed. Initially, Campbell was hesitant to commit to doing a horror film until she learned she would be co-starring as a love interest to Ulrich, which inspired her to sign on to the project immediately.

The remainder of the teenage cast members (all played by twenty-somethings in film industry fashion, of course) came to the Scream in traditional ways. Rose McGowan (Planet Terror) was a young rising star. As was comedian and actor Jamie Kennedy, who had recently made his film debut in Romeo + Juliet (1996). The same can also be said of Matthew Lillard (Scooby-Doo, Batman: The Brave and the Bold), who was rapidly making a name for himself in Hollywood. However, Lillard stumbled into playing Stu thanks to the film’s casting director Lisa Beach. See, Lillard’s girlfriend at the time was auditioning for Scream, and he was merely accompanying her that day. But, when Beach saw Lillard, she instantly knew the actor embodied the energy of the character and offered him the part.

Now, the adult leads of the movie in review were genuine pieces of curveball casting. Deputy Dewey Riley was written as a more straightforward cop-type role on the page. But when cult favorite actor and semi-pro wrestler David Arquette (Creepshow) was cast in the part, he immediately imbued Deputy Dewey with his natural oddball charm. To me, it is a quality that makes the character much more entertaining than he probably would’ve been otherwise. Then, of course, Courtney Cox approached the producers of Scream to play Gale Weathers. She was interested in playing the role because she wanted to shed the nice girl image attributed to Cox thanks to her role as Monica Geller on Friends (1994-2004). Casting Arquette and Cox also happened to create both on and off-screen romances for the pair.

The film now had its cast in place, but Scream was still missing a key element. In the screenplay, Williamson was quite vague in describing the killer’s appearance/gimmick. Thus, that aspect of the movie was essentially played by ear for a moment. Ultimately, the inspiration for the Ghostface mask was found during a location visit at a house. Effects outfit KNB “tweaked the original mask design by 20% to avoid any copyright issues,” but the redesigns didn’t look as scary on screen as the original product. 

So, after the first day of shooting, Craven got the approval to use the original mask instead. Once the appearance was settled upon, the chilling Phone Voice for the Ghostface killer was supplied by notable voice actor Roger Jackson (The Powerpuff Girls). Interestingly enough, the actor didn’t record his dialogue in an isolated recording booth during post-production. Instead, he recited his dialogue live on set, but his fellow cast members could not see him. Nor did Jackson meet any of them during production.

Okay, now that you have all the background on the film, let’s get into the plot. Scream is set in a small, seemingly well-to-do town of Woodsboro. Well, at least it has been quiet for the last year following the murder of the mother of high-schooler Sidney Prescott (Campbell). But, all that peace is broken one night after a simple phone call ends with the brutal slaying of two of Sidney’s fellow students. Now, this small town is on high alert for a killer with a taste for horror movies as Westboro High’s student bodies begin to pile up. And worse yet, everyone is a suspect!

As I mentioned earlier, the first half of the 90s was not a good time for the horror genre. Perhaps that’s why Scream is one of the only horror flicks from that decade that still has an impact today (especially on the horror convention circuit of late). But a lack of genre competition at the time is not the only reason why the movie is still revered today. It is also one of the most clever genre mashups of all time. Scream is a well-written horror-comedy built around a mystery that works exquisitely on almost every level.

Despite Williamson’s very clever writing, I don’t think it would work nearly as well without the cast and crew taking his dialogue from the page to the screen. See, with the wrong talents bringing this screenplay to life, there’s a possibility that Williamson’s writing could have sounded a little too meta or perhaps even smug for its own good. Scream could have been accused of having too much horror fan service (in the parlance of our current times). 

Nevertheless, the dialogue works perfectly — thanks to Craven and this cast — even if you can hear how it is written at times. This ensembles of characters is one of the most likable in horror history. The quality of this group is particularly evident in the movie’s final extensive act, a party sequence takes place over the duration of forty-two minutes. It was shot over twenty-one consecutive days. Once the whole sequence was finally in the can, everyone involved received a t-shirt that proudly stated “I SURVIVED SCENE 118.” It’s also worth noting that the entire movie only took eight weeks to shoot.

Add composer Marco Beltrami‘s (Fear Street, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) score to what we see on-screen, and you have all the atmosphere you need as well. The only technical aspect I would ding Scream for is that the cinematography by Mark Irwin (RoboCop 2, Vampire in Brooklyn), who was fired during production, looks a bit flat.

This nearly perfect execution of elements — along with the fact that the film was released at the ideal time — made Scream a hit with audiences. Back in the early-to-mid 90s, horror fans (myself included) had nothing else to discuss at the lunch table except for the iconic horror slashers Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Craven’s own creation, Freddy Kreuger. Since Scream is so referential and reverential to these beloved franchises, fans immediately connected with it. Plus, for better or worse, they might’ve seen a little bit of themselves in Kennedy’s video store clerk, Randy. This is why Scream (1996)  is a Franchise Expansion. It is an original piece that comes from a place of genre love, which audiences could sense and with which they connected. Moreover, Scream resurrected horror as a whole at the time. But, I will get more into that with Scream 2 (1997).

Of course, audiences might not have been able to see Scream had the MPA had their way. The film had to be screened and re-cut for the MPA Ratings Board nine times before it was approved for an R-rating (instead of the dreaded NC-17 the movie initially received). This R certification was only approved after Bob Weinstein argued that Scream is a satirical comedy. Luckily, the filmmakers did not have to oblige the board’s request to cut Billy’s (Ulrich) famous declaration that “Movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative!” But, from everything I’ve ever read about the Ratings Board, such a silly objection does not surprise me.

After finally receiving the R-rating required, Scream was released just before Christmas on December 20th, 1996. A rare release slot for a horror picture, but certainly some exciting counter-programming for theaters. The film did decently on its opening weekend, but as positive word of mouth grew, it became more and more successful. Ultimately the film ran theatrically from December 1996 through April 1997 and grossed over $173 worldwide on a meager $14 million production budget. Upon leaving theaters, Scream also fittingly became a massive hit on VHS. Of course, this was just in time for the release of the sequel (which I’ll cover next time) a mere year later!

Scream (1996)  is available on all home video formats.

Next time, we’ll learn the rules of the sequel with Scream 2 (1997)!

Scream (2021) will hit theaters on January 14th!

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