How Scream Saved the Slasher Movie Genre

With Halloween Kills earning over $130 million at the worldwide box office and a new Texas Chainsaw Massacre film right around the corner, the slasher sub-genre is alive and well at the forefront of horror in the contemporary pop culture zeitgeist. This stands in contrast to much of the '90s, with the sub-genre relegated to direct-to-video releases while even the most established slasher franchises struggled to turn a profit at the box office and had largely fallen into a sense of uninspired formula. And as slasher movies were rapidly fading in regards to relevance, it was a new franchise that launched in 1996 that completely revived the sub-genre into the renewed prominence it enjoys today: Scream.

Screenwriter Kevin Williamson was a longtime fan of the horror genre and slasher movies and wrote the screenplay after hearing about news reports involving Florida's real-life serial killer the Gainesville Ripper. While Williamson was writing and shopping around the script for Scream, then titled Scary Movie, Dimension Films acquired the rights to the Hellraiser and Halloween franchises, releasing sequels for each in 1995 and 1996, respectively. Both films suffered from troubled productions behind-the-scenes and underperformed at the box office, with Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers earning $15.1 million while Hellraiser: Bloodline earned $9.3 million. Dimension quietly shifted its release strategy for future Hellraiser films to go straight to home video and planned for a similar strategy for additional Halloween installments.

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In the interim, Dimension purchased Williamson's script in June 1995, signing on veteran horror filmmaker Wes Craven to direct the project due to Craven's popular A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise successfully blending horror and comedy. While Craven was growing reconsidering continuing to helm slasher movies at the time, following the lackluster box office reception to 1994's Wes Craven's New Nightmare, effectively shelving the Nightmare on Elm Street series, he enjoyed the script and agreed to direct after his plans to remake The Haunting were canceled.

Featuring a cast of relatively unknown actors, with its most well-known star at the time Drew Barrymore having her character Casey Becker brutally murdered in the prologue, Scream boasted a meta-textual commentary on the nature of slasher movies right from its opening scene. In addition to this self-aware approach to the genre, Scream also had the obvious benefit of being a genuinely frightening film; Craven, along with the cast and crew, knew when to dial up the tension and keep the audience on their toes as teenager Sidney Prescott and her friends were menaced by serial killers wearing the iconic Ghostface mask before discovering who the true culprits were.

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A critical and commercial success upon its release in 1996, Scream received a critics' score of 79 percent on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, with critics praising the movie's sly subversion of the genre's tropes and formula to its benefit. Scream earned $173 million at the worldwide box office and spawned a franchise of its own, including 2022's fifth installment in the film series. Scream's success led to an all-around revival of the slasher sub-genre, from Dimension reversing its plans for the Halloween franchise and maintaining its theatrical release strategy to new slasher IPs being produced. Among the most popular was 1997's I Know What You Did Last Summer, which earned over $125 million at the box office.

After the success of Scream, it's hard to go a year without at least one major slasher movie making its way to theaters while its striking masked killer became an overnight part of the pop culture zeitgeist. Many of the franchises that inspired Williamson would get their own revivals in the years that followed while the slash sub-genre itself received an overdue reappraisal for its worth in the wider horror lexicon. And while the Scream film series itself has started and stopped in fits in the ensuing years, its impact on the horror genre cannot be understated.

To witness the newest installment in the franchise, Scream opens in theaters Jan. 14.

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Sam Stone (8514 Articles Published)

Sam Stone is a 10th level pop culture guru living just outside of Washington, DC who knows an unreasonable amount about The Beatles. You can follow him on Twitter @samstoneshow and ask him about Nintendo, pop punk, and Star Trek.

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