"You see, it's a lot scarier when there's no motive, Sid."
Horror was having a bad time of it in the 90s. The grisly slashers of the late 70s and early 80s were gone, and unless your last name was King or Barker, chances are most American horror up until 1996 was relegated to home video. Despite sticking to genre in 1995's IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and 1996's CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, John Carpenter wasn't having any success at the box office. Wes Craven was faring even worse. After trying to mix genres in THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991) and his return to Elm Street with WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994) he hit a personal low point with the Eddie Murphy vehicle VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN. Things clearly needed to change.
It's hard to look back almost through 15 years of countless imitations, parodies, and direct sequels to see the original film for what it was: a clever, hip (at the time) take on the traditional slasher film, self-aware and yet completely serious in trying to build tension and suspense during its dramatic moments. Written by new kid on the block Kevin Williamson and directed with a nice pace and eye to style by Craven, SCREAM boasts enough of its share of great character moments and set pieces to qualify it as a minor horror classic - you can't put it on the same shelf shelf as HALLOWEEN, DEEP RED, or even Craven's own NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET - but to dismiss its merits would be to deny its impact (lamentable at times to be sure) on films both inside and outside the genre.
A lot of the credit goes to Williamson's sharp script, which manages to mix its horror references on multiple levels, provide more than a cursory bit of depth to its supporting characters, and weave a twisted plot that keeps everything on its toes until the climactic reveal. It also doesn't hurt that Craven makes the most of his R rating, reveling in the splattering of blood and intestines that permeate the death scenes. Watching it again for the first time in years I was surprised by how fun the movie continues to be despite knowing the "twist" ending. The Drew Barrymore opening is a ballsy homage to PSYCHO and a great introduction to the overall tone of the film, the performances are all good, with extra props to Neve Campbell and Rose McGowan, who subverts the female horror stereotype even as she falls into it. And the ending is full of great moments - Stu and Billy stabbing each other, the who "motive speech", the copious amounts of blood - by the time we get to the first rays of dawn, everything has wrapped itself up in a tidy little package.
But now here's where things get a bit dicey. SCREAM showed studios that, with the right mix, horror can be financially viable again. Within a year Kevin Williamson was practically diving back in the well, first with I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, a script based on Lois Duncan's novel of the same name and actually written prior to SCREAM, and then with THE FACULTY - both films capitalizing on the things that invigorated SCREAM: a young well known cast from television, in-jokes and a self-aware hipster sense of dialog (in some ways Williamson feels a bit like the Diablo Cody of the 90s), and inventive if increasingly diluted violence, suspense, and horror. SCREAM 2 came soon after, and was unable to achieve anywhere near the same sense of fun and danger the first film had.
But they all made money, and anyone who watches the trends of the Hollywood machine knows that once you find a formula that works, you use it for all your washings. And so the cleverness and freshness that was SCREAM begat I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, which begat DAWSON'S CREEK (work with me here), which made a start out of Joshua Jackson so he could suffer along with everyone else in URBAN LEGEND,which in turn came around the bend with dreck TEACHING MRS. TINGLE, FINAL DESTINATION, I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, URBAN LEGEND 2, SCREAM 3, and a myriad of PG-13 films starring CW and WB television stars that would dilute horror so much it would seem like a step backward for the genre, eerily mirroring what would happen in the 2000s with the "J-Horror" craze (a term which itself is misleading, since so many of the films were also coming out of Korea and Thailand as well as Japan).
Perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin of SCREAM's short-lived horror resurgence came from something completely outside the genre. Seeing a way to mimic the success he had parodying films with I'M GONNA GET YOU SUCKA, Keenan Ivory Wayans took the best parts of SCREAM and other horror/suspense films and turned in SCARY MOVIE, which killed at the box office, the scent of which aroused the sleeping machine once again to take notice and repeat, again and again, thus paving the way for such gems as DATE MOVIE, EPIC MOVIE and every other kind of MOVIE that did just as much to murder the fun of going to the movies as the endless SCREAM imitations did.
Horror being the cyclical beast it is, we'd same the same thing happen again after THE SIXTH SENSE, obligating every film to have a "twist" ending. SAW, now up to its sixth sequel, paved the way for HOSTEL (and its sequel, and WOLF CREEK and TURISTAS and and....), making "torture porn" (another misleading catch-all) a viable sub-genre. And in another few years something else will come around that we'll burn into the ground through countless repetition.
Scream, rinse, repeat.