Why The ‘Scream’ Movies are a Great First Franchise for New Horror Fans
My First Slasher Movie
If you are, or know of someone, who is just being introduced to the horror genre, the Scream movies are a great place to start. The original Scream was the first R-rated horror movie that I ever saw, and not only did it help me to understand the genre, but it also made me seek out other horror franchises to watch, particularly other slasher movies. Each generation claims an evolving brand of horror movies. They appeal to teens in their ability to create a safe adrenaline rush, deal with relatable themes, and present mature story lines that feel like an invitation to join adulthood.
Scream was released in 1996, though I didn’t see it until over a year after it was released in theaters. I convinced my family to rent it from our local video store one night after hearing other kids in school talking about it. Not only did it introduce me to the gore and scares that horror movies offer, but it also educated me about how slasher movies follow specific rules, and I learned to recognize those rules from this movie before they were rewritten. Supported by decades of predecessors, Scream built itself on the shoulders of giants and then held its own as the definitive 90's slasher movie, reigniting the genre and updating it for modern teens.
Below, I discuss how it pulls this off and why a first time horror movie audience should start with Scream in order to break into the genre.
* Warning: Spoilers ahead!
All of the Scream Movie Trailers
A Brief History of Slasher Movies
Many pinpoint the birth of the slasher genre to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Since then, stories about a masked killer murdering innocent people with sharp objects has been retold over and over throughout the years. By the 1990’s, Hollywood had many slasher movie franchises under its belt, the most popular including: Halloween (1978), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Friday the 13th (1980) with numerous sequels to continue the story, usually low budget and even lower quality continuations that piggybacked off of the success of its original.
Writer Kevin Williamson used this film history to his advantage when he wrote his own slasher movie script titled: Scary Movie which later became Scream. Inspired by the real life murders carried out by Florida's Gainsville Ripper, Williamson crafted a story about a serial killer who uses their love of scary movies to stalk and butcher their teenage victims in the small town of Woodsboro, CA. For the first time, the film's characters were aware of the genre in which they were unwittingly participating, making them sharper and wittier but not less protected from the kills. Some might even label it a horror comedy in the way it parodies and pays tribute to the genre at the same time.
In the opening scene, the killer sets up this self-awareness by playing a high-stakes trivia game with his first on-screen victim over the phone. The audience doesn't have to know the answers in order to appreciate the Easter eggs that are sprinkled throughout the script, but in my case, it piqued my curiosity to watch these other slasher films and better understand these inside jokes (ex. "What's that werewolf movie with E.T.'s mom in it?"). Each famous franchise is rooted in its own decade and has a lot to say about its era, but they are still able to stand the test of time via their own unique stories. Scream does the same with the added advantage of having decades worth of history to fall back on and the edginess of 90's culture to pave the way to redefining the slasher movie.
Watch the Scream movie that started it all.
Horror Movie Rules
To be clear, Scream was not the first violent film I'd ever seen. I was never censored from watching any type of movie growing up, but as a kid, you tend to voluntarily stay clear of hardcore monster and murder movies, and any other adult-themed movies tend to not interest you. But, blood and bad language wasn't going to be anything I hadn't seen or heard before. Being a pre-teen, the idea of watching a scary movie appealed to me. It felt like uncharted territory that I wanted to explore. Being the oldest of four, though, meant that three younger kids ages 3-9 were going to be exposed to it as well if this was to be our Saturday night rental selection. My excitement was contagious, however, and the other kids voted "yes" for Scream.
The opening sequence is one of the most famous in the movie with high-schooler Casey Becker (played by Drew Barrymore) receives a phone call while she's home alone one night. The call seems like an innocent wrong number at first, but the caller keeps calling back to talk, and when Casey starts to feel uncomfortable and decides she doesn't want to talk anymore, the caller becomes unhinged to say the least. It becomes clear that the caller is nearby, and things really escalate when Casey threatens to call the police, and the caller reveals her beaten boyfriend, Steve, tied up on her patio. In order to save his life, she must answer movie trivia based on the horror movies they had previously talked about while the call was still friendly. She passes the test round with flying colors but then chokes on the real question which leads to Steve being gutted in front of her. Casey attempts to escape her house, barefoot and weaponless, but the killer catches her just as her parents are coming in the door. Upon seeing the house and shambles and hearing their dying daughter breathing through the phone she is still clutching for dear life, they open the front door to call for help and find Casey hanging from a tree with her organs hanging out of her gutted torso. Needless to say, this was a very shocking introduction to horror, but if you can get past this first scene, you know you can handle the rest.
Once the main cast is introduced, jump scares and stabbing still ensue, but there is an added element of comedy, mystery, and heroism that helps to balance out the horror. The story is very smart in how it connects all of the characters together to create a convincing order of events that play out. Killing off star Drew Barrymore in the first scene and then slapping her picture on the movie's cover throws off the audience in a homage to Psycho that right away tells you that this movie is going to make you think, throw you off, and still deliver the thrills. The ending is bloody, funny, and intense. When the credits roll, you feel like you are coasting to a stop after a roller coaster ride, delivering the adrenaline rush that teens crave. After having seen it dozens of times, I can watch it by myself in the dark, but I still pick up on little details and still find it funny which keeps it fresh, despite being unable to chase the high of the first viewing. The younger kids were equally entranced by it, though the horror hit them a little harder than it did me. Now, they too are desensitized by the jump scares and gore, but they definitely bit off more than they could chew at first.
After I had recovered from the horror, I came to appreciate the education that the movie gave me in terms of learning “the rules” of the genre. Intact virginity, abstaining from drug use and never uttering the phrase, “I’ll be right back!” are mentioned as the three main rules required to survive a horror movie. However, we see all of these rules broken throughout the first film, creating an entirely new set of rules which carried over into the slasher films that followed, such as I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Urban Legend (1998). Horror movies nowadays are continuing to push the envelope in an attempt reinvent the genre just as Scream did. However, in viewing other pre-Scream slasher movies, we see just how true these rules were in shaping the plots of previous slasher movies.
As a result, I started to eat up other slasher movies, new and old. The franchise that I really took to was Halloween (1978). It was less frightening to watch after viewing the more gruesomely modern kills in Scream, but it was just as tonally thrilling and iconic. I also liked catching the references that were mentioned and even duplicated in Scream: the haunting score, Laurie Strode’s discovery of her friends’ bodies, and the famous closet scene in the film’s climax.
Appealing to Teens
After finishing Scream, I was instantly hooked on the genre and at just the right time in my life and in that era of slasher movies. More teen horror films were starting to come out, and I was at the right age to devour them. The horror genre appeals particularly to teenagers for many reasons. It makes them feel grown up to know that they can handle the scares and the blood, and the films often focus on teenagers and teenage themes. The “bad” teenagers in the movies are punished for their rebellious behavior with the do-gooders coming out as survivors. (Note: If you want to learn more about the hidden meanings in horror movies, watch the documentary, Nightmares in Red, White and Blue. It's on NetFlix, and it will give you a clear understanding of how each decade shaped the plots of several mainstream American horror movies).
Sometimes they come off as morality tales, warning teenagers that if you do bad things, bad things will be done to you in return, such as Laurie's friends in Halloween who sneak around with their boyfriends, drink, and smoke pot. Other times, they are paying the price for those who came before them. This is especially true of Sidney's story in Scream since events regarding her mother's cheating on her father with several men in town come back to haunt her as her mother's murder the previous year kicks off the killing spree that ensues on and just before the anniversary of her death. The killers in the Scream movies tend to regard murder as a justified action to what they regard as immoral and more heinous crimes in their eyes.
Your mom was a tramp? You have to die too.
You killed my kid. Now, I kill you.
Mom abandoned me? I'll make you pay.
You get all of the attention? If I kill you, I'll have the fame instead.
Teens are always feeling that they are being punished for things that they didn't do. Why not make the killer want to punish our heroine for unjustified crimes? Why not make our heroine scared but also a fighter, pushing back against these raving accusations? Give us a hero who can break the rules but still live through them. That's exactly what Scream did. Sidney is not perfect. She is damaged, she makes mistakes, and she is the target of seven killers over four movies, but she survives without sacrificing her morality or her sanity, the way that most American teens survive these trying years.
The Scream films age gracefully with each sequel, only to come full circle and reintroduce a younger cast of characters in the latest installment, Scream 4. Each film comments on the slasher genre and how it fits into this category of films. The theme of the first film can be best described with a quote spoken in the movie's climax: “Movies don’t create psychos! Movies make psychos more creative!” It asks the audience not to blame the entertainment industry for the real world actions of others.
The Scream sequels follow in this tradition by naming and then breaking more horror movie rules. For instance, Scream 2, contains a scene in a film class where characters discuss the best and worst sequels of all time and later, explains how to narrow down the suspects in a mystery/horror sequel (from the trailer of Scream 2via IMDB: “Number one: the body count is always bigger. Number two: the death scenes are always much more elaborate - more blood, more gore - *carnage candy*. And number three: never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead.”)
Scream 3 highlights the power of a trilogy: how no character is safe, the villain is superhuman, and the past will come back to haunt you. Scream 4 focuses on the remake, a very popular horror concept at the time of the film’s release. In a classroom scene, a new set of characters educate the original surviving cast about the power and reinvention of remakes and how the killer would adopt these practices in their quest to become the next Scream killer.
Unlike the sequels to previous slasher franchises, Scream evolves with the genre and has something to say with each sequel. It maintains its meta, self-awareness and tries to make the audience think while entertaining them at the same time. It works in creative exposition while giving each villain their own motives and connection to Sidney to make the fight personal, and until they are unmasked, they remain a disembodied force of nature that can spring on you at every corner.
The Scream story line is also interesting in that it contains an ongoing mystery. The killers in a slasher movie often have a motive behind their kills, but Scream is different in that the films’ killers are not superhuman and are in some way connected to Sydney and her backstory. They are also not revealed until the end of the movie so anyone you see in the scenes leading up to the ending could be the killer. With Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th, the killers are typically Michael, Freddy, and Jason. In the Scream movies, the villains are killed off, and a new one springs up in each sequel.
Every great movie killer has a motive, but Scream’s killers all serve a real purpose: whether it be a killer who wants to use scary movies as a way to get revenge on Sidney, attempt to get away with murder by blaming it on the entertainment industry , or just trying to get their 15 minutes of fame in today’s media-driven world by becoming the focus of the next big news tragedy. The franchise is very aware of its audience and its era and makes their very human, though deranged killers the kind of people whose motivations mirror the average person’s, just in a homicidal way.
The mystery element can intrigue mystery-lovers enough to sit through the gore in order to find out "who done it." When Sidney's mother's murder is revealed in a news story that Sidney watches the afternoon before her first attack, the back story is both shown and told to us but comes and goes as the present events take a front seat. It adds real meat to the movie and gives an almost logical explanation for why Billy Loomis is driven to kill. Abandonment and betrayal have been known to motivate actual serial killers, and since this killer is not an undead brute who is more monster than man, they need very human motivations.
Billy's co-hort, Stu, represents the killers who don't have a motive yet still exist in the genre. Stu gives peer pressure as his reason for killing, an exaggerated yet almost understandable reason that most teens can relate to. Under the right circumstances, kids will do anything to remain favorable in the eyes of those they admire. Yet, it takes a special kind of crazy to pull off these gruesome murders with the glee that Stu exhibits. So, studying these characterizations and actions adds a layers to the story that are fun to explore and are never clearly answered.
Blending Horror and Comedy
The tone of these films is very useful to a first time viewer as well. Aside from learning to stomach large amounts of blood and guts, possibly for the first time, a new viewer (especially younger viewer) must deal with a very frightening and tragic tone, aided by a very somber score with a great deal of focus put on the main characters to allow the audiences to connect with them and ensure that they will root for them to live. The intensity tightens more and more in each film.
The movies successfully offset this heavy tone by throwing in bits of humor, even at the most tense, climactic moments. There are comic relief characters (hitting their jokes at just the right time), some slapstick humor (such as the killer getting knocked to the ground with a punch or a kick), or a spoof remark at the film industry (example: When Randy in Scream 2 is asked by the killer, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” He wryly answers, “Showgirls”). The movies take themselves seriously but not too seriously, helping audiences through the tough moments by interlacing them with tension-releasing humor.
Sometimes the humor is even downright inappropriate in certain moments, but then again, so is slashing people to death with a knife, throwing them off of balconies, or even shooting them multiple times. Many were taken aback with how cavalier some of the characters react to the murders, especially in the first Scream, when two high schoolers are the first to die, but presenting the kids as indifferent shows just how desensitized modern audiences are to horror and violence. It isn't out to preach about how wrong their reactions are, just that this is why they react the way they do.
To remove the humor from these films would take away a large chunk of its richness. These movies are a way to have fun with the audience without downplaying the seriousness of the actions. Humor is a large part of teen culture and to strip the characters of humor would make the movie tough to swallow and miss some key messages that it tries to convey. Ego, insanity, and knowledge are all aided in the humor, and in some way, humor and horror go hand in hand to balance each other out in a situation. It is how we cope with tragedy and violence, and it's a useful tool for teens to have in order to get through tough times.
Testing Your Gag Reflex
There is plenty of blood in these films along with some slit throats and even spilled guts. The victims are generally young and innocent. In real life, this is very tragic. In the movies, it’s what turns otherwise mild-mannered people into homicidal enthusiasts. The younger and the more gruesomely they die, the better. The special effects are arguably just as realistic as today’s and can be tough to stomach, though by today’s standards, is not as shocking as some of the gory effects that have been introduced in more recent films, like the Saw franchise.
Many parents try to protect their kids from seeing these images too young, but understanding the difference between realism and fantasy is important to know. Watching behind-the-scenes footage shows you just how fabricated these scenes are and how the result is essentially the product of great art. Then, there is the understanding that we will all be presented with horrific images in the real world, whether we see them on TV or in front of our own eyes. Having seen a gruesome death play out in front of me, I feel like watching gory movies helped to downplay the shock that I had at encountering the real thing. Desensitization is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it can help us cope with true trauma.
Go For It!
Ultimately, slasher movies can be a very fun and addictive genre of films, and in my opinion, the Scream movies are the ideal place to start an obsession with this film genre. Teens will find the humor and violence reminiscent of their own teenage experiences in a more exaggerated form. For older audience members just discovering horror films, Scream is a great introductory horror series due to its sophisticated story lines and social commentary. Hopefully, audiences will continue to be both thrilled and horrified by these films and as a result, seek out other slasher movies to binge. More importantly, it should at least give them a thrilling movie-watching experience, even if that’s as far as they want to take it.
What is the first slasher movie that you ever saw? How old were you? Is it now your favorite slasher movie? If not, what is? Leave your answers in the comments below.