I once had to convince a friend to watch John Carpenter’s Halloween because she had  assumed it was just another mindless, misogynist, and un-original slasher. I had to explain that Carpenter’s original 1978 film is considered one of the great and quality horror films of all time by film critics. I further explained that because of its box office success in 1978 it unintentionally spawned the inferior slasher films that spanned the rest of the decade attempting to piggyback on Halloween’s success. I maintained that the original 1978 Halloween is a brilliantly made film that should not be lumped into the category of most of those notoriously atrocious slashers- which motivated me to write this article here.

Well, an interesting twitter thread the other day alerted me that the same scenario applies to Wes Craven’s Scream. Craven is a great iconic horror director- no question. But when discussing the brilliance of the Scream films- particularly the first two, it is the Kevin Williamson screenplay that makes these films work so well. Let’s not forget why the original Scream in 1996 and its follow-up in 1997 blew up the box office. At that time the horror genre in film- particularly the slasher genre- was dead and buried. Those films had run their course by the end of the 80’s and were considered farcical and out-of-date box-office tropes. The opening scene dialogue with Drew Barrymore and Ghostface reveals that Williamson is fully aware of the cliched joke that slashers have become and he’s able to leverage that for one of the more clever scripts in all of horror.

The brilliant twist in Kevin Williamson’s Scream in effect allows him to bring back the 80’s slasher.

By the mid 90’s the nostalgia of the cliched 80’s slasher devices were so ingrained in our brains via cinema and vhs rental that Williamson was able to reference them for sharp dialogue and plot twists. Williamson creates a clever angle about teens’ self-awareness of their own danger as a serial-killer is at large; and that there are ‘rules of horror’ or patterns established by 80’s slashers that may determine who lives and who dies. Some of these rules of survival are:

  • Don’t have sex
  • When being chased by the killer never run up the stairs when you can run out the front door.
  • Never say “I’ll be right back”

Not only do the rules apply to your likelihood of survival with a killer on the loose, but survival is also affected by the context in which the killer and victims find themselves. For example, is this a copycat killer? Because if it is, then you are in a sequel, and we all know the body count is much higher in sequels. You see, Williamson’s original story arch actually works-in the sequel which is why Scream 2 flows perfectly from the first film with an equally tight script.

Scream Kevin Williamson

Scream (1996) Jaime Kennedy explains the ‘Rules’ of horror to a nineties audience.

So, for Williamson’s screenplay, the 80’s slasher tropes are the gift that keeps on giving. But this clever plot device of his, and Craven’s superb directing are not the only reasons the first two Scream films are so great. What makes these films so re-watchable is Williamson’s sharp and witty dialogue. Williamson comes up with a brilliant plot device but now he and the actors must execute its delivery. And boy do they ever. I cannot think of a horror film where you enjoy the dialogue between the killing scenes as much as if not more than the actual killing scenes. Williamson displays a natural instinct at capturing what a conversation sounds like between the jaded and sarcastic teen of the 90’s. What could an adult possibly say to a teen that thinks it has all the answers? In one instance a sassy teen sarcastically retorts to what she thinks is an imposter of the killer just before she gets crushed, “Oh please don’t kill me Mr. Ghostface. I wanna be in the sequel”. Williamson’s teen dialogue was so game-changing at that time that he parlayed his writing prowess into Dawson’s Creek and other film and TV writing and production credits.

The 90’s Teen Culture Infects the Horror Genre

Which brings us back to the original point of this article. I had mentioned the mistake of lumping John Carpenter’s original Halloween with the slashers that followed. A similar mistake can be made with the first two Scream films. The nineties are known for the emergence of the sappy teen dramas ala Dawson’s Creek or Gilmore Girls. These had self-aware teens delivering snappy dialogue beyond their years, fashion-plated in the latest styles, and accompanied by 90’s style alt-rock soundtracks. They even had their own channels via WB and CW. With the box office success of the first two Scream films, the slasher was reborn and Hollywood plugged 90’s teen fandom celebrities into these films. I know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend essentially plug in the formula: Grab some fashion-plated, verbose  and good-looking kids with the latest hairstyles and kill them off one by one with a serial killer. Even the Halloween franchise got in on the act with Halloween H20  casting Josh Hartnett and Dawson’s Creek Michelle Williams. You can certainly have fun with these more sanitized formulaic films, but don’t forget this nineties renaissance of teen slashers was sparked by Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson with Scream, and Scream is a very substantial cut above the rest that followed. Do not lump it in with the rest. Watch them again, especially the first two and you’ll come to appreciate possibly the greatest dialogue in horror ever. For the go-to article and definitive analysis of this 90’s horror movement please read vhsrevival’s article here.

Scream 2 Kevin Williamson

Scream 2 (1997) Sarah Michelle Gellar 90’s teen icon about to confront Ghostface

 

%d bloggers like this: