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Scream
Courtesy of Dimension Films

How Scream reinvented the slasher movie

Scream

The classic horror flick is now 20 years old – we talk to the film’s producer about how it defied expectations, launched careers and freshened up a stale genre

“What’s your favourite Scary Movie?” A sinister voice with a gravel-like quality strikes fear in Ghostface’s first victim over the phone – a tormented fresh-faced Drew Barrymore. From the moment the mystery man clad in a cheap-looking Halloween costume brutally disembowelled her and hung her from a tree, a franchise was born.

On December 20th, 1996, the inimitable 90s horror Scream was released, bringing with it unforgettable scenes, a cult following and ushering in a revival of a stale genre. Its 20th anniversary is even more poignant as horror god and Scream director Wes Craven died late last year. His contribution to the slasher genre is undeniable – expertly creating sociopathic villains with a penchant for stalking and, well, slashing.

When Scream arrived, scary movies had lost credibility. The dormant genre had become oversaturated with straight-to-video films and recycled, uninventive and clichéd plots were the norm – there had already been nine Friday the 13th, seven Nightmare on Elm Street (another Craven classic) and six Halloween sequels. The sad yet frantic open-mouthed expression on Ghostface’s ghoulish mask and his surprisingly athletic nemesis, Sidney, became the lifeblood for a new era of slasher.

A reflective, self-referential horror script with witty dialogue and subtle references to other films provided a reward for horror fans to geek out to, mixing satire with gore. The movie is littered with nods: Fred the janitor (played by Craven) wearing a red and green striped jumper, Halloween playing throughout the finale, Ghostface quizzing his victims on movie trivia and cameos from the likes of Linda Blair – aka the little girl from The Exorcist. The film’s unexpected success revitalised Craven’s career and boosted the profiles of the young, talented cast and crew.

Marianne Maddalena was Craven’s producing partner for many years, and they produced the whole franchise together. The two of them didn’t expect the film to do so well due to a rocky start. Executive producer Bob Weinstein disliked everything from the mask, to the film’s name (originally Scary Movie). The cast and crew felt demoralised like they’d done a “shit job” and the Christmas release date felt like an odd time to put out a horror.

So to celebrate this milestone we speak to the film’s producer, Maddalena to deconstruct all the elements that made the film into a surprisingly instant cult classic.

THE PERFECT KILLER

A part of the success of any popular scary movie is the perfect killer. Building the anatomy of a psychopath in the initial stages takes attention to detail, something Maddalena said Williamson’s script and Craven’s direction executed masterfully. “The philosophy is that you have to make the audience feel very quickly in the movie whenever you meet the bad guy, that he's so completely crazy, he'll do anything,” she explains. Given that the movie was promoted as a Drew Barrymore film and she was immediately taunted, chased and murdered, Ghostface had a menacing intro to the world.

“The biggest thing, especially how Wes creates villains, is right away they do something so awful so you're like “oh my god I'm not safe.” This is gonna be horrible to watch. You just introduce complete chaos and then people have no idea what to expect. And then you've got a multidimensional funny character.” 

Craven and co were also tasked with creating a look for the ghoulish villain with little direction. “It wasn't scripted anything other than a Ghost Mask," she says. Displeased with most proposals (“they looked like gargoyles”) Maddalena found an alternative while filming early shots in a house in Santa Rosa, one that a Hitchcock movie was shot in. At first, the studio hated the mask, it had been in stores for years, but this became the basis for the whole franchise. “You could create red herrings because we didn’t know if the ghost was a woman, a man, small, little, based on the costume” she says.

Then there’s the modus operandi – apart from stabbing then ritualistically cleaning the buck knife blade – the use of technology like a voice changer and mobile phone is something that felt distinctly modern. The voice changer hailed the introduction of voice actor Roger L. Jackson who terrified audiences and the crew without either ever seeing his face. Maddalena reveals that Jackson remained a complete mystery: “When Roger came to set, we hid him from the actors, so they never saw who they were talking to.” He was originally only supposed to stand in on the first scene with Barrymore but his charisma and irony meant they kept him for all four movies.

THE INEXPERIENCED CREW

Scream launched a lot of careers. Scriptwriter Kevin Williamson had his big break with Scream and went on to write Dawson’s Creek and The Vampire Diaries. The Gainesville, Florida serial killer who had murdered college students inspired him to write the opening scene after he watched a Barbara Walters special. He told CNN he was so scared he checked his house and found windows open he’d never noticed were open before. “I went to the kitchen, got a butcher knife, got the mobile phone. I called a buddy of mine”. His friend started asking him about scary movies and thus the Casey Becker murder came to mind. He woke up in the middle of the night and started writing.

Likewise, Marco Beltrami was a novice composer, but his decision to approach the film as if it was a western drew critical acclaim. He used traditional techniques to give clues to the audience, raising tension so they thought that something terrible was about to happen, when in fact, nothing actually would. He used the audience’s knowledge of the genre against them. Despite the expert soundtrack, he had never composed a horror before.

“Wes’ assistant would go on chat rooms and chatted to everyone all over the country about movies. She put out to the chat room that we were looking for a composer and found this guy Marco Beltrami. Wes loved it.” He was so inexperienced he didn’t have a quote for a price so they paid him $15,000 when composers usually get $75,000 – now he’s a multi-millionaire. “We really launched his career,” she adds.

“I don’t think there’s a misstep anywhere. It was such impeccable casting and the script was so amazing and Wes was at the top of his game. It all came together” – Marianne Maddalena

THE STELLAR CAST

Maddalena credits the impeccable casting for why the film resonated with a generation. “I don’t think there’s a misstep anywhere. It was such impeccable casting and the script was so amazing and Wes was at the top of his game. It all came together.” Neve Campbell was perfect to play the strong-headed feisty lead. Most horror movies relied on tired female stereotypes and leant on the damsel in distress trope, but notably in Scream Sidney outruns, outwits and at some points fights the killer. “Because she was a dancer moved so well, she was so athletic. A lot of girls can't run, and a lot of girls can't scream.”

Jamie Kennedy’s comedic input turned him into a star – the role of Randy is central to the first film’s appeal. His extensive knowledge of horror almost narrates the movie, schooling audiences on the conventions of horror and then flouting clichés. The decision to include a comedian meant that at many points they could inject humour and satire, something horrors rarely ever did up until that point.

To contrast with her reputation of playing the kind and funny Monica character in Friends, Courteney Cox contacted producers to be involved in the film to play the Gale Weathers character as she wanted to play a “bitch”. Her chemistry on screen with David Arquette (Dewey) won awards, and the two eventually married.

The backstage mood made the creative process a lot more fun. “We were up in Santa Rosa, we were all staying at this motel and it was a playground. All the actors were young and they were all kind of single. We had a pool, we were near wine country, we discovered Kevin so he was thrilled. Some people fell in love … and there were other things going on. There were many romances with everyone, I mean, not just the cast. I can’t say who was the biggest hit with the ladies as he’ll never forgive me,” confesses Maddalena.

THE LEGENDARY WES CRAVEN

After his creation of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Craven was the perfect choice to turn Williamson’s script into the ultimate modern horror. Known for exploring the nature of reality in film, Scream characters’ tendency to reference horror scenes similar to their own situation made it the perfect film for the VCR generation who knew the cues and had grown tired of the status quo.

Maddalena still has very fond memories of him. “Wes was amazing! I mean we worked together for twenty years. he was super super super shy – an introvert. But we just had so much fun, we were best friends, we had a blast,” she laughs. Especially when it came to his unique way of evoking emotion from the actors. She adds: “Drew Barrymore really had to get to a really scared and upset mindset in the opening scene and so he asked what's important to her. She's a real animal rights advocate so he went up to her and whispered "imagine puppies burning in a fire. It’s terrible really but directors have their tricks.”

The two of them believed the movie would be “a bomb”. “We left rehearsal and went to the theatre on the Friday night before Christmas when it came out and the theatre was dead. So Wes and I went off and we had our Christmases and we were so depressed,” Maddalena recalls. “And then Bob Weinstein called us saying congratulations – it only made $6 million dollars but the exit polls are phenomenal. It then went to 100 million soon after.” It grossed $173 million overall so you can class Scream as a job well done.