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How Scream Changed the Formula for Slasher Movies

As the 1980s segued into the 1990s and neon jelly bracelets were phased out in favor of filthy flannel shirts, the slasher film wobbled pathetically on its last leg. Original movies were few and far between, and the genre’s icons, of all the nerve, were satisfied to simply cash in on their past successes in sequel after sequel: Jason Voorhees, for example, spent a lot of time on a boat before he reached Manhattan in Friday the 13th Part VIII. Michael Myers spent a lot of time getting tangled up in a convoluted mythology in Halloween 5, while Freddy Krueger spent a lot of time with Roseanne and Tom Arnold in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Whatever was a poor slasher fan to do? The obvious answer is, eat Stouffer’s French Bread Pizzas and cry — and that’s just what many of us did. OK maybe it was just me; the point is, those were dark days for those of us who enjoyed the heady days of, say,He Knows You’re Alone. The tears finally stopped a-flowin’ when an unknown screenwriter teamed up with a veteran horror director in 1996 to make a little movie called Scream. (The Stouffer’s addiction, however, remains to this day.)

With Scream, Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven completely revitalized the slasher genre while simultaneously deconstructing it. It’s an elbow to the ribs of genre aficionados as it’s also what the aficionados crave. Most references to Scream seem only to mention the horror “rules” laid out by Randy, the film buff nerd — never say “I’ll be right back.” deducing who’s the next to die, etc. This winking at the audience was refreshing (it’s nice, sometimes, to see a movie that acknowledges the existence of movies) but disarming: There are almost enough laughs to push Scream into the category of “horror comedy.”

The larger narrative of the film, however, keeps it firmly entrenched in the realm of fright flick: Wes Craven, after all, is at the helm, and Scream is one damn scary movie. The slasher staples I’ve discussed are all present and accounted for: The Final Girl, the masked killer and the large knife with which he goes a-killin’, the stock characters, the gore… and so on. Forget the humor, forget the horror “rules” and the self-referential bits — Scream is one of the best slasher films to be found. No wonder it revitalized the genre.

Made for about $14 million, the movie has earned over $160 million worldwide. Now, I don’t consider myself to be some kind of business-minded mathemagician, but I think that’s what’s known as “a frickin’ huge profit.” Where the profit goes, of course, the imitators follow… and there were more than a few more slashers headed down the spike in the latter half of the ’90s, including two Scream sequels.

I Know What You Did Last Summer
The most notable, perhaps, is I Know What You Did Last Summer, again written by Williamson (based on the book by Lois Duncan). The tale of a slicker-wearing, hook-wielding, fisherman wackadoo hunting down good-looking teens for some old-fashioned revenge was also a success, if it was a little blander than its predecessor. Nonetheless, it’s gone on to become a bonafide series, spawning enough sequels to prompt one to say, “OK fine, you know, you still know, and you’ll always know what I did last summer. I get it, good for you.”

Urban Legend
The idea of how, like, urban legends can sometimes come true was explored in the cleverly titled Urban Legend. I mean, it WOULD be scary if you came home one night and you didn’t turn on the light because you didn’t want to wake up your roommate…and then the next morning it turned out that your roommate was totally dead, and written on the wall in your roommate’s very blood was written “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?” Urban Legend is bland enough to make I Know What You Did seem like a hardcore flick you’d find in the skuzziest grindhouse theater on 42nd Street. Still, audiences were hungry for slasher flicks — any slasher flick, apparently, and Urban Legend, too, became a franchise that’s still kicking a decade after the original hit screens.

The movie from the slasher renaissance that’s perhaps most maligned is the one that most closely adheres to the formula: 2001’s Valentine. Unfortunately, this guy who suffered trauma comes back years later all masked-up and stab-happy film doesn’t have…well, it simply doesn’t have the balls to make it a great horror movie. It’s certainly got its moments (and I have an odd affection for it), but it’s just too timid. In my dreams, though, there’s Valentine footage out there, rescued from the cutting room floor and stashed away somewhere — footage filled with all the requisite blood spilling and creepiness of the best the genre has to offer.

If Scream brought about the resurgence of the slasher film, it also (oddly enough) helped usher in the PG-13 era of horror. See,  unfortunately for genre buffs, the lesson learned from Scream‘s success wasn’t “audiences love scary movies that are actually scary,” but rather “audiences love scary movies that feature the fresh-faced teen stars of network television.” Films featuring recognizable stars became known as “WB horror” — while a movie with actors from 90210 or 7th Heaven earned a sneer and a hearty “Mehhh!” from  hardcore gore junkies, these casting choices are still practiced heavily today, for better or for worse.

As filmgoers’ tastes change, so will the type of horror films glutting the market. Like ’em or loathe ’em, slasher films have come and gone enough times to prove that they constitute a viable product that audiences continue to dig, not at all unlike Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza.

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