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How ‘Scream’ Shook Up Horror Movies


How ‘Scream’ Shook Up Horror Movies

Blonds have more fun, except in horror movies. When Norman Bates pulled back the shower curtain on Marion Crane in Psycho, it not only opened the floodgates for cinematic gore, but gave directors tacit permission to start offing their ingenues with impunity. In 1975, the heir to Alfred Hitchcock, a 26-year-old named Steven Spielberg, restaged Psycho’s scream-queen money shot in the Long Island surf with Jaws and set box office records. The same formula worked again three years later for John Carpenter in Halloween’s cold open, which made the suburbs suddenly feel as dangerous as the boonies or the beach—while also making the audience complicit in the carnage through voyeuristic first-person camerawork.

Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Carpenter are all directly or indirectly invoked in the virtuoso prologue of Wes Craven’s Scream, which could work as a self-contained short-movie classic. Drawing deeply on the enduring urban legend of the babysitter beset by menacing phone calls (a setup dating back at least as far as Black Christmas), it features Drew Barrymore as a sacrificial platinum lamb named Casey.

Leaving aside the symbolic sadism of killing off one of the most beloved child actors characters in movie history, Barrymore’s casting was, like Janet Leigh’s participation in Psycho, a shrewd exercise in wrong-footing an audience. Just as viewers in 1960 would have expected Leigh to escape the Bates Motel rather than become collateral damage, Barrymore’s celebrity seemed to offer her a kind of protective shield. Instead, screenwriter Kevin Williamson weaponized the star’s fame against itself, setting up a mandate of Darwinian ruthlessness that gave the film its serrated edge. “[You were] sure she’s the star of the movie,” recalled Dimension Films executive Richard Potter in The Ringer’s recent oral history of Scream. “There’s no way she’s going to die. When she dies at the end of that sequence, you’re going to go, ‘Anyone could die.’”

A movie in which anybody could die—and also in which anybody could be the killer—is a slasher fan’s version of utopia, and considering…

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