Over the last few days, I've been making my way through a book entitled My Favorite Horror Movie. Editor and filmmaker Christian Ackerman asked his fellow actors, directors, writers, and members of the horror community to write a short essay about their single favorite horror film and the hows and whys behind that choice. Forty-eight respondents of varying age ranges chose forty-eight different movies which shaped them and blew open their interest in the genre, and as should be expected, just about every movie you could imagine on a "Top Fifty" list gets its turn in the spotlight. Everything from Psycho and Friday the 13th to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Exorcist shows up as expected. There are some truly odd picks as well: we've got Blake Reigle stumping for Deadly Friend, Jonathan Martin rooting for Drag Me to Hell, and Rolfe Kanefsky picking Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Hell, Bill Shafer could have entered my "Review A Horror Movie...Badly!" contest using his write-up on the Bette Midler drama Beaches from 1988.
Needless to say, reading any list where people pick their favorite gets me thinking about my own pick for such a thing. My answer to such a question for years has been John Carpenter's The Thing, and I'm far from alone in that opinion -- Ernie Trinidad and Ken Jacobsen both selected it as their top choice in the book. And while I've yet to write a Lase-O-Rama about The Thing (don't worry, I'll get there one day), I have talked about the hilarious un-necessity which is the novelization on Steemit before.
But running down the list, I was struck by what was left un-represented as much as by what wasn't. With the exceptions of the aforementioned Drag Me to Hell and Frank Merle's essay on The Sighting, there isn't a single film on the list which was released within the last thirty years. It's as if the nineties, noughties, and nought-teens brought nothing new to the table. Given these years produced classics like David Fincher's Se7en, Frank Darabont's The Mist, Pascal Laugier's Martyrs, and Neil Marshall's The Descent, this is clearly not the case. I'm not judging anybody's opinions here -- I picked John Carpenter's The Thing too, after all -- but there's something to be said for what was overlooked. So rather than picking my favorite scary movie, I'm going to focus on my personal pick for most important scary movie.
Drew Barrymore kindly volunteered to present the winner, although if you recognized the quote in the title, you probably knew where I was going with this already:
The thing I love most about Scream is that it allowed Wes Craven to succeed with the same idea which bombed two years earlier when he tried it with New Nightmare. Not that New Nightmare was unsuccessful (it earned back over twice its production budget of $8 million dollars), but it was the least-successful film in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and people who went to it expecting another killing spree by the sweater-clad, knife-fingered, wise-cracking Krueger were instead treated to a much more cerebral experience, with a story focusing on what the effects of creating horror does to those who make it and consume it in the real world. Craven asked a lot of questions in New Nightmare, but offered up few concrete answers, and while the movie today now receives its just dues, its box office performance nearly closed the doors on both the franchise and Craven's career.
The questions Craven asked in New Nightmare however found their answers in a screenplay by Kevin Williamson entitled "Scary Movie". Williamson looked at the real-life Horror scene and realized there was a critical element missing: an entire generation had grown up watching films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, and as a result they had become savvy (and therefore numb) to the genre tropes. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees were no longer scary, they were entertaining. People now went to horror films not to be spooked and root for the Final Girl, but rather to cheer for the villain and revel in the bloodshed. The teenagers of the 90's were 100% aware of what horror movies do, so what, he wondered, would happen if these genre-savvy kids were thrown into the blender when some of their own decide to take everything they love about scary movies one step too far?
The result was Scream, a box office smash which simultaneously revived Wes Craven's directorial career, answered the questions he raised in New Nightmare, and revitalized the horror genre by making it relevant to the real world of the late 90's. The scene depicted in the above clip is one of the most terrifying and memorable film openings since 1979's When A Stranger Calls by making it impossible to leave the scares in the theater. Everybody, after all, had a home phone, and cellular phones were just coming into their own. There was now no telling where the person who called you was standing, and the line "Because I want to know who I'm looking at," in 1996 was just as chilling as "Have you checked the children?" in 1979.
Caller ID purchases, once seen as an unnecessary luxury or a way for the phone company to finagle more money out of customers' pockets, tripled in the months following Scream's theatrical debut. Almost overnight we became obsessed with knowing who was on the other end of the phone before we picked it up, much to the consternation of telemarketers everywhere.
Scream brought horror home in a way few other movies could have managed. Sure, films like Jaws terrified cinema-goers, but all you had to do to avoid being eaten by a shark was stay away from the ocean. Don't want to get butchered at a summer camp or attacked by a horde of inbred cannibals? Don't go camping in the woods, and keep away from rural Texas. All reasonable accommodations for just about everybody except rural Texans. In a post-Scream world though, you had to avoid picking up the phone and answering the door. Good luck getting anybody, much less any teenager, to do that. I should know, after all: I was 18 years old when Scream came out, and spent more than my share of time talking on the phone with my girlfriend. Yes, even after we saw the movie together.
Scream allowed the horror movie to evolve by allowing the characters in it to more accurately reflect what they should have known about the world around them. Just as movies like Shaun of the Dead understood a world where nobody knew what a zombie was to be unrealistic, so too did Scream understand that there was no place in North America, especially in California, where people were unaware of horror movies. John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and Sean Cunningham could get away with that mindset in the late 70's and early 80's, but after seven Friday the 13th sequels, six Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and five Michael Myers outings, not to mention the explosive proliferation of home video, you'd need to visit an Amish community to find a teenager who wasn't clued in to the way the horror world operated. Scream fixed that, and by doing so it allowed viewers to take pop horror seriously again.
That "pop horror" designation is important, because there have always been directors like David Cronenberg and David Fincher who dared audiences to take even their most outlandish productions any other way. Likewise, auteur film makers like Hitchcock and Spielberg have always approached even their strangest subject matter through the lens of an objective reality which helps the viewer believe such things as alien encounters or relentless avian assaults are possible. But with Scream, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson showed that pop horror, mainstream horror, could be just as interesting, just as cool, and just as scary as its more high-brow counterparts.
So, is Scream my favorite scary movie? Nope. John Carpenter's The Thing still wins. But would horror be anything like it is today without Scream tearing out the floorboards and renovating the whole structure of what horror could be?
Not on your blood-stained, knife-edged life.