Once every decade, a horror film hits theatres and generates enough viewership that film producers leap at the opportunity to transform it into an entire franchise: Halloween debuted in the 1970s, A Nightmare on Elm Street dominated the 80s, and in the 90s, it was Wes Craven’s Scream that became all the rage. Since then, Scream has spawned three sequels and a television show, but it was the original that sparked a cinematic phenomenon. Critically acclaimed and regarded as the beginning of post-modernism in horror films, Scream is a fantastic film in itself, but it is its unusual—and hilarious—cultural impact that makes it resonate as a cult classic. Plus, Ghostface, the film’s memorably masked killer, is just too iconic to ignore.
Set in fictional town Woodsboro, California, a mysterious killer dressed in a distorted, white mask terrorises Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and her classmates, seemingly just for the sheer enjoyment. Not an exceptionally unique storyline at face value, but by calling his victims on the phone to ask them scary movie-themed questions, Ghostface tortures his victims psychologically before graphically finishing them off. If they answer correctly, another question awaits; if their answer does not satisfy, either they or a loved one pays the price. Meant to be a satirical response to the overdone cliches in preceding slasher flicks, Scream preys on its audience’s preconceived notions of horror by offering them something familiar, only to immediately twist it towards the unexpected.
Actress Drew Barrymore set the film’s precedent: Her opening scene, which is probably the most recognisable in the film, was Craven’s response to the horror genre never killing off a film’s most famous actor. The movie’s marketing played up these expectations by giving Barrymore top billing—she attended premieres, sat in late night interviews, and was the face of the posters—only to be brutally killed off after just 12 minutes of screen time. The little girl from E.T. was supposed to survive, and Craven made sure it was traumatising not to fulfil that.
Although the violent action was enough to leave an impact on the 90’s culture, it was the concept of the unknown caller that interestingly caused moviegoers the most discomfort. Craven turned the mundane noise of a ringing telephone into something forewarning danger, and commercial telephone companies reaped in the benefits. The use of caller ID skyrocketed after Scream’s release, increasing more than threefold. If beloved national treasure Barrymore could face such a tragic death, then audiences felt no trepidation of tossing their outdated telephones for the chance of safety.
It’s the manner in which Scream openly addresses the clichés that makes it so comedic, yet unnerving. Film geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy) acknowledges that the murders of Woodsboro are reminiscent of multiple horror characteristics and frequently lists them throughout the movie: the virgin will survive, those who drink and do drugs will be killed, and if a person says “I will be right back,” they almost certainly will not. The reveal of Ghostface is both terrifying and awkward, a mix that invites laughter amongst the insanity. It is this turn into ‘metafilm,’ or Craven’s technique of never allowing the audience to forget they are watching fiction, that cements Scream as a unique film in a genre of commonality. Its sequels may have sold out by adopting the very techniques that Scream originally being mocked, but the 1996 classic remains as relevant today as it ever did. And seeing Courtney Cox kick some ass? Never gets old.