I was 12 years old when I saw Wes Craven‘s “Scream” on its opening day of Dec. 20, 1996 and it literally changed my life.
As a budding young gorehound, I loved slasher movies (especially whodunits) and “Scream” looked tailor-made for the reference-savvy VHS generation. So while most of my middle school classmates were seeing “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America” or catching up with “101 Dalmations,” I was going to the movies alone again in search of the next genre classic. Two hours and a box of Sour Patch Kids later, I knew I had seen the future of horror, and loved how indebted it was to the past. When the lights finally came up, my only question was how Craven and his neophyte screenwriter Kevin Williamson had pulled it off. So I set out to find the answer… and the answer would require a tape recorder. That’s right.
The following weekend, when America flocked to see an angelic John Travolta in “Michael,” I returned to the Showcase Cinemas in Dedham (located right off of, um, Elm Street) with a tape recorder in tow and sat down to watch “Scream” knowing all of the film’s surprises but unsure of how I had been fooled in the first place. I’m not proud of it, but I recorded 90 minutes worth of “Scream” on an audio cassette tape and went straight home to begin transcribing the dialogue.
“Scream” had a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor about itself, and knowing it played directly to the heart of the horror crowd, preyed upon its audience’s expectations. The movie broke all the rules and laughed while it did the deed. It was fascinating to be able to listen to the audience’s reactions and hear when they would laugh and when they would, well, scream.
I studied that rudimentary transcription until I was old enough and smart enough to find my favorite movie scripts online (usually at Drew’s Script-O-Rama), so it was no surprise that “Scream” became chiefly responsible for my desire to become a writer. I remember enjoying the feeling of knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up at an age when most of my friends still fantasized about being astronauts and FBI agents, and I have Wes Craven to thank for that early decisiveness. Six years later, I went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to study screenwriting — something I can directly trace back to sitting in that theater and having my mind blown by “Scream.”
At one point in the film, Ghostface asks Drew Barrymore‘s character to identify the killer in the original “Friday the 13th,” a film directed by Craven’s “Last House on the Left” producer Sean S. Cunningham. As a kid, I remember immediately muttering under my breath, “Jason Voorhees! Just say Jason Voorhees and he’ll let you and your boyfriend Steve live!” and being gobsmacked when I realized that I’d been tricked. I was so eager to blurt out the answer before Casey Becker that I forgot that Mrs. Voorhees was the original killer and Jason as we know him didn’t show up until the sequels. It felt like one horror fan nudging me in the ribs and saying “gotcha!” with bloodcurling affection. It was because of moments like those that “Scream” made me feel like part of a small club — a cool club whose members knew what movies were hip before other people.
Indeed, I was ahead of the rest of the country, which took a while to catch on. “Scream” opened on just over 1,400 screens and grossed $6.3 million that first weekend, good for 4th place. It was a modest success, but nothing to write home about. The next weekend, it fell to 5th place, but took in over $9 million despite gaining only 37 more screens. Word was starting to spread.
By the time “Scream” hits its third weekend, the film had become a bonafide sensation. It earned $10 million, moving up to 3rd place before grossing $7 million each of the next two weekends, both of which outshone its opening weekend. It continued to have remarkable legs, effectively playing for 23 weeks, or close to half a year, which is unthinkable for a horror movie these days.By the end of its run, “Scream” grossed $173 million worldwide, including $103 million in the U.S., on a production budget of just $14 million. The inevitable sequel the following year made nearly the exact same amount on a budget of only $10 million more. After a three-year breather, “Scream 3” grossed $161 million, still an impressive figure for a genre film with humble beginnings.
In the larger history of horror, Craven proved to be a natural behind the camera. His seminal rape-revenge film “The Last House on the Left” was so disturbing that its trailers advised audiences to remind themselves that “it’s only a movie.” He followed up that genre classic with the equally terrifying “The Hills Have Eyes” before striking gold with “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which introduced Freddy Krueger, the most famous killer of the slasher-happy ’80s. All three of those films were remade and all three of those remakes pale in comparison. Craven’s “New Nightmare” took the Freddy franchise in a different director and can be seen as a precursor to “Scream” given its meta approach to horror.
Craven also touched a nerve with “The Serpent and the Rainbow” and “Shocker,” though it was his “People Under the Stairs” that really scared me as a kid. When he stepped outside of his comfort zone with “Music of the Heart,” luring the one and only Meryl Streep for the sole non-genre movie on his considerable resume, the film earned two Oscar nominations. And let’s not forget his Oscar Wilde-centric segment of the anthology film “Paris je t’aime.”
While Craven may have hit a rough patch with the werewolf tale “Cursed,” he rebounded strong with “Red Eye,” the modestly-budgeted thriller starring Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy that grossed nearly $100 million worldwide. The horror icon closed out his career with “My Soul to Take” and franchise closer “Scream 4,” though he also served as an executive producer on MTV’s hit series “Scream,” the upcoming Topher Grace thriller “Home” and the indie “The Girl In the Photographs,” which I can’t wait to see at the Toronto International Film Festival.
There’s no doubt about it, Wes Craven was a seminal figure in my childhood. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent hiding inside my youngest brother’s closet while breathing through a small hole in a latex Freddy Krueger mask, just waiting for the right moment to pop out and scare the hell out of him. I’m pretty sure he still has nightmares about it. Wes and his genre brethren made me feel like it was OK to not just be scared, but to inflict fear — something every older brother worth his salt has to do, if only out of love. And from I understand about Wes, he was the polar opposite of his films. He had a good sense of humor (after all, he directed Eddie Murphy‘s “Vampire In Brooklyn” and spoofed Krueger by appearing as Fred the Janitor in “Scream”) and while he made dark movies, he was hardly a dark soul.
When I finally met Wes at the “Cabin in the Woods” premiere, I geeked out. I meet a lot of actors and directors in my line of work and maintain my professionalism 99.9% of the time but I couldn’t help but be reduced into a puddle of fandom in front of Wes, and he couldn’t have been cooler about it. I literally screamed when I saw the news of his death, and I’m guessing there’s no other reaction he’d rather provoke.
Thank you, Wes Craven, for all the scares over the years, and rest in peace.