Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Randall Colburn recalls Scream as it approaches its 20th anniversary and chats with star Matthew Lillard about the film’s legacy and why exactly a film so of-its-time has enjoyed such a long life.
“I have no idea why Scream is such a big deal,” Matthew Lillard says to me over the phone. “If I go on my Twitter thing right now, I can guarantee you 30 people are saying ‘You were awesome as Stu!’ That movie came out 20 fucking years ago! Dude, I stole George Clooney’s wife in The Descendents!”
He asks me, genuinely curious: “Do you have a sense of why?”
Luckily, I’ve thought about this. I’m always thinking about horror. Why it perseveres for me beyond most other genres. Why I can recall every kill in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, but not half of what happened in Jackie, which I watched last week (and loved). Why I choose to subject myself to films that, time and again, feel like pinpricks to my eyeballs.
Scream, Wes Craven’s comeback teen slasher, came out 20 years ago this month. It’s about masked killers terrorizing high school students with knives and horror trivia. It’s about Sidney (Neve Campbell), whose mother was brutally killed the year before. It’s about Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu (Lillard), hunks with a dark side. It’s about Randy (Jamie Kennedy), a horror nerd with a big, stupid heart. It’s about small-town secrets and revenge in the VHS age. It’s about Drew Barrymore, hanging from a tree, her guts strewn about her feet. It’s about a crouched killer, seen through a window, wearing a mask (that mask!) locked in uncanny glee. It’s a horror movie about liking horror movies.
But why is it such a big deal? Lillard wants to know.
I tell him about watching it as a pre-teen. How it was the first horror movie I’d watched without covering my eyes. How the people who saw Scream as kids are now at an age where nostalgia’s digging its claws in. We not only want to engage with what we loved as kids, but to remember exactly why we loved it as kids. I called Scream a gateway movie. I recognized the characters. I recognized their references. It was funny.
“A gateway horror movie,” Lillard repeats. “I’m gonna steal that.”
Gateway movies are important. Nearly all of the most iconic horror movies — Halloween, Jaws, Poltergeist — are gateway movies, in that they limn the horror with enough humor, wit, and character to draw in the casual viewer, who can then discover, in a safe space of sorts, whether or not they like a little gore with their pathos.
Gateway horror has larger implications as well, in how the industry tends to separate genre fare from more standard filmmaking. Dramas and comedies will always be currencies; genre, on the other hand, has the capacity to disappear from the zeitgeist. Horror, sci-fi, westerns, whatever: they’re either on the rise or the decline, buoyed by the strength of whatever their last, biggest hit was. Genre needs hits to survive. Genre needs crossover appeal. But it’s an endless cycle: we open the gateway, we copy the gateway, the gateway crumbles, we close the gateway.
Before 1996, the gateway was closing. Horror had lost its glisten in the wake of a glut of shitty Candyman, Leprechaun, and Halloween sequels. A year earlier, John Carpenter bombed with In the Mouth of Madness, and Craven faced some of the worst reviews of his career with Vampire in Brooklyn, his doomed collaboration with Eddie Murphy. Things fared better in 1996, however. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino teamed up for From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, though, at the time, it was agreed upon that the second half’s foray into horror served to cheapen its compelling introduction. Peter Jackson’s quirky, inventive The Frighteners was good, but failed to find an audience. The Craft offered some hope; it was a box office success, but it resonated more as a coming-of-age teen flick than a straight horror film. What became clear as the year drew to a close was that horror didn’t just need a hit; it needed a game changer.
And it needed to be scary. Nothing was scary anymore.
Nobody thought Scream would be that game changer, least of all Lillard. “It was a tiny, little horror movie that’s gonna mean nothing,” he says. “That was my mindset. This is not a big moment. This is not an important film. This is not anything special.”
It’s easy to forget that Scream sort of came out of nowhere. That Craven wasn’t anybody’s idea of a success at that point. That the franchise’s iconic mask was, at that time, just a mask. “I remember being on set and watching Wes pull these masks out of boxes because they didn’t have a mask for the movie,” Lillard says. “The movie had already started shooting, and they were scrambling to find a fucking mask.”
He continues: “Courtney Cox was a celebrity, but not a box office draw. Nobody had ever heard of Skeet, and Neve was that girl from Party of Five.” For Lillard, though, “that lends itself to the success of the film. Nobody expected it. There was no thumb on it. There was nobody testing it 12 times. There’s not a battery of people rewriting the ending or executives who went to Harvard telling us how to write and do a movie. It was Wes Craven, who had done it his whole life, making the best movie he could.”
Now, Scream is good. Great, even. The characters are compelling. The performances are heightened just enough. The overwrought language is amusing in its relentlessness. The gore hits the sweet spot between visceral and tasteful. The twist is effective, but so deeply obvious (and satisfying to track) upon repeat viewings. And the story … well, it actually makes sense. And it goes there. Sidney’s mom really did ruin a lot of lives by sleeping around. Billy has a right to be angry. Stu’s disinterest in motive works, along with his unsettling giddiness, to make him a charismatic sociopath. He might be the most disturbed character.
So, yes, Scream is great. But even Lillard will tell you it’s no masterpiece. “I think if you take out the first 10 minutes and you take out the last half hour, that movie’s pretty pedestrian,” he says.
So what made it such a success? Lillard says, “Right before Scream, there was a real push to make movies ‘evergreen,’ meaning don’t date them and stay away from popular references so that if I turn it on in 20 years, I could think it was today.” Well, Scream did the opposite. “One of the things that [screenwriter] Kevin [Williamson] did was to throw out this idea of ‘let it be forevermore,’ and let’s fucking tag it for right now and lean into the moment of right now.”
Much was made (and still is) of its meta qualities. Scream turned horror on its head by having its characters actually acknowledge that horror movies exist, that they have rules, and that, by acknowledging the rules, they’re breaking the rules. It’s something Craven had tried to do a few years earlier with New Nightmare, his self-aware riff on the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. It’s a solid movie, New Nightmare, but the meta qualities proved a touch too abstract in execution. With New Nightmare, Craven was speaking to fans. And that can only get you so far.
We’re seeing that a lot right now. Many would say we’re in a horror renaissance, what with so many solid films — The Babadook, It Follows, The Witch — delighting the indie scene. What many of these films have in common, however, is how thoroughly they’ve ignored the here and now. It Follows and Stranger Things thrive on evoking the ‘80s via Carpenter and Spielberg while The Witch and The Conjuring take us back in time. The surprisingly solid Unfriended used technology as a means to tap into millennial culture, but to hinge your film on social media and software is to freeze it in time.
By setting Scream so concretely in its moment, Craven and Williamson took the risk of doing that. But what they captured wasn’t the tactile, but the intangible. The details, the tics and obsessions. Scream understood kids. And it spoke to kids. And, like it or not, kids are the ones who decide what’s a gateway and what isn’t.
Win the kids over and you’ll live forever. Because kids never forget. Horror’s a drug. You gotta get ‘em young.
“With horror, you create a memory. When people see it early in life, it becomes a memory,” Lillard says near the end of our call, grasping, it seems, a better idea of why Scream has persevered as it has. “I think that’s why they hold onto it. Because, ya know, it just gets tied into your DNA.”
It’s certainly tied into mine.