Why Scream's First Scene Is the Defining Moment of the Franchise

Twenty-five years and four (soon to be five) films later, the Scream franchise is still chasing the high of the original movie’s opening 13 minutes. A masterclass in horror filmmaking that ratchets up the tension to nearly unbearable levels, that first scene – which finds Drew Barrymore on the receiving end of a prank phone call that turns deadly – has director Wes Craven declaring a mission statement for the entire film. It’s not the only reason Scream continues to resonate a quarter-century after its release. (Just for starters, Neve Campbell’s Sidney sits comfortably in the Final Girl Hall of Fame.) But nearly everything that defines the Scream franchise as a whole is front and center in that scene. Mention the movie to someone, and the image of a terrified Barrymore on the phone is likely the first thing they think about. The entire sequence is iconic, and, to this day, it serves as the franchise’s true north – a bloody beacon lighting the way for all the sequels that have followed.

“What's your favorite scary movie?” asks the unnerving voice (Roger L. Jackson) on the telephone. After taking a few seconds to think about it, Casey Becker (Barrymore), who's home alone cooking up some popcorn for a lazy night of movie-watching, answers, “Halloween.” At the same time, she pulls a blade that looks exactly like the one Michael Myers tends to use on his victims out of a kitchen knife block. It’s the first overt reference to a horror classic in a movie and series full of them, and it’s the first big tip-off that Scream isn’t just a horror film – it’s a horror film about horror films. In the Scream universe, the characters have seen all the same scary movies the audience has, and the tropes of the genre are commented on and played with in a way that gives the film a winking, meta layer that is laid over the top of a classic slasher. Kevin Williamson’s script starts building a film that both comments on – and relishes in – the genre right there in that opening scene. It's not long before Craven's own A Nightmare on Elm Street gets name-checked, and then the other shoe finally drops. “Why do you want to know my name?” Casey asks the prying voice on the phone. The chilling answer back: “Because I want to know who I’m looking at.”

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It’s the first “oh shit” moment in a scene that has about three of them and the first time Casey understands what the audience might now be starting to suspect – she is in some serious trouble. Craven and editor Patrick Lussier pace the sequence perfectly, using each successive phone ring to increase the sense of impending doom being felt by both Casey and the viewer. Eventually, the mystery caller wants to play a game — a bit of horror trivia. Answer correctly and maybe everything will be okay. Give a wrong answer, however, and it might cost both Casey and her boyfriend Steve, who is revealed to be tied up outside the house, their lives. Unfortunately, Casey doesn't know that Jason Vorhees isn't the killer in the original Friday the 13th — it's his mother. Before Scream, there were slasher dos-and-don'ts that would get you killed; in the Scream franchise, it's not knowing the horror-movie basics that turns into a death sentence. Within moments, Casey is brutally stabbed to death in her own front yard and Barrymore departs the picture.

In 1996, when online movie spoilers weren't yet a constant string of potholes to be avoided, it was a shock to a lot of filmgoers. At the time, Barrymore may have been the most famous person in the cast. The actress says it was her idea to play Casey, and there’s no question the gambit worked. By killing off one of its biggest stars in the first 13 minutes, Scream immediately sent out a warning to the audience: Any one of these characters can die at any time. It’s a precedent that was carried forward, most notably when fan-favorite Randy (Jamie Kennedy) is shockingly taken out halfway through Scream 2. Then Scream 3 opens with series mainstay Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), whose increasingly more important part had fans theorizing that he would play a major role in the third film, getting wiped off the board. And when the series isn't killing off who you'd least expect, it continues the trend of messing with your expectations. Scream 2 actually opens with a movie-within-a-movie version of the Barrymore sequence with Heather Graham playing Casey. Scream 4 goes one step further by putting a movie within a movie within a movie, and then of course immediately offers up a commentary on the increasingly illogical nature of long-running horror franchises.

It's all an exponential riff on that very first scene, which Williamson and Craven also used to start laying the groundwork for the series' consistent whodunnit structure. It's not entirely uncommon for films in the slasher genre to be presented as whodunnits, but Scream is somewhat unique in that, since there’s a new killer or killers in every installment, it doesn’t lose this feature in any of the sequels. Everyone watching gets to start playing detective right in that first scene: Who is this guy on the phone? Why is he doing this? What does he want? Eventually, we see the series' trademark Ghostface mask in a jump-scare reveal, but when Casey pulls it off later in the scene, the mask wearer's face is obscured. No way that info is going to be given out early, not when the film has a large group of possible suspects to introduce.

“You should never say, ‘Who’s there?’” the killer tells Casey at one point. “Don’t you watch scary movies? It’s a death wish. You might as well just come out here to investigate a strange noise or something.” Horror movies have their own sets of well-trodden rules and oft-used tropes, and the Scream films have thrived on directly calling them out before cleverly tweaking them to surprise the audience. The series went on to offer commentary on topics ranging from the trouble with bad horror sequels to minority representation within the genre. Even the Friday the 13th trivia that poor Casey forgot comes back into play in a surprising way in Scream 2. To this day, that layer of meta-commentary continues to be the series' defining trait, even if some of the sequels are more successful at employing it than others. (This is where we all give Scream 3 a bit of side-eye.) But it all started with that very first scene -- laid out clearly and resolutely right there in those first 13 minutes.

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Robert Taylor (37 Articles Published)

Robert Brian Taylor is a writer and journalist living in Pittsburgh, PA. Throughout his career, his work has appeared in an eclectic combination of newspapers, magazines, books and websites. He wrote the short film “Uninvited Guests,” which screened at the Oaks Theater as part of the 2019 Pittsburgh 48 Hour Film Project. His fiction has been featured at Shotgun Honey, and his short-film script “Dig” was named an official selection of the 2017 Carnegie Screenwriters Script and Screen Festival. He is a training editor and features writer at Collider and also writes and podcasts about film and TV at CultSpark.com.

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