By the start of 1997, the question “Do you like scary movies?” needed a trigger warning. Hear it and you’d probably think of Casey Becker, the teenager played by Drew Barrymore who just wanted to watch “a video” in the comfort of her nice country home with oversized windows.
“Scream” wasn’t very kind to Casey Becker. She was gutted within the first 15 minutes, after a masked maniac later known as Ghostface quizzed her about the horror genre. It was a shocking setup to what would become one of the decade’s defining films.
Barrymore appeared in the trailers and the foreground of the posters. Killing off the movie’s most famous star so quickly was a Hitchcockian maneuver reminiscent of Janet Leigh’s murder in 1960’s “Psycho.”
“The genre had been quiet for a while,” Barrymore told The Huffington Post during a recent conversation in New York. Historically, horror projects hadn’t lured top-tier stars, but Barrymore said she was “bullish” about “Scream” because Kevin Williamson’s script was “so good.” Her involvement got Miramax the green-light it needed to proceed, but with a twist: Barrymore had signed on to play Neve Campbell’s lead role. She later decided she liked the idea of challenging viewers’ security with such an unexpected opening, so Barrymore requested to play Casey instead. It paid off.
Released 20 years ago, on Dec. 20, 1996, “Scream” lingered in theaters long after a movie’s typical sell-by date. In June 1997, after it won the MTV Movie Awards’ top prize, The New York Times reported that “Scream” was still playing across the country, having grossed more than $100 million. (It remains the most lucrative slasher flick of all time.)
“It was so well-written that it was ours to mess up,” Barrymore said. “I remember reading it at home at night alone, and I was so upset. I was so flipped out. I can’t believe there wasn’t a cover letter that said, ‘Don’t read this alone if you’re a girl.’ I was like, ‘Seriously, this is irresponsible.’ I was terrified. I was so messed up, but I thought, ‘God, if it’s that good in the writing, can you imagine how good it will be when it comes to life?’ In a movie where I knew there was going to be a lot of tongue-in-cheek, I wanted it to seem very real and high-stakes.”
Barrymore, who asked to model her blond wig off Michelle Pfeiffer’s hair in “Scarface,” achieved that high-adrenaline dread by telling Wes Craven her “secrets” so the director could make her cry easily during the week-long shoot. As the stalker’s phone chatter about Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers turned into pointed threats ― “more of a game, really,” Ghostface says ― Barrymore wanted to “hyperventilate” in real time.
Shot at a house in Santa Rosa, California, Craven filmed the scene in sequence, a rarity in moviemaking. Barrymore actually heard the other voice on the phone call the entire time, though it didn’t have the exact same menacing tone that we hear. On the first take, her reactions were organic. She hadn’t yet seen Ghostface’s appearance or that of Casey’s boyfriend, who was tied up and ravaged in the backyard. As the shoot progressed, Barrymore spent more and more time dashing through the front yard, with the killer ultimately slashing Casey and noosing her around a tree branch, seconds before her parents return home.
The shoot required several days of cranked-up terror, Barrymore sobbing and yelling and running ― over and over again, always at night. “It was intense, she said. “I remember driving home the night I wrapped and I was beat. I was exhausted.”
Both a spoof and a grisly horror procession unto itself, “Scream” became a quintessential product for the MTV generation. Its characters were the same self-aware consumers who were redefining popular culture, tabloid television and cinematic conventions. Less than four years later, “Scary Movie” lampooned the opening scene, casting Carmen Electra as a Barrymore analog whose silicone breast implant is severed while running from Ghostface.
“You know you’ve done something right when you’re parodied,” Barrymore said.
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