In 1996, Scream changed everything. But what came next? Becky Darke breaks it down…
The state of slasher films in the 1990s is notorious among horror fans, following a period of over-saturation from juggernaut franchises and, later, the subgenre’s rejuvenation through director Wes Craven’s and writer/producer Kevin Williamson’s spearheading of teen slashers 2.0.
A new generation of fans would be introduced to the slasher formula during the 90s as it captured imaginations with a heady mix of nostalgia for the films that came before and a canny reflection of the era’s zeitgeist.
Setting the scene
As we entered the new decade, the slasher subgenre of horror films had hit a rough patch, with fresh takes and creativity running dry. The narrative formula honed in the 1970s and 80s had grown tired and in addition to lazy, churn-them-out filmmaking from the big franchises – Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street – audiences seemed to have lost their appetite for body count movies trying to remain relevant. By the late 1980s, previously thriving slasher properties were becoming more and more diluted. Friday the 13th was a TV show and a video game, and Freddy Kreuger had his own phone–in hotline and was pursuing a rap career.
The political climate had also changed significantly. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 catapulted the West into a new age of relative security following the paranoia and threat that saturated the Cold War era.
As Alex West outlines in her brilliant 2018 book ‘The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula’:
“The ideology and trends of the 1990s are what separates these films from the teen-oriented horror films that came before them, but this very ideology is what keeps these films in dialogue with the rest of the horror genre. The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle articulates the fears and concerns of an America which, for the first time in decades, was seemingly free of a major international conflict and was beginning to look at the horror within its own borders.”
Consumption of entertainment was on a high, with teenagers having had approximately 30 years to build a cache of media that had been made specifically for them since their emergence – and subsequent rebellion – in the early 1950s/60s. Teens’ cultural economy was powerful, and increasing opportunities and disposable income led some in society to see them as an increasing threat to the status quo. After the horror films in the 70s and 80s often focussed on deranged adults as killers, suddenly in this time of relative international peace, the threat was coming from within and from society’s youth.
Pop culture was also taking more of a central stage and America was feeling confident and able to stretch its legs a little. Nostalgia started to become more appealing as filmmakers felt the space to luxuriate in revising the art that had inspired them, rather than feeling the need to constantly reflect the troubling times they lived in.
Desperate to keep up with current trends, the big slasher franchises began losing their way. It makes sense that a new era was on the horizon to resurrect the bloated corpse of existing properties unable to entice new audiences with their own offerings.
Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991, dir. Rachel Talalay) has Freddy at peak camp, all his original terror diminished as he turns the teens into video game characters and pizza toppings. Calling the film the ‘Final’ anything perhaps had audiences guessing at the stakes, but there were two more iterations of Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger still to come. Pop culture-wise, Freddy’s Dead is right up there with some of the most cringe-worthy attempts to remain interesting, featuring cameos from Rosanne Barr and previous Elm Street star Johnny Depp in his ‘this is your brain on drugs’ commercial, and a Twin Peaks reference, but it feels like nothing more than zeitgeist exploitation.
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993, dir. Adam Marcus) is the perfect example of a previously boundary-pushing genre franchise running out of steam. It looks crap, scrapes the bottom of the barrel in terms of gratuitous nudity and, in true late-sequel style, resorts to giving Jason more backstory than the audience wants or cares about. But it does end with the ultimate horror cameo with Freddy Krueger himself appearing in the final moments – ahead of the much-delayed Freddy vs. Jason which finally saw the light of day in 2003.
Falling unfortunately in the gap between the original slasher boom and Scream’s reinvigoration of the subgenre, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995, dir. Joe Chappelle) is an odd instalment of arguably the definitive slasher property. As Alex West puts it:
“The franchise landed with Dimension Films in the early 1990s [leading to] the utterly bizarre sixth film in the series, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. At this point, the mythology surrounding Michael Myers now involved a Druid cult, a Man in Black, green goo and a very young Paul Rudd. In short, the film was miles, if not oceans, away from the creeping sinister dread that made the first film so effective.”
Audiences were largely over Halloween as a property and horror was generally in a bit of a slump. Following the death of long-standing cast member – and icon – Donald Pleasance, and cynical reviews from critics, it was time to start fresh.
And so the scene was set for a new wave of slashers to dominate. Enter teen-led, studio-glossy, meta hark-backs that used their predecessors as specific cultural touchstones – and wove them into their narratives as plot points, including making the teens themselves the killers.
In 1996, following his ahead-of-its-time exploration of meta horror storytelling with New Nightmare (1994), Wes Craven took up the gauntlet and gave us Scream (1996). At his side was Kevin Willamson, whose flowery, knowing, melodramatic teen dialogue suffuses the decade’s slashers with their own language. This era was definitely more… chatty than its older cousins.
Craven’s modern masterpiece not only launched a new style of teen horror for a new generation of genre fans, but through his nostalgic lens he helped introduce them to the films that had shaped horror as it currently stood. Scream sparked a renewed appreciation for the original slashers as discerning audiences sought out the references and influences for their new favourite film.
There was also an element of nostalgia for the original instalments of franchises, as Craven used his Scream films to comment on the decreasing quality of slasher sequels.
In Scream, Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) refers to Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and his creative distance from subsequent films in the franchise by saying the first one was scary but “the rest sucked”. Later, before she’s cruelly dispatched by Ghostface, Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan) tells the killer she wants to be in the sequel – perhaps, in a twisted act of mercy, Craven kills her off to save her from that experience.
Barrymore was a massive name at the time and, in an inspired opening sequence and loving homage in itself, she’s killed off after appearing front and centre on publicity posters and drawing in audiences with her star power, in a similar rug-pull to Janet Leigh’s death in proto-slasher Psycho (1960).
These little in jokes and nods to the audience become a trope of 90s slashers, as universes blend and the fans are brought through the fourth wall into the action. In this way, nostalgia and pop culture become symbiotic with the films.
Cameos are a straightforward way to do this, and so we regularly see horror royalty – including some big slasher franchise names – rub shoulders with the teen stars of the day, brought in to entice new audiences who were already fans of shows like Party of Five (1994-2000), My So-Called Life (1994-1995), Dawson’s Creek (1997-2000) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).
So in Urban Legend (1998, dir. Jamie Blanks) we get Danielle Harris and Robert Englund (from the Halloween and Elm Street franchises respectively) starring alongside Joshua Jackson from Dawson’s Creek, who – in a particularly on-the-nose reference – turns on his car radio only for that show’s theme tune to blare out.
That same year, Halloween: H2O featured a cameo from Janet Leigh herself in a scene opposite her real-life daughter, scream queen and Halloween Final Girl Jamie Leigh Curtis. We’re treated to more familiar theme music, with strains from Psycho’s iconic score playing as Leigh drives away in a car that looks uncannily like that of her character Marion Crane in Hitchock’s masterpiece. Michelle Williams, also a Dawson’s Creek alumni, also stars.
Other notable examples include horror stalwart Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator, 1985) appearing in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer with Jennifer Love Hewitt (Party of Five), and David Warner (The Omen, 1976) with Neve Campbell (also Party of Five) in Scream 2, in which Joshua Jackson appears again, alongside Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
A vicious circle
A key characteristic of 90s slashers is that they very much exist alongside, and indebted to, what came before. Within cinematic universes, call-backs are used to wink to the audience. Aren’t we all clever? Aren’t we such big horror fans?
According to West, “In the 1990s Teen Horror Cycle many […] tropes would be turned on their head simply because the 1990s was a time of intertextuality, in which a form of media (i.e., a text) references another text.”
For example, in Bride of Chucky (1999), Tiffany watches The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) in the bath, and at the top of the film, we’re treated to a tracking shot of an evidence storage locker, containing stand-out horror iconography: a hockey mask, a chainsaw, Michael’s mask, Freddy’s fingers. In Scream 2, Sarah Michelle Gellar is watching Nosferatu (1922). It’s as if the audience is given a challenge: spot the reference and you’re allowed in the club.
Characters watching horror movies in horror movies is nothing new. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is a classic example after copyright issues left it open for use in multiple films from Halloween 2 (1981) to Stir of Echoes (1999), Sinister 2 (2015) and Come True (2020).
Even watching horror that makes explicit reference to what has come before was being done in the 80s. In Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1983), characters are seen watching the OG Halloween on TV. So the second sequel is set in a universe where Halloween (1978) exists as a movie.
But 90s slashers took it further.
In Scream, party guests are also watching Halloween (1978). In a now iconic scene, Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) breaks down the rules for surviving a slasher movie. He has literally used cinema as a guide, mining the movies to inform his actions. West writes, “Characters [are] aware of movie genres and using said genres’ tropes to navigate through the world of the film.” We later learn the killers have been doing the same thing – except they’ve been studying the other side of the killer/victim dynamic.
Then, in 1998, Halloween H20 gave us characters watching Scream 2. Now, Michelle Williams – a lead in H2O – starred opposite Joshua Jackson in Dawson’s Creek. And in Halloween H2O, Scream 2 – in which Jackson appears – exists within the film’s inner pop culture narrative. So what does this mean for cinematic/TV universes when the film on TV includes cast members who have previously shared screen time with the actors playing fictional parts in the film we’re watching?
Not to mention things going completely fractal after Scream 2’s introduction of the in-movie teen slasher franchise ‘Stab’. Horror films are now being created within the narrative, based on ‘true’ events from the first movie, with other teen idols playing themselves (Tori Spelling) in a call-back to a line in the original instalment. So we have real life stars starring in fictional movies, within other fictional movies, that reference and subvert earlier examples of their genre. I’ve gone cross eyed…
Not everyone’s cup of blood
Despite the era reinvigorating interest in the slasher films of the 70s and 80s, the knowing tone, proliferation of teen stars and big studio dominance had some horror fans up in arms. Certainly, what slashers had previously provided – that visceral, low-budget, high-gore breath of fresh terror – was not prominent in the new generation of movies. The 90s slashers have been criticised for being too sanitised – less scary, less nude, and with many kills offscreen.
I, for one, was terrified by Scream when I watched it aged 15; I ran home from my friend’s house for fear of being attacked by a knife-wielding classmate. But for more seasoned fans, the new emphasis on quippy dialogue and teen drama was less appealing. Certainly in the era’s later films, like the 1998 sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (dir. Danny Cannon), the scares just aren’t there and it’s all starting feel like a bit of a slog; you get tension broken by a friend just being in a closet looking for an outfit, by a boyfriend sneaking up with a romantic surprise, and a playful prankster pretending to be a crocodile in a jacuzzi.
If you weren’t invested in the star power of teen favourites like Gellar and Campbell, if the references and nostalgia nods failed to charm, and if the reliance on Kevin Williamson-style dialogue began to grate, it’s understandable that the 90s slasher cycle might start to wear thin.
The snake eating its tail
As we charged headlong towards the new millennium, the 90s slasher craze that had burned so bright began to fade. Following the boom, things quickly fell into familiar patterns: quality – or at least reception – waned, sequels snowballed and mini-franchises sprung up and then dried up, such as the Urban Legend films.
In 2000, Dimension Films produced the ultimate reference with Scary Movie (which, fittingly, went on to spawn four sequels). In some kind of pop culture, referential ouroboros, by parodying the horror films of the previous decade and calling out the tropes that films like Scream helped drive home, it essentially closed the loop.
There were some good films continuing the 90s slasher vibe, for example Jamie Blanks’ Valentine (2001). The Final Destination films took the slasher formula and gave it an existential spin, where Death itself is targeting the teens. Jason Vorhees dutifully trudged on – he went to space in 2001, and as previously mentioned fought Freddy in 2003. Michael Myers didn’t make it past the 90s revival, and remained dormant until 2018’s Halloween reboot (unless we’re counting Rob Zombie’s late 00’s duplex).
But a different type of nostalgia took hold in the 00s: the genre moved beyond paying homage through meta commentary and wink wink nudge nudge references, and into straight up remakes. Classic slashers were still being mined: not for tropes and in jokes, but for their IPs. This wasn’t a new thing of course, with 80s filmmakers remaking the genre classics that had inspired them – David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Chuck Russell’s The Blob, John Carpenter’s The Thing to name but three.
But the 2000s saw an absolute glut of reboots and reimaginings with a list that sounds like a snatch of dialogue from a Scream movie: When a Stranger Calls, April Fools Day, Sorority Row, My Bloody Valentine, Friday the 13th, the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Black Christmas and Halloween.
As we moved away from the relative calm of the 90s and entered a new era of international unrest, so the horror genre reflected this back to audiences. Post-911 saw new subgenres like “torture porn” and the New French Extreme emerge, leaving the glossy teen slashers of the previous decade in their grimy wake.
And now? Nearly 30 years on, we’re seeing a run of new slashers, this time mining nostalgia and pop culture by combining slasher tropes with recognisable formulas like time loop movies (Happy Death Day, 2017) and body swap comedies (Freaky, 2020). We’re two parts into a new three-part Halloween revival. Don Mancini and his team have just completed the first season of the Chucky TV show and have been greenlit for Season 2. The subgenre has become more diverse and inclusive, with female and queer filmmakers taking the helm and realigning the slasher gaze.
Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street trilogy used 90s nostalgia as its aesthetic, peppering in decade-specific nods like CK One, Sony Walkmans, and recognisable needle-drops from the likes of Pixies and Garbage. Plus, Scream has now joined the ranks of the big franchises, having just released its fifth instalment to audiences rabid to revisit Woodboro.
The 90s slasher cycle therefore continues to inform and influence by becoming an object of nostalgia in itself. And so the loop closes, and the subgenre endures.