The best scary movies start with a truly killer idea. For Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson, it was to take the tropes of the done-to-death slasher movie and inject it with a satirical, self-referential edge tailor-made for the knowing audiences of the 1990s. The result was a black comedy horror whodunit that had audiences laughing and shrieking in equal measure.
Williamson, who would go on after Scream to solidify his legacy with the sharply written teen drama series, Dawson’s Creek, drew his influences from fact and fiction. His first draft was inspired by the chilling story of the real-life Gainesville Ripper, but the finished product also paid homage to movies like Halloween, When A Stranger Calls, and Prom Night.
Craven was the perfect director too, having tested the waters of meta horror with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare two years earlier. He made Vampire in Brooklyn in between, but let’s just gloss over that.
It wasn’t originally called Scream either. Craven had signed on as director and production was well under way when the head of Dimension Films, Bob Weinstein, decided the original title of Scary Movie was a little too tongue-in-cheek. Bob’s infamous brother, Harvey Weinstein, came up with the name Scream, taking inspiration from the Michael Jackson song of the same name in an origin story that hasn’t aged all that well. Though Williamson and Craven were less than thrilled, the name stuck and ultimately worked in its favor.
A slick, snappy name to match the film’s smart take on the slasher, Scream was the word on the tip of every moviegoer’s tongue come Christmas 1996, with its Dec. 20 release date making it a festive chiller with a cutting difference. Its success sparked a mini-revival for the teen horror subgenre with filmmakers returning in droves to make mincemeat out of a whole new generation of fresh-faced young stars, some whom would go on to bigger and less bloody things.
Once the toast of Blockbuster on a Saturday night, many of these Scream-inspired efforts have fallen through the cracks in the years since but, in an era where meta teen horror flicks are no longer all the rage, these are well worth revisiting. Here are just 12 of the best.
Urban Legend garnered some not-so-legendary reviews when it debuted two years on from Scream’s release but cleaned up at the box office. It’s overdue a reappraisal. Penned by Silvio Horta, who went on to enjoy success as the creator of the US TV series Ugly Betty, it’s another teen slasher whodunit that’s far more entertaining than those Scream comparisons suggest. Urban Legend centers on the college campus of Pendleton and a killer who is offing students in a series of inventive murders inspired by the kind of urban legends that spread among teens in the era before the internet.
While Alicia Witt holds her own as the movie’s central scream queen, Natalie, it’s the supporting cast that truly shines with genre veterans like Robert Englund and Brad Douriff cameoing alongside a young cast that includes Tara Reid, Joshua Jackson, and a very wholesome looking Jared Leto. Though it lacks the knowing humor of Scream, the movie’s strength lies in its solemn tone and inventive death scenes, including one bonkers sequence involving a dog and a microwave. No animals were harmed in the making of this movie though.
Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
After a decade of so-so sequels that furthered the lore of Michael Myers but left new fans increasingly baffled, Kevin Williamson was enlisted to bring Halloween kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The result was Halloween H20, an homage of sorts based on a story by Williamson and written by Robert Zapia and Matt Greenberg. In a move aped by David Gordon Green and Danny McBride in 2018’s Halloween, Williamson’s story retconned the franchise, creating an alternate timeline where the complex events of Halloweens 3 through to 6 never happened. It proved a shrewd move, clearing the way for Jamie Lee Curtis’ return as Laurie Strode and a final face-off that could, and probably should, have wrapped up the franchise.
The plot focuses on Strode, now living under a new identity as a teacher in a swanky boarding school, who finds herself once again playing a murderous game of hide and slash with Myers. A selection of familiar, fresh-faced stars are along for the screams, with Josh Hartnett, Michelle Williams, and, in one gruesome sequence, Joseph Gordon-Levitt injecting a touch of cool into Myers’ murderous rampage. Often unfairly lumped in with the myriad of other Halloween sequels, Halloween H20 is an underrated entry. It’s also helped by the presence of horror veteran Steve Miner as director, who uses every trick in the book to crank up the tension in between some effective scares and a fantastic final act. It’s probably not aided though by a title that is clever at first glance but increasingly confused – okay, it’s 20 years since the original but what does this have to do with water?
Bride of Chucky
Child’s Play creators Don Mancini and David Kirschner took a page out of Scream’s book with this inspired twist on the killer doll concept. Eager to move away from the original trilogy’s young hero, Andy Barclay, they decided to instead place the focus on Chucky himself, voiced to manic perfection by Brad Dourif. Horror franchises like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street had previously fallen into the trap of making their central bogeymen into something approaching anti-heroes, but Mancini displayed a little more nuance here with Bride of Chucky, boasting a sharp script that is witty and self-referential, occasionally veering into parody but retaining a dark edge all the same.
The real masterstroke came with the recruitment of Ronny Yu as director. A seasoned Hong Kong filmmaker with a flair for striking visuals, Yu was given carte blanche to throw as much blood and guts at the screen as he liked–and he liked a lot. The result is colorfully cartoonish slasher about a pair of possessed plastic dolls pursuing a duo of unsuspecting teens across the country. The fact that one of those two teens is a young Katherine Heigl adds to the fun, but it’s Jennifer Tilly’s larger than life turn as Chucky’s newly doll-ified girlfriend Tiffany, who steals the movie. And that’s without even mentioning the doll-on-doll sex scene.
I Know What You Did Last Summer
Something of a throwback to the slashers of the 1980s, I Know What You Did Last Summer may have played it a little more straight compared to Scream but remains an expertly executed example of how effective and intelligent the genre can be. Much of that is down, once again, to Kevin Williamson, who actually wrote the script to I Know What You Did Last Summer several years before Scream. Loosely adapted from Lois Duncan’s novel of the same name, it centers on a group of four former friends with a dark secret who are forced to reunite when a hook-wielding killer besieges their hometown.
Duncan took inspiration from a real-life hit and run story she read in a local newspaper to pen her book, but it was Williamson who came up with the setting and idea of a hook-wielding fisherman killer, drawing from his own dad’s career as a fisherman and the urban legend of “The Hook.” Rushed into production by Columbia Pictures after Scream’s success, the film’s casting director hit a home run with all four leads: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr, Ryan Philippe, and Jennifer Love Hewitt. Each delivers strong turns as the guilt-laden quartet, adding a little more dramatic clout to the film’s stalk and slash proceedings. The less said about the sequel and Jack Black’s bizarre turn as a rastafarian, the better.
Criminally overlooked upon release in 2000, Cherry Falls fell foul of the censors in the U.S., with the MPAA rejecting numerous cuts of the film, meaning it ended up being released as a television movie though it did enjoy a theatrical run overseas. It’s a crying shame, considering the darkly comic and often satirical tone of the finished film.
Directed by acclaimed Australian filmmaker Geoffrey Wright, who made his name with the Russell Crowe white supremacist drama, Romper Stomper, Cherry Falls subverts the familiar slasher trope by centring on a vengeful murderer who is offing high school virgins rather than their more promiscuous classmates. Suddenly the race is on to be deflowered.
This unique premise is made all the more watchable for having the late Brittany Murphy as the film’s innocent, inexperienced core heroine alongside her overprotective cop father, played by a gruff Michael Biehn, in a performance that marked a return to form for the James Cameron favorite after an extended stay in straight-to-video hell. Jay Mohr also warrants a mention for a performance that suggested the comedian turned actor is so much more than just another funnyman.
A fresh and intriguing take on Scream’s self-referential tone, Cherry Falls has enjoyed a cult following in the years since its release and it’s not difficult to see why.
A box office flop upon release, Idle Hands suffered from the fact it was released around the same time as the Columbine high school massacre but enjoyed something of a second life on DVD, where the film’s marijuana-laced humor and juvenile, slapstick tone sat well with a particular demographic of the Blockbuster rental generation.
While crowbarring in cameos from the likes of The Offspring and Blink-182 gives the proceedings a slightly chaotic, dated tone, Idle Hands has plenty more going on than may initially appear. A quirky horror comedy about a teen who wakes to find his right hand has developed homicidal tendencies, the premise alone is open to any number of interpretations, intended or otherwise, while there are knowing nods to some genre classics along the way.
Devon Sawa plays the hellishly handed Anton alongside Jessica Alba as love interest Molly. However, it’s Seth Green and Elder Henson who draw the biggest laughs as Anton’s slain stoner best friends Mick and Pnub. Killed off early into the film, they continue to haunt our hero from beyond the grave in a scenario that plays out like a ripoff of An American Werewolf in London by way of Cheech and Chong. It’s also notable also for featuring magician Christopher Hart–the same hand actor that appeared as Thing in The Addams Family. Love his work.
Disturbing Behavior got a lukewarm response from critics and audiences upon release, hindered by the telltale signs of studio interference that saw director David Nutter’s cut of the film trimmed down from 103 minutes to an alarming 83 after test screenings.
A seasoned director on The X-Files and later Game of Thrones, Nutter still succeeded in imbuing proceedings with an effectively eerie atmosphere that plays well against proceedings. Taking inspiration from Ira Levin’s classic novel The Stepford Wives, the film focuses on James Marsden’s Steve, a high schooler who moves to the sleepy town of Cradle Bay where he soon grows suspicious of a school program that turns tearaway teens into robot-like examples of model behavior.
While Marsden works well as the film’s protagonist, the presence of Katie Holmes and Nick Stahl among the town’s many under threat teens gives proceedings that bit more respectability. As much a commentary on the pharmaceutical-led parenting prominent at the time when many were getting to grips with ADHD, Disturbing Behavior’s inventive, unpredictable script is the work of Scott Rosenberg, a screenwriter all too familiar with outlandish concepts, having previously penned Con Air. An intriguing and watchable effort hampered by studio problems, rumor has it Nutter kept hold of his cut of the movie and occasionally screens it in private where it consistently gets a positive response. Probably for the best, given that it’s his house.
A horror anthology in the tradition of films like Creepshow, Campfire Tales went straight to video upon release in late 1998 but has accrued a cult following in the years since, bolstered by the arrival of DVD and Blockbuster rentals.
Playing out like a particularly nasty episode of the Nickelodeon kids’ horror classic, Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, the film focuses on a group of high schoolers left stranded after their car breaks down, and who decide to exchange scary stories around a campfire. What makes Campfire Tales great is the way the film’s trio of directors Matt Cooper, Eric Manes, and Martin Kuner–who made the film fresh out of college–offers fresh takes on some familiar urban legends, buoyed by a smart script that pulls plenty of surprises.
Like so many great horror movies, it was made on a tight budget with the filmmakers forced to pull off every trick in the book to elicit tension and terror on the screen. Each of the tales effectively balances mounting tension with knowing nods to familiar horror tropes while credit should also go to the game young cast, including James Marsden, Christopher Masterson, Amy Smart, Ron Livingston, and Christine Taylor, who help sell the ensuing scares… and then helped sell the movie on DVD in the years since.
Teaching Mrs. Tingle
Originally titled Killing Mrs. Tingle, Kevin Williamson’s ill-fated first foray into the world of directing was one of several films to suffer in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre and renewed concern over teen violence in the media.
Despite being retitled Teaching Mrs. Tingle, the negative press around the project resulted in rank reviews and a disappointing box office return. Yet the film has enjoyed reappraisal in the years since, helped by the fact much of the initial furore was misplaced in the first place. Williamson wrote the film years before Scream, but it took the success of the slasher and its sequel to get this bold and intriguing premise into production. It stars Katie Holmes as one-third of a trio of high school seniors who kidnap their vindictive history teacher as part of a demented scheme to try and prove to her that they didn’t cheat on an exam.
Packed with Williamson’s trademark witty dialogue, this decidedly unique teen horror take is elevated several notches by the presence of Helen Mirren as the titular Mrs. Tingle in a deliciously dark and largely unheralded role she bagged after Gillian Anderson turned the part down. Mirren made no secret of her motivations for taking the role either, once declaring she signed on “because they gave me a shitload of money to do it.”
Robert Rodriguez surprised plenty when he decided to follow up From Dusk Till Dawn with a sci-fi horror B-movie from the writer of Scream. Yet the resulting film about a disparate group of high school students forced to team up against their teachers who have become possessed by a murderous alien parasite is a blast.
A fun and frenetic homage to The Thing and The Stepford Wives by way of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Faculty actually began life as a script penned by David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel back in 1990. It was only picked up by Miramax in 1996 after Scream’s success with Bob and Harvey Weinstein hiring Williamson to rewrite it for a more modern teen audience.
Williamson was even offered the chance to direct but instead chose to helm Teaching Mrs. Tingle, clearing the way for the Weinsteins to offer it to Rodriguez in what proved a shrewd move. Rodriguez is in his element, cranking up the scares and gore to fine effect alongside what is arguably Williamson’s funniest script to date.
The Scream writer has a blast, presenting viewers with a selection of high school stereotypes–the nerd (Elijah Wood), the popular girl (Jordana Brewster), and the bad boy (Josh Hartnett)–only to go about deconstructing them in this glorious celebration of the sci-fi horror genre that also marked Brewster’s film debut–you’re welcome Fast and Furious fans!
Matthew Lillard was one of the breakout stars of Scream but saved his best performance for this jet-black comedy, which treads a fine line between horror and thriller. Written and directed by Scott Rosen, who made his name on the equally anarchic Cameron Diaz-led The Last Supper, The Curve debuted as “Dead Man’s Curve” at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 before being retitled after it was discovered that MTV was developing Dead Man on Campus, a comedy with an almost identical plot.
The Curve came out on top though, with Rosen’s film not only the better movie but also far funnier. Not that it’s all a barrel of laughs of course. Lillard stars alongside Michael Vartan as two struggling students who discover their college has a policy of granting an automatic pass to anyone whose roommate commits suicide. They soon hit upon the idea of cashing in by offing the obnoxious Rand (Randall Batinkoff) but it doesn’t quite go to plan. It’s a well-written and thoroughly unpredictable affair, full of grim circumstances and dark, complex yet despicable characters. Proceedings made all the more atmospheric by the dark tones employed by cinematographer Joey Forsyte and the film’s soundtrack. Make no mistake though: this is Lillard’s movie. He’s never been better–even when playing Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo movies.
Gossip’s three principal stars, Lena Headey, James Marsden, and Norman Reedus, were well into their late 20s when they filmed this college set psychological thriller, but it remains an easy-to-watch affair that packs a surprising punch. David Guggenheim would go on to direct the environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth but fares well here, setting up the glossy and glamorous look of Gossip early on, only to puncture this picture of teen perfection as the plot takes hold.
Things unravel the minute our three leads decide to conduct a social experiment to see how quickly they can spread a rumor–a move always likely to end badly. From there what starts as something of a Cruel Intentions knock-off soon moves into Fatal Attraction territory as the plot moves forward and sinister motives emerge.
Featuring Kate Hudson and Joshua Jackson in supporting roles, much like Scream, Gossip keeps viewers guessing until the very end with characters and friendships found to be not as they initially seem. Gossip garnered bad reviews when it debuted at the tail-end of the Scream phenomenon but was arguably hindered by liberal cuts which removed key scenes that would have expanded much of the plot and added some important character details. While a director’s cut release looks highly unlikely given the film’s lack of appreciation, many of the scenes made it onto the film’s DVD release.
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