In 1996, "Scream" revived horror on film by revealing the genre's tricks and tropes. The spark that ignited the runaway hit came not from the works of maestros such as John Carpenter or Alfred Hitchcock, however, but from an unlikely source: Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods."
"I don't even know how many times I saw that show," says "Scream" screenwriter Kevin Williamson, for whom the film was a debut outing. "Sondheim ripped those fairy tale stories open, exposed them and had fun with them."
Struck by what he calls "self-aware, postmodern, self-reflective" writing in the musical, the young screenwriter wondered "what if we did that to the horror genre?"
Directed by Wes Craven for Bob Weinstein's then-fledgling Dimension Films, "Scream" is a slasher movie with the heart of an adult thriller and the affability of a teen comedy. Williamson, who will appear with actor Matthew Lillard at a 20th anniversary screening and Q&A at the Writers Guild Theater on Friday, wrote the genre-bending movie with the intent to "bring energy and life back to the horror genre."
The cast, including Drew Barrymore, Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Courteney Cox, Rose McGowan and David Arquette, meshed well with Williamson's ideas. Lillard played manic "Scream" character Stu, who plays audience surrogate in a key scene explaining some of the "rules" of horror. "There's a very simple formula," exclaims movie expert Randy (Jamie Kennedy). "Everybody's a suspect!"
The peek behind the curtain was a novel way to re-approach a genre that had fallen prey to cliches as horror was sidelined to direct-to-video status.
"We revealed the magic tricks," recalls Williamson, who says that that also opened the film up to criticism from some who thought the tricks should remain trade secrets. "But I think we all did know how the tricks were done," the writer says with a laugh. "It's not like we were exposing anything unheard of."
The most successful horror films galvanize audiences not merely through provocation but by reflecting the world outside the theater.
"I think 'Scream' changed the way we look at horror films," Williamson says, "but we were in a self-aware generation. We were looking that way at everything." The film's meta-concepts fit right in with the homage-heavy films of directors like Quentin Tarantino, whose 1994 "Pulp Fiction," along with "Scream," helped define popular American cinema in the '90s.
The self-referential elements were new, and the film's killings were intense and bloody, but the screenplay relies on fundamentals borrowed from murder mysteries.
"I was always a big mystery thriller guy," Williamson says, and core concepts from vintage mysteries helped him shape the story.
"I didn't feel confident as a writer because I was so young and green at the time. I didn't really understand the mistakes you can make with mystery, and I think that's what saved me."
Twenty years later, Williamson has a proud fondness for the film he calls "a beautiful lightning-in-a-bottle story," even as he notes that age and experience have affected his approach to horror.
"I know I don't lean into it or seek it out the way I used to," he says.
Craven died August 2015 of brain cancer.
"That hit hard," says Williamson. "You think of your own mortality and your own life. He was such a generous, sweet man, and it all began with him. He was so graceful and generous with me, the way he let me in, in a way in which other directors have never let me in."
With a "Scream" TV series going into its second season this April on MTV, could the film series go on without Craven?
In 2010, as "Scream 4" was in development with Williamson writing once again, ideas were swirling for fifth and sixth films in the series. The potential of those concepts, however, never came to fruition. Now Williamson gently brushes away the idea of making another film.
"With Wes gone," he muses, "do we need a 'Scream 5'?
"The film is so beautiful where it is in my life. I don't feel the need to go there again."
20th-anniversary screening of 'Scream'
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills
Info: (323) 782-4508