Scream – Script Analysis
Scream by Kevin Williamson
Unknown Draft. No Date. 105 pages
Scream brought self-aware horror onto the scene with panache. The people yelling “No, don’t go in the basement alone!” were no longer confined to the theater, they were actual characters in the film. It’s a hip, punchy, scary movie filled with memorable characters that kept audiences coming back for more (3 more, at last count).
Considering how close this script mimics the final film, I’m guessing it was the shooting script (or cleaned up after the fact to closely match it). A couple missing scenes and several changed lines of dialogue were all that I could find between this and the released film.
So why read a slasher film from the mid 90s? Putting aside the whole “redefining the genre” bit, it really is an effective film. Short, mixing slasher horror seamlessly with comedic moments and even managing some social commentary along the way. I’m writing an action/comedy at the moment, with a straight up horror script in the works, so now seemed like as good a time as any to read this one. I was after the short bursts of action/description between the dialogue heavy chunks. I wanted to see how to construct something effective, scary, and yet punchy short.
Heavy Spoilers Throughout!
How effective is this script? I was on page 10 of the script before I knew it. Seriously. It flew by. The dialogue is rat a tat fast. The action short and sweet, usually one or two lines. It propels you forward with speed, unrelenting. Example:
Casey SCREAMS. Her hand moves to the lock on the door.
I wouldn’t do that if I were you.
Terror rides Casey’s face. She’s petrified.
Where are you?
Her eyes search the yard, combing bushes, trees. He could be anywhere-anywhere.
Please don’t hurt him.
That all depends on you.
Why are you doing this?
Tears find their way, streaming down Casey’s face.
I wanna play a game.
The opening sequence is 15 and a half pages, but it happens in a blink. We’ve been quickly introduced to the world and the rules (literally in some regards). The short bursts of dialogue and description build the tension (nothing slows down the read), the characters show us what kind of movie it is (horror, slasher, teen, self referential, a villain who likes to play games, etc.) and we’re invested in the universe they’ve created.
It’s worth pointing out that the opening sequence also gives us tension, not from just the usual sources (fear of the unknown, physical violence) but also from the heartbreak of seeing the unaware parent’s point of view for a brief time before they find their daughter. It’s a perspective shift and an example of someone witnessing another person’s horror and being terrified by it (I could write an entire post about Stephen King’s IT and how it uses this). So kudos to Kevin Williamson for this additional layer of depth.
The succinctness is also evident in setting up the scenes.
INT. BEDROOM – SAME NIGHT
A teenage girl’s room. Neat and pinkish.
We got it. No more detail needed.
Scream loves to play with the conventions of the genre.
It’s self aware and self referential. It mentions 4 horror films by page 19. The main characters are constantly talking about horror film tropes (having sex equals death, never say “I’ll be right back”, the girl running upstairs when she should flee out the front door). Hell, one of the characters works at Blockbuster and is a film major in the sequel.
What Scream does smartly is recognize these conventions, use them, and then thwart them when it’s advantageous. Having sex doesn’t equal death, sometimes running out the front door doesn’t help (the trope is used IMMEDIATELY after being stated in the film), and saying “I’ll be right back” isn’t the instant kiss of death (especially if it’s uttered by the killer). The lead is also a woman who doesn’t shriek and run from danger. She taunts the killer on the phone, does some damage to him during chases, and shows what a badass she is in the final scenes. At the same time, there are plenty of fake scares in the lead up to a real one (the principal’s death has FOUR fakes). All of this plays into the movie’s hands, because on page 65 the sheriff “confirms” that the father is the prime suspect, which seems highly unlikely halfway through the movie. But because this film keeps toying with us, we believe anything is possible.
There were only a few changes from the script to the finished film. The four that stand out:
- A brief, awkward conversation between Stu and Billy.
- Sidney faints several times.
- A conversation between Sidney and Tatum about sex with TV characters.
- Randy and Sidney flirting (and making reference to a line from earlier about Meg Ryan movies) at the end.
- Dewey dies.
1) The Stu/Billy conversation didn’t accomplish anything. It takes place in transit as they head to Blockbuster (and Randy), but that’s it. It’s a good lesson that if a scene doesn’t do anything to move things forward, cut it.
2) Fainting isn’t badass. Taking this out makes her less of a victim.
3) Sidney and Tatum conversing about sex helps show that she has intimacy issues, but the audience has already pieced that together from all the information we’ve been given thus far. We don’t need it to be fed to us explicitly. It does, however, feel very post-Tarantino 90s (pop culture references galore), so that’s appreciated. They also show the ghost killer following them for the entirety of this sequence (they’re walking through a store). It feels like too much and begins to strain believability (its the middle of the day).
4) I’m glad the ending was changed, because I wouldn’t have wanted it to end on a groaner of a joke/reference when I think the finished film ends really strongly.
5) I’m curious if Dewey survived because of the strong chemistry he had with Gale, or if they just got a bigger actor to play him than they originally anticipated and wanted him back for a sequel. Either way, good move.
Speaking of the 90s….
Before I go further, there are a few anachronisms that I just have to share:
What are you doing with a cellular telephone, son?
INT. BLOCKBUSTER – CONTINUOUS
Your typical Blockbuster – huge and crowded.
Please, it’s common knowledge. Her mother was a trollop.
The interesting part about that last one is that I don’t think “trollop” has been in common usage for 40 years. It is a fun word, so maybe someone just wanted to use it.
Once again, I feel like I should mention the “if a place doesn’t matter, don’t describe it” philosophy here. Example:
A large, master bedroom with glass doors that lead out onto a balcony.
Boom, done. They mention the only things that matter. It’s big (meaning Sidney has room to maneuver around in it), it has glass doors that will be used sometime soon. Nothing superfluous.
The setups and payoffs are very well done throughout the script. My favorite has got to be the party cam and the 30 second delay. There’s a camera in the house, great. It’s on a 30 second delay, not so great. What’s the best way to pay that off?
SCARY MUSIC SWELLS, filling the room.
No Jamie. Look behind you! Watch out! Behind you!
And if he followed his own advice, he would see the Ghost Masked Figure that stands directly behind him... knife poised.
INT. NEWSVAN – CONTINUOUS
Kenny finishes off a soda and crushes the can in his hand. He tosses it to the floor when a movement from the monitor catches his eye.
The Ghost takes a silent step forward.
(screaming at the monitor)
BEHIND YOU! LOOK BEHIND YOU!
This kid needs help. Kenny bolts out of his seat and goes for the side door. He slides it open and sticks his head out as...
A LONG, SHARP BLADE
Comes at Kenny, fast and furious... slicing into his throat.
Flow is important. If the reader trips on something, it’s likely because the writer didn’t smooth out the path well enough.
Only mention what matters.
Don’t fear the caps lock.
Using “unseen by” can be powerful in a horror film. Such as “A shadow cuts the beam of the headlights, unseen by Sidney.”
Most Baffling Lines:
How’d you do?
Piece of cake. She’ll be there.
Thanks, butt wart. You did good.
So you gonna try and make up with Sid?
Duh... that’s quick.
I was just asking. Why are you always at me?
Because I’m trying to build your self-esteem. You’re far too sensitive.
Sid follows Tatum inside the house never seeing the GHOST MASKED FIGURE that stands across the street, under a tree. His presence so subtle and unobtrusive you’d have to see this movie a second time to know he was there all along.