The Brilliance of the Opening Scene in Scream

by Arturo Sanchez

In December 1996, Wes Craven’s Scream” revolutionized horror cinema as we know it, and its opening scene cements that. The line “Do you like scary movies?” was never viewed as a naive question to moviegoers ever again, instead audiences saw it as a terrifying introduction to Drew Barrymore’s character Casey Becker. The scene in the same tone of the film widened its legacy bringing forth not only a slew of scares into the teen slasher genre but used satire and meta references to reinvent the genre itself.

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The opening scene sees Drew Barrymore’s Casey Becker dressed in a blonde bob wig, and oversized, cream sweater (something only in the 90s someone could pull off) alone in her desolate house getting harassing calls from a stranger as she patiently makes popcorn to watch a movie. Multiple calls later and a conversation of favorite scary films, things get a little too much for the high schooler, who has had enough of the unknown caller and attempts to hang up. One last answer filled with anxiousness, the character goes off, but this time the stranger threatens her life. He admits he’s been watching her the whole time inside the house. The pressure is on with the caller playing a game of horror movie trivia, revealing her boyfriend is on the patio with her answers saving herself and him, one wrong answer the killer decides to gut him off. Becker frantically runs around her house and tries to call the police, finding herself in a game of cat-and-mouse. She sees her parents pulling up to her house and with phone in hand runs toward her lawn, the killer finally gets her. He stabs her multiple times as her parents enter their house frantically looking for her in a cloud of smoke left from the popcorn burning. She gets to unmask the killer, in horror, she sees her attacker as she takes her last breaths. Finally, Casey’s parents walk outside to see the horrors that the killer has hung her lifeless bloody body on a tree.

Casey Becker really was a normal American teenager in the late 90s, who was ready to have a night in to watch a scary movie.  With the little time that we do spend with her, we see her character development explode on the screen and the shock of seeing this macabre happen to one of America’s starlets. Yes, that starlet was Drew Barrymore

Having Drew Barrymore play Casey Becker was a very killer introduction to any character many had seen in horror at the time. During the late 90s, Barrymore was one of Hollywood’s most sought out young adult actresses in Hollywood not only in part to her films, but for her ambition, rebelliousness, and her bad girl reputation in the industry that intrigued many. Barrymore was very fascinated with “Scream” from the start. After hearing she was interested, the film’s creators were excited for her to join the project offering her the role of lead character and final girl Sidney Prescott. Unfortunately, she had other ideas, she loved the idea of being Casey Becker instead. The role of Sidney Prescott went to relative newcomer Neve Campbell. It was a decision that paid off for everyone as audiences in the theaters watched as she grappled for her life together.

Screenwriter Kevin Williamson, at the time was a novice writer with “Scream” being his introduction to Hollywood, wanted a big star to play the role thinking of Alicia Silverstone, who had major success coming off of teen comedy “Clueless.” Barrymore ended up taking the role and ended up being one of the biggest billings on the film’s roster. She was promoted in the film’s trailer and billed on the film’s promotional poster, and that’s also in part to the scene genius itself. Audiences believed that a big starlet like Barrymore would make it to the film’s finale, and that simply was not the case. The creators and Barrymore thought this was a great idea because it let audiences know that anything was game in the film and anyone could die. It made it feel the stakes for the main characters were extremely high. The decision would end up being reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” shocking famous shower scene which featured actress Janet Leigh dying in the middle of the film.

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The scene that lasts 13 minutes was made with intentions to let the audience know what they’re in for, and boy, with smart writing and a clear vision of terror it knocks it out of the park. With the scene being filmed in the first five days of production, time was of the essence, but that never got in the way of how effective the scene plays. The efficiency of this scene was the tension that’s built with the conversation over the phone. The audience sees her character’s sense of peace destroyed in minutes. The dialogue, much like the making of the popcorn, starts off smooth only to descend into madness. You can tell the filmmaking techniques that go through the process as we get closer shots of Barrymore’s face to allow us to feel her anxiousness with her. Much like the cast, Barrymore did not meet the voice actor on the phone, Roger Jackson, which made the scene feel even more real. 

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I have to say the whole film as a whole is my favorite of all time, but the scene as a whole is a tone-setter. It serves its purpose because the moment that we see Casey Becker get stabbed in the chest, you really just want to help her, yet you’re utterly terrified of that stranger who looms in the dark.  The scene inspired by the film “When a Stranger Calls,” helped set a genre landmark that often can play as a short film if you cut the rest of the film out.

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“What’s your favorite scary movie?” isn’t just a simple question thrown in there, it’s representative of the awareness the film has for itself. It knows the horror movie rules and invites the audience to reawaken their knowledge of the genre.

To reiterate, Barrymore acts in a rhythm that tests her innocence and physical endurance as she battles for her life in the opening sequence. That innocence takes a quick right turn as we see her crawling on the grass with her parents literally footsteps away. Ultimately, we’re given a glimpse of hope, but her demise is all too painful. I don’t know if it’s my unhealthy affection for the film, but every time I watch it now, I smile at the complete brilliance that is a perfect set-up to the film as a whole.

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