Now looked upon as a modern classic, Wes Craven's Scream had a rough time making it into theaters in the United States. By the mid-1990s, the horror genre was practically dead, having played itself out and seen as being long past its best.
Villains like Freddie Krueger, for example, were now played for laughs rather than scares.
Producing a Scream
After viewing a documentary about the serial killer Danny Rolling in the mid-1990s, struggling screenwriter Kevin Williamson was inspired to write a script for a horror film; a task which he completed in a matter of days. With a bidding war
ensuing between major competing studios for his script (entitled Scary Movie '), Williamson eventually sold it to the recently-formed production company Dimension Pictures, which was founded by Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Willamson's
satirical and multilayered script turned the conventions of the horror genre on their head, featuring laughs and scares in equal measure, and was just the kind of fresh and edgy project that the Weinsteins were looking for. Bob Weinstein would
later re-title the film Scream , after hearing his brother Harvey listening to the Michael Jackson song of the same name.
What the film needed now was a helmsman, and the Weinsteins wanted the influential director Wes Craven, who ultimately accepted the job after turning it down on numerous occasions (along with George Romero and Sam Raimi). Shooting took place
between April and June of 1996 on a $15 million budget and upon its release during the Christmas season of 1996, Scream got off to a slow start. It would ultimately go on to become a major sleeper hit, staying in theaters for 31 weeks and
ultimately taking $173 million at the worldwide box office. The film gave a much-needed jolt to the horror genre that not only spawned multiple sequels but also resulted in the release of numerous other slasher films, including I Know What You
Did Last Summer in 1997 and Urban Legend in 1998. Horror was back in a big way.
Screaming at the MPAA
Wes Craven takes on the MPAA
Getting Scream into theaters in the United States was a tough ride, however, as the Weinstein brothers and Wes Craven repeatedly clashed with the American censors, the MPAA, over getting the film rated in a timely fashion. The filmmakers needed
an R rating -- an advisory rating for 17s and over which also allows anyone under 17 to attend with adult supervision -- in order to maximize their profits, but the censors were reluctant to yield to this right from the very start. Scream was
radical and daring, and the MPAA didn't quite know what to make of it. As writer Kevin Williamson stated in 1996:
I was trying to create something new and different that we hadn't seen before. I wanted it to be perverse and very satirical, but very real.
Wes Craven later added:
A lot of times the MPAA just said to me 'it's just too intense, take the intensity back'.
After completing his final director's cut and submitting it to the MPAA for a rating, the word came back to Craven that Scream was an NC-17; an adults-only rating that would severely limit box office takings. The NC-17 had replaced the X rating
six years earlier in 1990. Since the X rating had not been copyrighted by the MPAA, pornographic filmmakers had adopted it as a selling point for adult entertainment, and the X was soon assumed by the general public to be entirely synonymous with
sex films. Wishing to dismiss this myth, the NC-17 rating was created in its place. Sadly, the myth still stands. Whilst many countries in the world have widely embraced adults-only classifications for films without issue, including the United
Kingdom and Australia, the NC-17 rating in the United States is still very much maligned and seen as the kiss of death for mainstream Hollywood films. Many theater chains will not play NC-17 films at all, and those same films are not
allowed to be advertised in newspapers or run TV spots.
Despite the MPAA's initial response, Craven stood his ground and refused to make any cuts to his film, but Bob Weinstein was not content to release Scream with an NC-17 rating. An R rating was pretty much a given, as an NC-17 would severely limit
the audience for a film from a major Hollywood director. Reluctantly, Craven agreed to make cuts to Scream in order to attain an R rating. It was a slow and protracted process, which only came to an end weeks before the film's release
date. Craven found himself making phone calls and writing letters to the MPAA, trying to expedite the classification process. Speaking about his feelings on the MPAA's methods, Craven stated:
It's very, very lengthily, very expensive. Your budget is disappearing [and] you're at the end of post production. You're usually 'in mix', so all the editing is done, and now you're fighting this thing and they're asking for changes. It went on
In total, he would end up submitting nine versions of Scream to the MPAA before an R rating was finally awarded:
It's very difficult making a film of this sort, where you're really going into the dark side of humanity, because the MPAA sort of looks at every film as propaganda for 'the good life', and if you go really into the dark side of the way human
beings are they get very upset and say, 'well this is gonna push some kid over the edge' - which I don't believe.
During this course of numerous submissions, the MPAA informed the makers of Scream that six key scenes in the film contributed to an NC-17 rating, and all of these would need altering if an R rating was to be awarded. Their main issue was scenes
that featured blood and gore in motion; bloodstained clothes, for example, were acceptable but if wounds or injuries featured clear sight of bloodletting then it had to go.
Cut Scenes: Trivial Killing
The first of the problematic scenes occurs during the opening sequence. After Casey (Drew Barrymore) receives a call from the killer, she is forced to answer horror film trivia questions to save her bound and gagged boyfriend, Steve, from
certain death. Casey gets one question wrong, and Steve has his guts spilled by the killer. The MPAA demanded cuts, stating:
Entrails falling to the ground beside Steven contributes to an NC-17
In the R-rated version, footage has been moved around and substituted to accommodate the removal of the offending footage. The scene plays off of the facial reaction of Steve, his head rolling backwards as he dies, followed by a brief wide
shot of Steve's lifeless body. In the NC-17 version however, we have a shot of Steve's intestines pouring out of his stomach, which is then followed by the footage of Steve's head rolling back that was repositioned for the R version.
Gutless for an R rating
More guts for an NC-17 rating
Terrified and distressed, Casey runs out of the house and tries to flee the killer. In a single, slow-motion shot with building music, the killer catches up to Casey and drives his knife into her chest. The MPAA objected to this shot but,
cheekily, Wes Craven had other ideas:
They wanted this shot out the film in the worst way, and I just claimed this was the only take that we did because Drew [Barrymore] was so wrought up over it - which of course was a bald-faced lie, but I'll do anything to get my shots!
As a result, the shot remains in the R-rated version of the film. But Casey's death a short while afterwards was the third sticking point for the MPAA. After Casey's parents come home, her mother heads outside and discovers the grisly fate of
her daughter - the killer has gutted her and hung her in the back yard. In a memo to the filmmakers, the MPAA stated:
The eviscerated body of Casey Becker hanging in tree and steaming entrails below her [are a] contributing factor [to an] 'NC-17'.
As a result, the initial wide shot of Casey's body was trimmed in length for the R-rated version, whilst in the NC-17 version it lasts almost a second longer. Additionally, a moment later, the tracking shot towards Casey's body was reduced in
length by speeding up the footage, which creates a somewhat crude-looking effect. As Wes Craven recalls:
The MPAA really went berserk. We ended up having to... really shorten it much more than I would have cared to. It's a real-time shot, and in the film we had to cut every other frame so it was 50% faster.
In the NC-17 version, the tracking shot is a lot slower; running at its intended speed and lasting around three seconds longer than the edited R version.
Cut Scenes: A Teenage Crush
For almost an hour, other scenes of violence in the film are untouched, but a curious change was demanded by the MPAA in Reel 9. When Tatum Riley runs into the killer in a garage, she tries to flee him by crawling through a doggy door in the
automatic garage door. As a result, the killer raises the door and crushes Tatum's head against the door frame as the door reaches its apex. In a memo to the filmmakers, the MPAA stated:
Garage door death of Tatum too violent and gratuitous.
Scream editor Patrick Lussier remembers the garage scene and its issues with the MPAA:
Tatum's death was one of the big MPAA challenges. We went back several times on that on how much we could show of her actually getting crushed in the garage door.
After so much trouble, this change seems rather unwarranted as both the R and NC-17 versions play with very little difference between them. The NC-17 version only runs marginally longer, showing the actual crushing of Tatum's head for just a
few more frames.
Uncrushed for an R rating
Crushed for an NC-17 rating
Cut Scenes: Tragic News
Fifteen minutes later, the next scene that the MPAA objected to was the death of the news cameraman, Kenny. As Kenny leaves the news van in a panic, the killer appears and slices Kenny's throat. In the NC-17 version, Kenny places his hand to
his bloody neck, looks down at his hand and then looks into his killer's eyes as he begins to die. The MPAA were having none of it, stating:
Kenny's slit throat and actor reaction to death [is] too disturbing.
Wes Craven felt that the scene was important, and should not be altered, stating that the act of murder should be disturbing:
I think [it] is such a telling moment because it was so human. It's one of the examples where I think censorship can really make things more impersonal, rather than having the reactions of what happens when somebody is hurt.
Nevertheless, the scene was trimmed for the R-rated version, retaining the initial slashing of the throat but cutting away before Kenny properly reacts to it. The NC-17 version of the scene runs a couple of seconds longer.
Cut Scenes: Kitchen Knives
The finale of the film was the main source of problems for the MPAA, and was the first scene in Scream that they cited as being problematic after their initial viewing of the film:
The kitchen scene and ensuing moments of carnage [are] far too violent, bloody and extensive.
Craven would make two changes to this scene to appease the MPAA. The first occurs around 94 minutes into the film, when the two killers Billy and Stu take turns stabbing each other. As the pair become more and more unhinged, Stu talks about
planning a sequel and Billy stabs Stu twice. In the R-rated version, this occurs off-screen against a single reaction shot of Sidney watching them.
In the NC-17 version, however, we actually see Stu being stabbed both times on-camera, with the reaction shot of Sidney appearing only briefly in between the two stabbings. The NC-17 version runs around a second longer due to this alteration.
First kitchen stabbing seen at NC-17.
But only heard when shifted off-screen for an R rating
Second kitchen stabbing seen at NC-17.
And again only heard for an R rating
The final change in the film occurs a few seconds later when Billy tells Stu get the gun from the kitchen counter. In the R-rated version, we have a static cutaway to a shot of Stu's hand fidgeting as Sidney's father is seen lying on the
kitchen floor. In the NC-17 version however, a different cutaway shot is used. Stu's arm is seen to be pouring with blood, which we see running off of his fingers and collecting in a pool on the floor beside him as the camera pans down to his
feet. As Wes Craven recounts:
This scene, from the MPAA standpoint, was the definitive reason why this film must be an NC-17. In fact, that's the response I got from them: 'what a wonderful example of an NC-17'.
Just a fidgeting hand for the R rated version
But blood pours to the floor in the NC-17 version
After the final list of changes was issued to the filmmakers, Wes Craven made the alterations demanded by the MPAA and Scream was seen by the ratings board again on Friday November 8 1996, a mere six weeks before the film's US release. The MPAA
chairman, Richard Heffner, also attended the screening and shortly afterwards Scream was awarded its R rating.
The Director's Cut
As of 2014, the NC-17 director's cut of Scream is still unavailable in the United States on DVD or Blu-ray. However, it was released in other territories. Fans wishing to see the original NC-17 version of the film can pick it up on DVD in
Germany, Japan or Scandinavia. Extra features and picture quality vary between those editions, however. For example, the German and Japanese editions feature anamorphic transfers over the Scandinavian release, whilst the Japanese disc includes
both the R-rated version and the NC-17 director's cut.
Cutting Edge: Episode 4 - Scream
Gavin Salkeld reveals how Wes Craven pushed the MPAA into allowing as much horror as humanly possible into the R rating for Scream. The video is presented exclusively by Melon Farmers.
All articles are original works compiled by Gavin Salkeld, with occasional help from a small team of researchers. Particular thanks are due to the BBFC for their diligent and helpful explanations of their interventions.