Cult Anniversaries: How “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Scream” Rejuvenated Their Respective Genres

It's a Wonderful Life

Wes Craven’s Scream celebrates its 25th anniversary this week while Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life celebrates its 75th on Jan. 7.  Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On the surface, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Wes Craven’s Scream have little in common. They’re different genres and enjoyed by entirely different generations. But as each film celebrates a big anniversary — 75 for Wonderful Life and 25 for Scream — a closer look reveals some fascinating parallels.

Both revitalized a genre thought to be lost: Life for nostalgic fantasy and Scream for cheesy slashers, each with a clever and subversive self-awareness of the genre’s tropes and clichés. (In Life, Jimmy Stewart, playing George Bailey, runs through town proclaiming “Merry Christmas” to buildings, and in Scream, Rose McGowan’s Tatum pleads, “Please don’t kill me, Mr. Ghostface, I wanna be in the sequel!”) Life landed just in time for the first Christmas after the Second World War; while Scream was released just in time for Christmas ’96, appealing to grunge-loving moviegoers craving blood and gore instead of holiday schmaltz.

Photo: “It’s a Wonderful Life”: LMPC/Getty images; “Scream”: Moviestore Collection/Alamy Stock Photo


Like most cult classics, both films started slowly, gathered momentum and earned cred over time: It’s a Wonderful Life, when it lapsed into the public domain and onto the Christmas Eve TV lineup; and Scream, when it found its legs after a lacklustre opening weekend and became a Halloween classic that inspired a million Ghostface costumes.

No spoilers, but each ends with a main character begging for the privilege to live — Jimmy Stewart to God above and Neve Campbell to a masked serial killer. And whether heartwarming or terrifying, each movie is a generation-defining film worth watching, and rewatching, this year and every year after that. 

A version of this article appeared in the Dec/Jan issue with the headline “Cult Classics,” p. 22. 


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