A group of twelve people on a camping tour of the Rio Grande decide to spend the night in an old ghost town, and an unseen killer begins to dispatch them one by one. On the first night at the stroke of midnight, three of the group are killed in rapid succession. Allen is found hanged; his friends Rod and John both hacked by a cleaver. In the morning, the nine survivors try to leave, but find their three rubber rafts slashed apart by someone (or something) forcing them to spend another night at the ghost town. During the day, two youths on motor dirt bikes arrive and one of the guides, named Jerry, leaves with one of them to get help from a nearby ranch which is over 30 miles away.
At nightfall, Bob takes over as de facto leader of the group and has them set up traps to try to trap the killer, but the unseen killer seems to evade them every time leaving no evidence, not even footprints. Soon, the unseen killer strikes again, killing Andy by striking him in the face with an axe and decapitates Bob with a scythe. The unseen killer murders one of the dirtbike youths by blowing him through a door, and leaves Stan and the overweight, slow-witted Lou badly injured.
At the stroke of midnight, a mysterious horse-drawn stagecoach arrives in the ghost town, being driven by a mysterious cowboy who introduces himself as Charlie Winters (Woody Strode). Charlie tells the group that he has been hunting the killer for over 40 years and also claims that the culprit is the ghost of an old sea captain who drove people out of town years ago. The rest of the survivors are wary about trusting Charlie, but soon realize that he may be their only hope of survival.
When Jerry is found dead and Charlie wanders off with no explanation, Rudy takes over as leader of the group and takes the survivors to barracade themselves in a wood shed as the killer tries to break in. Just when Lou pulled out of the shed and is about to be killed, Charlie reappears and shoots the killer (revealed here to indeed be an invisible force), which then drops the scythe. Charlie then rides away into the night. Minutes later, a ranch owner and his wife arrive on the scene in a pickup truck to greet the relieved survivors.
Quisenberry was influenced by Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians when writing the script, though the production of the film was fairly loose, with the script being unfinished when the shooting had begun. Additionally, Quisenberry stated that the production was cut shorter than initially planned due to a lack of funding. The cast of the film were unaware of the killer's identity throughout the production.
The film was shot at Lake Piru and on the Paramount Pictures Movie Ranch in Agoura, California over a period of eleven days.
Scream opened theatrically in the USA in 1981, while being distributed by Cal-Com. The film grossed $1,083,395 by the end of its run.
Scream was then released on home video sometime in the mid-80s by Vestron Video
Media Blasters released a DVD of the film in 2010 under its Shriek Show label. The release included a widescreen transfer, mono sound mix, an audio commentary with director Byron Quisenberry, a TV spot, and a theatrical trailer.
Code Red DVD also distributed the film on DVD, as a double feature with the 1974 horror film The Barn of the Naked Dead. This release did not include the audio commentary with director Byron Quisenberry, the theatrical trailer, or TV spot that was included in Media Blasters release.
The film was released to negative reception, and is often regarded as one of the worst slasher films of the 1980s due to its slow pacing, insipid script, bad acting, lack of blood or gore, and a confusing killer who is never seen on-screen. In a 1988 Variety review, the film was called "tedious in the extreme," and "one of the crummiest horror films made during the late, unlamented boom of five years ago."
Charles Tatum of efilmcritic.com praised the ghost town set, although also stated that "(Quisenberry) cannot generate any suspense at all." He also bashed the special effects, stating that they "..serve as a subliminal Pavlovian trigger for french fries with extra ketchup ."
Richard Mogg of Retroslashers.net wrote a mixed review of the film, stating that "...it had me roaring on the floor with all the nonsense going on. Sure it fails as a slasher but I’d still give it a passing grade for trying."
Oh-The-Horror.com wrote a generally negative review, stating that: "For what little it has going for it, Scream is just entirely too slow, too dull, and too vague."
DVD Verdict.com wrote a scathing review of the Code Red double-feature release, stating that "Scream is a hunk of lead from the Golden Age of Slashers, a cheap, dull, and bloodless concoction that's a chore to sit through. It's horrendously shot and wretchedly acted..." and criticized the transfer, stating that it "...looks pretty bad, with a good amount of print damage and lousy contrast, though that might be attributed to the source."