This year will mark the 20 year anniversary of Scream, a seminal horror film that changed the face of a genre during one of its lowest points and personally spurred my interest in seeking out all the movies it was parodying. At the time (not ‘96 but 2003) I was mostly watching rom coms and John Hughes. My horror knowledge didn’t extend past was The Exorcist and Halloween but once Scream entered my zeitgeist (I only watched it because I was into Drew Barrymore) I knew a bond had been formed. Not really realizing this is a celebratory year, I decided to embark on a rewatch of this classic as well as the less favorable sequels that followed it. I implore you to take off your baggy sweater and show your midriff as we journey through the 90’s and please follow the rules so you can survive to the end of this article.
I saw Scream the same way every 12 year old should, on premium cable right before going to an all night laser tag lock in with your friend’s youth group. More specifically I watched the first half of the movie before leaving for this event, spent the whole night gushing about how amazing the movie was and trying to guess the killer and getting home at 7am to catch the Encore network replaying the movie from where I left off. I may not have been aware of the hype in ’96 but I created my own in 2003. I still feel that initial excitement when I think about Wes Craven’s self parody slasher but on every subsequent rewatch, it retains all its praise. I find it to tower over its predecessors because it’s subversive by having the characters be self aware of the horror movie they’re trapped in. I can forgive all the thirty year old actors pretending to be high schoolers because the Kevin Williamson script still sounds relevant even though our technology has advanced over blocky cell phones and whatever computer system Sidney dials 911 on.
Why Scream stands above the 80’s slasher greats is that it’s more mystery than the Halloweens and Friday the 13ths before it. As much as it’s parodying the “guy in a mask who stalks babysitters” as Casey (Drew Barrymore) puts it, it’s an Agatha Christie whodunnit and as a lifelong Law&Order addict this is a major bonus. All those other horror movies you never need to try to figure out who is behind the mask because it’s usually some undead entity that can keep coming back for the sequels. Scream is actually closer to those low rent 80’s flicks like My Bloody Valentine or New Years Evil where one of the many bland teens was the killer with some arbitrary motive. Scream is best of both worlds by having actual worthwhile characters. It keeps the cast so intimate in this rural community because you get to know those immediate to heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and not bombarded with murders just for a body count’s sake except for Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler) and even his death propels the plot by getting the rowdy youth out of the house for the climax. Also you’ve got two killers with opposite motives, Billy (Skeet Ulrich) is a throw back with a personal grudge to hurt Sidney because of mommy issues and Stu (Matthew Lillard) is of the millennial “motives are incidental” type. In the end they’re both psychopaths which is the real push behind their destruction. Most importantly, you can rewatch this movie and see how it’s not a stretch that this pair committed the murders. It works out in every scene how they could orchestrate each death.
What makes this film timeless or at least still relevant is the dialogue and how pop culture based almost every sentence is. I can speak on my behalf that I spend most of my days referencing movies because it’s such a central part of my life. I’ll see something and state “hey, that’s like BLANK”. That is all of Scream. Their lives are either like The Exorcist or Silence of the Lambs or Prom Night depending on who’s describing the situation. It’s funny how so many references went over 12 year old me’s head like “I Spit On Your Garage” and having no idea what the “Richard Gere gerbil story” was and yet this is how I talk now. When Sidney and her friends are sitting around the fountain discussing Casey and her boyfriend’s death it’s as if they’re talking about a horror movie. They’re saying all the things in our head like looking at the clues and who could be a suspect.
Scream is a horror movie made for horror fans. There’s passion for the genre in every scene and works because it both calls out the tropes but when it uses them, there’s a rational like when Sidney complains that in scary movies “some big breasted girl…is running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door.” Only moments later while under attack she can’t get out the front door so she finds herself running up the stairs. It’s acceptable because Sidney bests all the final girls who came before her. She has sex and kills the man in the mask. Even Wes Craven’s previous creation Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy still gets the last laugh. But not in Sidney’s movie.
Scream 2 (1997)
There must have been longer time gaps of time between my Scream 2 viewings and in the past I’ve given it way more credit than it deserves. The most memorable aspect of the 1997 follow up is the movie within the movie “Stab” and that this time characters are calling out the tropes of a sequel. On this recent rewatch that is the only credit I’ll give this disaster and just barely because even Randy’s (Jamie Kennedy) speech of explaining the updated horror movie rules feels rushed much like everything else in this movie. The whole thing is sloppy and contrived which isn’t a surprise when you have a year turn around between installments. Scream 2 ruins all the brilliance of the original by dumbing down its characters because the script never had time to thoughtfully rationalize why any event would happen. Where the first film called out characters running up the stairs when they should be running out the front door, every scene is pure bad decision making as everyone runs up the stairs.
Scream 2 opens with promise as a new more diverse set of victims, Phil Stevens (Omar Epps) and Maureen (Jada Pinkett Smith), attend an early screening of “Stab” at a rowdy theater filled with mask wearing fans. “Stab” is hilarious as it parodies what a schlocky version of Scream would be with more T&A, bad acting from a lovely Heather Graham and dialogue that’s just close enough to original story that you can almost hear Barrymore but just different enough to make you believe a worse screenwriter adapted it. Cutting between the film on screen is the grizzly murders of this couple that is indeed bigger and bloodier as Randy states a sequel should be.
After this large scale and I’ll say exceptional prologue, we meet up with Sidney on her college campus the morning after these murders. This is where everything begins to feel forced because we soon find ourselves on the school quad where every character we need to meet will show up like clockwork from fame hunger Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber) to exploitative Gale (Courtney Cox), limping Dewey (David Arquette) and the new batch of suspects like the sorority girls and film theory geeks. In the original, character introductions were properly spaced throughout the school day and here everyone is convening all at once practically introducing themselves with “hi, I’m a suspect”. Every scene is so stagey and lacks all the natural flow the original possessed. Gale and Dewey’s romance starts back again at square one after she insulted him in her tell-all best seller but not long after their nasty encounter, they’re in the audio/visual department bumping heads and sensually touching hands like they’re in a romantic comedy.
I can’t help but think at times this movie isn’t even trying. The second major kill is of Sarah Michelle Gellar playing sorority sister Cici who is murdered while alone in an empty house. It’s obvious an homage to Scream’s opening with the star quality similar to Drew Barrymore and having one scene then being offed. But here it’s thrown towards the middle of the movie and creates no tension with the phone call because they’re moving through the scene so fast. We’re being broken away from our main cast for this pointless kill. The script tries to tie it in saying that characters like Cici (full name Casey) and the others at the beginning with the names of Maureen and Stevens is an intentional copycat of the Woodsboro Murders but it’s such an ill conceived motive that is quickly forgotten as other bystanders like Sidney’s roommate Hallie (Elise Neal) and boyfriend Derek (Jerry O’Connell) don’t fit that criteria.
The movie devolves into an idiot plot as the body count rises and logic is thrown to the wind. What’s most saddening is how stupid Sidney becomes. She was such a clever survivor before and here she makes radical mistakes like not taking the gun from the hood of the car as Hallie must quietly climb over the unconscious Ghostface in the front seat or when she’s looking for help on a what seems to be an abandoned UCLA campus, instead of calling the police like she did in ’96 when the killer was in the house. Here she runs to the theater building because she hears music. How is that not obviously a trap!?! It’s the middle of the night and from being outside it’s already established there’s no one around but we need a reason for her to get to the climactic set piece so she must make a dumb choice. Once there we get the reveal of the killers which angers me more. I’m fine with general psychopath Mickey (Timothy Olyphant) who’s going to blame his madness on the movies but his accomplice is Billy Loomis’ mom (Laurie Metcalf) who has been posing as a reporter. Why this irks me so much is it’s implied, Sidney knew Billy’s mom before she skipped town and you’d think Gale Weathers would have researched her for the tell-all book but Gale has no idea who she is and Sidney hasn’t noticed her these past two days on campus until this final scene. Her throw away line that she lost weight and got a makeover is the flimsiest excuse for not recognizing someone you encountered in your small town for probably 15 years of your life. The rest of the remaining action is even more laughable if you have any concept of how theaters function. All the fighting is so staged and relies on there being only one exit on the set and Mrs.Loomis unable to jump into the audience.
I realize I’m being harsh towards this one because how high the bar was raised with the first film but also that with a little more prep time I believe Kevin Williamson could have delivered a proper sequel. The opening proves good writing can be done but there’s so many characters that are shoe horned in and while some of the over exaggeration works like the ten rounds Gale and Sidney put in Mickey to keep him dead, the hyper intense directing with every moment with a red herring like Cotton and Derek is distracting as it’s trying too hard to convince you they could be the killer. Maybe the expectations were too high. This time around your audience is already trying to figure out the mystery that they didn’t expect in ’96. All these factors make for the most disappointing sequel.
Scream 3 (2000)
I didn’t expect Scream 3 to be a breath of fresh air but compared to Scream 2 this is a masterpiece. Alright, I’m being hyperbolic but it seems contrary to popular opinion, I’d take 3 over 2 in this crumbling series. I can at least say I appreciate how this one leans into the comedy where the previous held so strongly to its self seriousness. This addition also picks out the aspect I liked most about 2 which was the movie within a movie. Ahead of the curve on the boom of meta filmmaking, so many scenes are parodying the film industry and calling out itself in the moment. It points out the constant rewrites both this and the previous film went through while shooting and makes some intelligent callbacks like opening with a blonde girl taking a shower. What Maureen calls out for “Stab” doing, Scream 3 being so Hollywood and movie making centric would of course pull out the same cheap shots. The franchise is at the point that it knows it’s ridiculous and exploits that.
Even though there is an unsuspected cameo from Randy from beyond the grave to explain the rules of the trilogy, there really is no formula for this film to follow because “trilogy rules” aren’t a thing. 2 was so contrived because it felt the need to hit similar beats of its predecessor. 3 is its own horror comedy with some familiar faces and a few new (exciting) additions, I’m looking at you hot Patrick Dempsey and American treasure Parker Posey. The plot is still dumb, the movie revolves around these new revelations of Sidney’s dead mother, Maureen and her murky past. It’s so convoluted and only exists because we need a motive for why so many people would want to kill Sidney Prescott. All of it is a stretch (her mom ran away to Hollywood for 2 years in the 70’s to be in B movies) but I find it worth sitting through for the fun set pieces of Sidney being chased on the set version of Woodsboro or the killer using a fax machine to terrorize actors then blowing up a house on the Hollywood Hills. There’s no need for rational when you’re willing to go that big. Hell, Jay and Silent Bob show up for a 30 second cameo, everyone is here for shits and giggles. I don’t put any stake in the story telling.
Maybe as someone who lives in LA, I can appreciate this more. From the opening of Cotton Weary racing through Hollywood to save is doomed girlfriend, I found myself enjoying the scenery of what my home looked like in 2000 and how he’s definitely driving the wrong direction. His final destination is in WeHo but he was driving east on Hollywood Boulevard?! The world of this movie is grander than being confined to a college campus. I’m generally in favor of movies about the industry as we watch the characters roam the backlot and the artificiality of their own film. Hollywood becomes one big playground for Ghostface and it sure beats the stuffiness of UCLA.
Scream 3 is only good in comparison but doesn’t hold a candle to the original. If I were to pitch this to anyone, I’d stress how amazingly over the top Parker Posey is as Jennifer Jolie (THIS MOVIE PREDICTED ANGELINA JOLIE STEALING BRAD PITT FROM ANISTON) who is the campy movie version of Gale Weathers. She’s given all the best lines as her character bumbles her way through the cast’s deaths. With Sidney not around for most of the run time, it becomes the adventures of Dewey, Gale and Jennifer and there’s worse characters you could spin off with. Otherwise this movie is unneeded closure for a film that would have been better off not having a sequel.
Until this week of Scream marathoning, if you had asked my thoughts on the series I would have said Scream is perfect, Scream 2 is fair, Scream 3 is dumb and Scream 4 is the best of the sequels being the most fun and inventive. I negate all those opinions (except for the original, that’s unshakable) as I despised 2 for its laziness and idiot plot, enjoyed 3 for its industry humor and Parker Posey and 4 is bland, trying to return to simplicity of 96’s essence but lacking any innovation to the genre aside from the addition of more technology. When I saw this one at its initial release in 2011, I was so excited for an extension to one of my favorite films and seeing it on the big screen (since then I have seen the original in theaters, thanks New Bev) and I was much more engaged in the twists and turns of the whodunnit. It may be a little smarter than the previous sequels but there’s little substance to grasp on to. It’s underwhelming with its kills and tries to go minimal on the set pieces like the original but forgets it’s not 1996 anymore and that magic can’t be recaptured.
In the span of horror reboots at the time, this is a shining light because it’s more of a sequel with all your familiar friends. Sidney is back in full swing once again trying to shed her victim image and Dewey is living that small town life while Gale is hungry for their former adventures of Scooby Doo crime solving. You know, the obstacle of most marriages. There’s a new batch of teens now with texting, Facebook and live streaming that the killer can exploit. While the Scream series has always utilized technology from blocky phones to DOS systems, this one has a rough handle on “how the kids talk”. Phrases like “the net” and “cyberspace” were never something I uttered in my late 2000s youth. This makes this series conclusion still feel like it’s made for an older generation, those that are now our hero’s age. The teens and the adults in this movie seem to be acting separately, each with their own plots, rarely crossing paths.
The story is very straight forward as people in Woodsboro start dropping like flies till the climactic reveal of the killers to Sidney alone in a kitchen. The entire aesthetic is glossy much like the Platinum Dunes reboots of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street but with the extra touch of soft lighting to hide Courtney Cox’s wrinkles. By this time in the series, I’ve given up trying to guess the killer’s identity because it’s nearly impossible to make sense. Scream 4 puts in effort that you could track the movements of Jill (Emma Roberts) and Charlie (Rory Culkin) who could have logically committed all these crimes but the film over stresses people’s entrances and exits into scenes that I don’t even want to take the bait of figuring it out. I will praise Hayden Panettiere as Jill’s friend Kirby who is the best mix of Randy’s movie knowledge and Parker Posey’s comedic timing plus she rocks a hairstyle I can only dream of.
I appreciate this film’s ability to be both a reboot and a sequel but either way it’s inevitably inferior to the original. It at least has a unique ultra meta opening and by this point, a great opening is all I expect from a Scream installment. It’s impossible for this series to go out on a bang because like Sid said, “don’t fuck with the original” but the morbid look at the fame generation is a nice twist for a conclusion.
There’s no real twists to end this piece. Maybe a bit dissatisfying ending as well as I lack glowing reviews for most of these but I meant this to be a tribute to a movie I hold dear. I realize there’s probably going to be a lot of articles around Halloween about Scream’s legacy. I was only prompted to do this after watching Timothy Olyphant in Go. But you heard it here first, watch Scream, skip the sequels and you don’t have to wait till October.