This feature contains spoilers for all of the Scream movies.
Do you like scary movies? Director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson decided most people probably did. In the mid ’90s, they breathed life into a flagging genre by creating a new knife-wielding icon who, crucially, was aware of all the horror movie villains who’d gone before.
In fact, Ghostface was so into his horror trivia that he quizzed his victims about it before striking. Could watching enough horror movies save you when your own life threatened to turn into one? According to Scream, maybe it could.
Although the first movie ends with – spoiler! – the death of both the killers behind the mask, the Ghostface persona proved harder to kill. In the tradition of so many other slasher villains, Ghostface came back for more. And more. And more. There have been three sequels to that first self-aware smash hit, with a TV spin-off on the way. As franchises go, it’s not the longest running, but for our purposes here, four is enough.
Do any of the sequels measure up to the original? Let’s see…
4. Scream 3
The weakest link in the Scream franchise, without question, is its third instalment. Released in 2000, it came right at the end of the revitalised wave of slasher movies Scream had kicked off four years earlier; by now, there had been too many knock-offs and cash-ins, and horror fans were already turning towards other scares. The Blair Witch Project had been released a year earlier, for example, proving that you didn’t need glossy visuals or well-known actors to terrify audiences, and the J-horror wave was also about to hit, with Ring, Audition, and Ju-on: The Curse all competing for the discerning horror fan’s attention.
But while that might explain the generally negative reception Scream 3 received when it was released, it doesn’t excuse the fact that it’s just not a very good film. Watched back to back with its two predecessors, Scream 3 is noticeably less tense. It’s actually kind of silly. The whole Scream franchise is marked by satirical humor to some extent, but to begin with, that satire had felt organic; it fit with the characters. Scream 3 ramps up the daftness to the point where characters start to feel like caricatures of themselves.
Part of the problem might be that Kevin Williamson, who wrote all the other Scream films, wasn’t available to write this one. He’d submitted an outline, but the actual script writing was done by Ehren Kruger. Kruger would go on to write the screenplays for The Ring, The Ring 2, The Skeleton Key, and four Transformers movies, so it’s not like he’s an amateur, but he didn’t manage to capture Williamson’s tone. Precocious teenagers who know way too much about pop culture are Williamson’s bread and butter – he created Dawson’s Creek, after all –and his voice is sadly missing here.
And there’s another (and bigger) problem with this movie.
In 1999, just before Scream 3 was due to start production, two teenagers orchestrated a massacre on their classmates at Columbine High School. The killings were so shocking that they were hard to understand, and many people were looking for some external factor to blame – video games, music, and movies were all under suspicion. Could violent media be breeding more violent kids?
I don’t want to seem disrespectful here, at all, because the events at Columbine were tragic and it’s still hard, even now, to think about. The reason it’s relevant here is that the studio was hyper-aware of Columbine, and made major changes to Scream 3 as a result. Plotlines Williamson had suggested were thrown out to ensure there was no link between the onscreen violence and high school, and in fact at one point, the studio wanted the movie to be completely void of violence and gore.
Wes Craven protested on that point, insisting that Scream 3 had to be in line with its predecessors or there wasn’t any point in even labelling it a Scream film, and though he got his way, the comedy in the film was ramped up to try to compensate for it. Unfortunately, it’s not even very funny, and it might have been better for all concerned to just delay the production for a year or two.
3. Scream 2
After taking Scream 3 out of the equation, it’s harder to rank the remaining three films. They’re all strong in their own way, and there’s not really much between them. But for the sake of argument, let’s put Scream 2 in third place.
The second film follows Sidney Prescott as, after enduring the horrors of the first film, she moves away to go to college. With most of her friends dead, she intends to make a clean break and restart her life. But she’s haunted by her past, seeing ghosts – or Ghostfaces – everywhere she looks, and unfortunately, it turns out she’s not just imagining it. Like you’d expect from any self-respecting slasher sequel, the body counter is higher in Scream 2, and the kills are gorier. Where Scream was riffing on the slasher genre, Scream 2 is riffing on the slasher sequel, and having loads of fun with that too.
Put into production quickly after the first film was such a roaring success, Scream 2 was released in 1997, just a year after the original. It re-teamed director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson, and also brought back pretty much all of the original cast – everyone whose character wasn’t dead anyway. So Neve Campbell is back as Sidney, Courtney Cox is back as Gale, David Arquette as Dewey, and Jamie Kennedy as Randy. Liev Schreiber, barely glimpsed in the first film, also gets an expanded role here.
The rest of the cast is filled out with recognisable faces. Sarah Michelle Gellar gets a cameo; Timothy Olyphant turns up as one of Sidney’s new college friends; and Roseanne’s Laurie Metcalf plays a local news reporter. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll catch Tori Spelling, Heather Graham, and Luke Wilson in blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em roles. Part of the fun of revisiting these movies is seeing who was famous in the ’90s – and who would go on to be famous, afterward.
Star spotting aside though, this is Neve Campbell’s film. As the reluctant horror heroine, she manages to be convincingly traumatised without ever seeming stupid. She’d sneer at the crappy decisions of the final girl in ’80s slashers, and make better ones herself. The Scream franchise had already created one icon in the shape of its villain, but by the second film, it had created another in its heroine.
2. Scream 4
The lowest grossing of all the Scream films, Scream 4 did not get as much love as it deserved. Released a full 11 years after Scream 3, Craven et al were taking a risk with this one, chancing their arms that people would still be interested in the exploits of the ghost-faced killer, even after the ending of Scream 3 had apparently put the franchise to rest. And after all that time, after the horror genre had moved on again, it could have been a disaster of a film. But it wasn’t. It isn’t. It’s actually kind of brilliant.
Scream 4 brings back the three main surviving characters from the franchise: Sidney Prescott, Gale Weathers, and Dewey Riley. Smartly, it also doesn’t try to pretend the big gap between the third film and this one didn’t happen. The characters have moved on with their lives, and they’re in very different places now than they were back then. Sidney’s an author, taking her book on surviving the last three films on the road. Gale and Dewey are married, and while he’s become the sheriff, she’s struggling with writers’ block, which puts a strain on their relationship – fitting, really, since in real life Courtney Cox and David Arquette had got married, had a child, and separated.
And while the original characters have all aged and grown out of horror movie stereotypes, a new generation has stepped up to fill the gap.
These kids are even more genre-savvy than the original cast, with Hayden Panettiere’s character, Kirby, out-nerding everyone else in the franchise. (The scene where she cuts off the killer’s question about horror remakes by reeling off more than a dozen remakes is particularly brilliant.) Rather than harking back to the slashers of the ’80s like the first movie, Scream 4 takes on the new wave of horror and introduces a new set of rules.
In its way, it’s as funny and clever as the original was. And in spite of everything, the reveal of the killer(s) is a real shock. No spoilers, but the performance of the actor(s) playing the killer(s) is inspired, full of demented, manic energy.
So why didn’t it do better at the box office? Maybe 11 years was just too big a gap for a sequel. Scream 4 didn’t position itself as a remake or a reboot, and it didn’t try to hide the fact that it was a sequel by giving itself a daft title (“The Final Destination”, anyone?). Or maybe memories of Scream 3 put people off? Either way, I don’t care. I’m donning my cheerleader outfit and telling you to go and watch it, if you haven’t already.
Ultimately, though, there can only be one winner in this ranking, and that’s got to be the original movie. Scream basically invented ’90s horror. For budding horror fans who came of age in the mid-90s, this was a benchmark for what horror should be – and because of its many genre references, it was also a good introduction to earlier movies. It made you want to go back and rewatch the classics and find new appreciation for them.
Since Halloween, slasher movies had burnt themselves out with endless sequels and increasingly campy villains. They’d become tiresome, something to joke about rather than admire. Scream took the formula and made it new again, just by putting its characters in its audience’s shoes. It was a film that understood the genre, trusted its audience to do the same, and made jokes about it. But it took its actual story very seriously.
The opening scene of Scream is a mission statement. A young blonde girl is alone in the house, waiting for her boyfriend to come over when she gets a phone call. A mysterious voice chats to her about her interests, and starts quizzing her about movies. Specifically, scary movies. The conversation becomes increasingly sinister, and then violent. It’s well-crafted with great dialogue, and a spectacularly gory payoff. It said, “We know you’ve seen horror movies, and so have we, but this one is going to be a little bit different.”
Not everyone loved it at the time, of course. Lots of older horror fans really hated it. But its fast-talking angsty teen protagonists resonated with another section of the audience. I’ve said it before, but Kevin Williamson has a particular knack for writing dialogue. It might not sound entirely natural, but it sounds cool. It’s how you want to talk when you’re a teenager.
It seems silly to say it now, considering the principal cast stays the same throughout the franchise, but Scream had a bloody great cast too. Neve Campbell was already famous for Party Of Five, and here she’s a perfect mixture of vulnerable and capable. Courtney Cox, already starring in Friends, lobbied hard to win the role of Gale Weathers, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else nailing that hard-headed bitchiness so successfully. The casting of David Arquette caused his role to be rewritten so that Dewey would be goofier, and it works. The whole cast probably deserves a shoutout here, but let’s stop with Matthew Lillard, an amazing physical comedian who effortlessly translates his awkwardness into menace. Everything just works.
And of course, the other key component in making this film as memorable as it is is the mask. Getting the right look for your villain is pretty crucial, and that mask, a Halloween costume designed by Fun World based on the Munch painting, is instantly recognisable, and deeply creepy. It’s simple enough, just a white face with gaping black eyes and an elongated mouth, but it manages to express pretty much whatever the killer needs it to. Mostly, “I’m gonna kill you,” but there’s often something sardonic about it too. It’s the perfect fit for the tone of the movie, both scary and arch.
As a side note, it’s interesting that the Scream franchise has so many different characters wear that mask. In most of the slasher movies Scream references, the killer is one identifiable person – Michael, or Jason, or whomever – that stalks and kills a new set of victims each time. Scream is more of a Giallo style murder mystery where the identity of the killer is always a key plot point, and many characters aren’t quite what they seem.
Thanks to poor box office results, it seems unlikely now that we’ll see another Scream sequel in cinemas, at least not in the foreseeable future with the recent television series adaptation being a new hit on MTV. That’s a shame. But as horror franchises go, this is one of the most consistently strong. So at least there’s that.