I never really had a lot of love for the Scream series, but I’m older now and a lot more mature (read: I no longer get defensive when mainstream audiences come poking around in the scrappy little genres I hold so dearly). I’m still not ready to delve into the other 90s slashers, because I Know What You Did Last Summer still looks mediocre to me, but I’m ready to revisit Woodsboro… I hope.
How do you know you’re getting old? When a movie that’s well over twenty years old still seems like one of those newfangled horror movies. If Scream really is old enough to drink alcohol, I don’t even want to think about how old Nightmare on Elm Street must be.
Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is a high school student who’s quiet, prude, and emotionally damaged by the recent death of her mother. One night a masked killer murders a student at her school (Drew Barrymore) and it’s not long before he sets his sights on Sidney. My favorite thing about Scream is it remembers how boring high school is, and how exciting it’d be to watch horror movies with a bunch of dumb friends when all this crazy stuff is going on, curfews be damned.
One of the reasons the movie initially rubbed me the wrong way is the misconception it was the first self-aware horror movie. I would argue any horror movie which managed to subvert the usual tropes was self-aware, it just didn’t have its characters pointing out how clever the filmmakers were for doing it. Another reason it rubbed me the wrong way: I heard too many people, who may have never seen a horror movie in their lives, proclaim Scream “the first smart horror movie.”
But it is an effective gimmick and we haven’t seen it done quite like this before. And that’s not the film’s only gimmick, either. Scream is a decent whodunnit, more so than most of the slasher films which went that route (come to think of it, most of them were whodunnits), and the kills are expertly paced. The meat-to-filler ratio is spot on.
What surprised me most about re-watching Scream was how iconic it feels now. The garage scene is unlikely as hell (even Scary Movie’s parody of the scene opted for a larger garage door opener), but it really stuck out as something memorable—probably more so than anything else that happens in the series. For the first time in twenty years, Scream feels like a bonafide classic to me in the sense I finally see what all the hype was about.
My younger self was unduly hard on this movie. This is because kids are stupid. Today, I legitimately love this movie.
Scream 2 (1997)
It only makes sense for a satirical franchise to satirize itself when it realizes the original film didn’t have a single black person in it. This is addressed immediately in the opening scene with Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps, playing a savvy young couple who are going to the premiere of Stab, the movie-within-a-movie based on the events of the original film. Never mind that the filmmakers kill them off immediately, it’s a step in the right direction… I guess.
Sidney has moved on to college. Naturally, it’s not long before she realizes “it’s happening again,” and there are some creative liberties taken in the interest of bringing back some of the other characters from the first film. I usually groan at the excuses screenwriters come up with for bringing back characters, but most of the reasons here are fairly sound.
The fact that this one was rushed into production doesn’t show as much as you’d expect, but there’s definitely more of a made-for-TV feel (just a little). What’s worse is stereotypical college characters have been substituted for genuinely funny dialogue. I’m sorry, but the comedy becomes a little too blunt and simplistic in this one. The only aspect which feels like a definite improvement over the original is the budding romance between David Arquette’s Officer Dewey and Courtney Cox’s Gale Weathers. It’s entirely unlikely I would like a subplot like this, which is exactly what makes it all the more special to me.
Sidney seems like she’s actually carrying baggage from the first film, which you don’t see much of in horror sequels, and they develop her character just the right amount: not too little, and not so much it hinders the action. Scream 2 isn’t quite as oiled as the original, and the killer scenes don’t feel as finely placed. The only sequence which even competes on the same level as the first one involves a crashed cop car.
And then there’s the ending, which is just about the dumbest killer reveal of the series. In fact, everything beyond the aforementioned car scene is stupid. Really, really stupid.
Scream 3 (2000)
Here’s the the only Scream movie I actually saw in theaters. It was probably the worst Scream movie you could possibly see in theaters. It handles the killer reveal a lot better than the previous movie, but that’s the only improvement. Even the comedy has gotten dumber.
Sidney lives in seclusion now, having adopted a new name. She operates a hotline for abused women, which is actually a fitting job for her character (never mind how a job like that pays the mortgage on an idyllic country home). This is probably the smartest writing in the entire movie. The problem is Sidney kind of takes a backseat until the end. The characters they get to fill in for her are kind of a slap in the face.
If Scream 2 developed a bit of a “made-for-TV” feel, then this one’s a full-on sitcom—in fact, a laugh track might actually improve the fuckin’ thing. Shake your head in disbelief as Jay and Silent Bob wander into a scene for a cheap laugh. Roll your eyes at a Carrie Fischer cameo which grinds the plot to a halt. Marvel at how movies within movies always pay excruciating detail to their sets and somehow know exactly how the dialogue “in real life” went down despite the fact it was completely off the record.
The violence has been neutered as well. This is probably the fault of the MPAA or studio interference, but Jenny McCarthy’s death scene is so butchered, it appears she’s killed by a gentle shove. (Yes, Jenny McCarthy is in this movie. Yes, horror movies really did suck this bad in the 2000s.) The flimsy excuse to concoct a cameo for Jamie Kennedy insulted the hell out of me the first time I saw it, but now I’m thinking it’s probably one of the only times I perked up during this otherwise excruciating slog of a movie.
Dewey and Gale are on that outs. Again. Their relationship repeats exactly what it did the last time around. And I don’t know why Hollywood thinks it’s being so hilarious when it parodies itself so lazily. Parker Posey is much better than this. These jokes are terrible and the kills are downright nonexistent.
It’s no wonder Scream 3 killed the franchise for a decade.
Scream 4 (2011)
Here it is: the first Scream sequel that’s a worthy successor to the original. Few things are more insulting than a horror movie which opens with a movie-within-a-movie, but here’s one which pokes fun at the tired ol’ plot device: when it’s revealed the opening scene is a movie-within-a-movie, the reveal takes place in another movie-within-a-movie… and so on. It’s so absurd you can’t help but laugh, which is a marked improvement on the “comedy” contained in the other sequels. It’s also an upfront indication the franchise is going back to basics: loads of entertainment and buckets of blood. (There’s a head-stabbing in this movie that tops everything in the last two movies combined.)
It turns out Sidney sued the producers of the Stab franchise, so instead of basing their stories on her life experiences, they now make everything up for the never-ending parade of sequels, even going so far as to making one that involves time travel. This allows Scream 4 to address the fact that horror trends have changed by 2011, including the so-called “torture porn” fad and the endless stream of reboots and remakes. And that’s what makes Scream 4 so good: it would have been a lot safer to make a reboot infused with these current trends, but Wes Craven knew it was a lot more fun to give that kind of cynical filmmaking the middle finger.
So, Dewey and Gale are married. Dewey’s the sheriff, Gale’s a bored housewife with writer’s block, and Sidney just happens to be in town on a book tour. It turns out she’s sick of hiding from her past traumas and wrote a book to exorcise her demons. (Her publicist is played by Allison Brie, which is the kind of stereotypical character that made the previous sequels such a chore, so the less said about her the better.) Naturally, the day she returns to Woodsboro the killings begin all over again and Dewey informs her she’s going to have to stay in town for a while, briefly and apologetically reminding her, “Everybody’s a suspect.”
Among the cast of supporting characters are the heads of the high school film class, who are just as educated in horror as the teens from the first film. No, I don’t believe a mildly popular high school student would wear a webcam on his face for 24/7 streaming, certainly not with 2011 technology, but I’m willing to cut it some slack even if they don’t do anything particularly exciting with it. (Were they trying to make some kind of statement about social media or…?)
It’s a cliche to say “it’s not as good as the first,” but it’s pretty damn close. If I ever marathon the series again, I’ll skip the two in the middle. I just wish Wes Craven was still alive to give us another one in 2021; Scream is best when it’s given a decade to mull over the genre.
As far as mainstream horror goes, this is as fun as it gets.