by Elizabeth EstenEvery horror fan remembers the first horror movie they ever watched — the movie that made them see the magic of the genre and kickstarted their journey to horror geekdom. For me, that movie was Scream. Wes Craven’s fantastic satire (and its subsequent sequels) on the tropes that fill modern day horror filled my teenage years with much joy and fear. In honor of the 20th anniversary of the first movie’s release, let’s explore how this franchise has risen and fallen over the years.
Back in the late ’90s, the slasher film was dying. After the oversaturation that the genre experienced in the ’80s, no one was looking for another Jason or Freddy to terrorize their screens, and audiences were gearing more towards supernatural horror. With the release of 1994’s New Nightmare and the conclusion of the Nightmare on Elm Street saga, Wes Craven sought to continue his horror movie legacy. He found it in a screenplay by Kevin Williamson called “Scary Movie” — the title later changing to the much simpler and more effective Scream.
What I find most fascinating about the film, though, is its subversion of slasher tropes, especially in the characters’ personalities. The greatest example of this subversion is Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), our main character. She occupies every trope of the classic horror protagonist, but the most interesting part of her character is that the narrative gives her a reason to have reservations about having sex. A year prior to the events of the film, her mother was found brutally murdered and raped in her own home. Many classic horror heroines are virgins only to make them seem more innocent in the eyes of the audience, but giving backstory in this case makes her a more compelling character to follow.
While the strongest aspect of Scream is its characters, it’s in the film’s scares that it occasionally falters. The opening scene showcases some of the best directing of Wes Craven’s career, but the rest of the film is severely lacking. The kill scenes are competently done, but the film’s “fear factor” peaks too early for it to be fully effective. However, it never detracts from the overall experience and Scream remains one of my all-time favorite horror films.
Scream 2 (1997)
Horror sequels have a long history of being awful. Whether it be the mediocrity that the Hellraiser franchise became, Jason Voorhees’s infamous trip to space, or that one time Freddy Krueger tried to take over his victim’s unborn child, the follow up to a successful feature can be incredibly hard to pull off. Luckily for Scream fans, the follow up to the original is equally as good, if not better.
Scream 2 picks up the story a few years after where the first movie left off, but with Sidney and Randy (Jamie Kennedy) now attending a local college. Sidney is dealing with the aftermath of the attacks, as people constantly send her prank calls, asking what her favorite scary movie is. Throughout the Scream series, one of the strongest elements has always been Sidney’s growth from an innocent teen to a young woman while coping with frequent traumatic situations and trying to live her life with some semblance of normalcy. When the killings begin again seemingly out of nowhere, Sidney must cope with her trauma head on, and Neve Campbell’s fantastic performance is capable of showing everything she’s going through in a single glance.
While the first film was making commentary on overused slasher tropes, the second is specifically criticizing horror sequels. The commentary isn’t as blatant in this one, but it works just as well as before. The movie messes with the audience’s expectations, first killing off new characters and then progressively killing characters we thought were safe. As with most sequels, the film ups the ante in many ways, with an even bigger cast and higher stakes, but the story still feels like it takes place in the real world (like a good Scream film should). It also reintroduces ideas and tropes from the original movie, but changes them just enough so it doesn’t feel like a complete retread.
Scream 2 is one of the best horror sequels I’ve seen. It at no point feels like an unnecessary sequel, but rather, an extension on a larger story.
Scream 3 (2000)
After two excellent movies in a row, the Scream trilogy was revving up for a conclusion worthy of the first two films. Unfortunately, original writer Kevin Williamson did not come back to write the third movie, instead choosing to work on his directorial debut, Teaching Mrs. Tingle.
What makes a Scream movie work is the script, as Wes Craven’s direction works in some scenes and stumbles in others. Written by Ehren Kruger (Reindeer Games), the script for Scream 3 is poorly structured, shows minimal understanding of characters and has logical flaws everywhere. Sidney largely escapes the movie unscathed due to limited screen time, but Courteney Cox’s Gale Weathers and David Arquette’s Dewey Finn completely change (for better and for worse). While Gale was a strong-willed woman who would fight back with no question, she has become more dependent on others in this film. Cox basically plays Monica Geller from Friends and the character lacks all of the qualities that made me initially fall in love with Gale. Meanwhile, Dewey has become the hero type he never was. While still heroic in the first two movies, there was clearly a sense of hesitation in his actions that is largely missing in this one.
The movie also suffers from a change in setting — moving from a small town to a Hollywood studio. What could have worked as a commentary on Hollywood’s view of horror as a quick cash-in opportunity for a teenage audience is instead treated as a different setting and nothing more.
After watching Scream 3 once, you just kind of forget about it. Some of the scenes work, but most of them lack any tension or stakes, so it’s easy to feel disconnected.
Scream 4 (2011)
By 2011, the horror movie landscape had changed a lot since the heyday of the slasher. Reboots, remakes and sequels permeated our screens for years. Starting with 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, all of these remakes felt like stale rehashes of the original films. Meanwhile, Saw and Hostel were getting more sequels than we ever needed. The market was getting clogged with these films, and there is great irony in the fact that it took Scream 4 — a horror sequel itself — to call Hollywood out on its bullshit. All it took was the winning combination of Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson to bring the franchise back to its former glory.
This fourth installment is very reminiscent of the first film, with a new teen cast clearly influenced by the original cast. The best of this new cast is Hayden Panettiere as Kirby, who is very similar to Randy in many regards, but also shows shades of Tatum (Rose McGowan) in her heartfelt dedication to friends. But the standout of the entire ensemble is Neve Campbell returning to the role that has made her a horror icon. Unlike in Scream 3, Campbell is clearly overjoyed to be back in the role, and with a much better script to work with, she knocks it out of the park. Courteney Cox also returns as Gale Weathers. Once Ghostface comes back, Weathers wants to investigate the case, but Dewey tells her to stay behind.
Scream 4’s topic for criticism is the rise of horror sequels and remakes, and it rings very true coming from a director who had two of his own classics remade around the time of this film’s production (The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street). Williamson calls out how extreme this trend has been getting in one particular scene; when the killer has Kirby on the phone, they ask her a question about a specific horror movie remake. Instead of listening to the entire question, Kirby spends nearly 2 minutes listing off every horror remake from 2003-2010. This scene may be simple, but it shows just how ridiculous this practice has become.
Scream 4 may not be the best of the series, but it does so much well and got the bad taste of the previous entry out of my mouth.