A look back at the Scream franchise, 20 years later
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the horror movie Scream. The movie’s success led to three sequels, and all four entries were directed by the late, great Wes Craven.
Ironically, there wasn’t much fanfare surrounding the first Scream upon its original release. This could be attributed to two factors: The slasher genre had all but died out by the end of the ‘80s, and Craven’s previous film Vampire in Brooklyn was understandably a box office bomb.
However, screenwriter Kevin Williamson had come up with a script, originally titled Scary Movie, which looked at slasher films through a lens of pop culture irreverence. He asked Craven to direct it, but the director refused until Drew Barrymore expressed interest in playing the lead role of Sidney Prescott.
As production began, Barrymore made a bold suggestion to Craven. She asked to play Casey Becker, the first victim who dies within the first ten minutes of the film. Barrymore’s argument was that if she died so soon after the movie began, audiences would be on edge for the rest of the picture, and Craven happily agreed.
Scream’s opening scene was key to the word-of-mouth that the picture would generate in the fall of 1996. Barrymore had already appeared both in beloved films like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and garbage like Poison Ivy. She had also endeared herself to the public with the way she conquered her childhood drug use. The opening scene where she’s taunted and murdered by an assailant donning a ghost face mask has deservedly become a classic.
Happily, the rest of the film is also exciting, thanks mainly to Neve Campbell, who ended up with the role of Sidney. While Barrymore’s opening scene got all the attention, Campbell ends up carrying the movie on her shoulders by playing an instantly likeable high schooler who has to contend with a serial killer on the anniversary of her mother’s death.
Her friends are Tatum (Rose McGowan), Tatum’s policeman brother Dewey (David Arquette), and film geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy). Unwanted help comes in the form of reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox).
As it turns out, the killer turns out to be not one, but two people: Sidney’s boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich, who previously worked with Campbell in The Craft), and his sidekick Stu (Matthew Lillard, who later became known for playing Shaggy). These two differentiate themselves from their cinematic brethren by making intentional references to past horror movies. I must also point out that they actually take more punches from their victims and potential victims than past cinematic killers.
There are some scenes in this movie I disliked. Perhaps the biggest one for me is the climax, where there’s a big party at Stu’s house and everyone but the main characters clears out. Why? Because these people get word that their principal (Henry Winkler) has become one of the victims, and they cheerfully rush off to see the body. This has to be the most clichéd “nobody around to help the select few against the killer” setup in any movie. I realize that it’s not unusual for high school students to dislike their principal, but this was the Fonz, dammit!
Still, the movie itself became a deserved success, and by law, that means sequels.
Alas, the Scream sequels proved to be nothing to write home about. I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect any horror series to give us as great a sequel as The Bride of Frankenstein or Aliens. However, Scream was referred to in some circles as the film that saved the horror genre. A bit of overpraise, perhaps, but this meant that there would be an audience for follow-ups.
However, like the Jurassic Park series, the Scream series basically became a descent in quality from one entry to the next.
Not surprisingly, Scream 2, which was released the very next year, has an emphasis on sequels. It’s also more tongue-in-cheek, in that the events of the first film have now been made into a movie called Stab. Probably the worst thing about Scream 2, other than the fact that the script was written and re-written throughout production, is that the main characters who survived the first film are actually dumber in the sequel. For example, at one point, Sidney and a friend of hers find themselves trapped in a police car being driven at breakneck speed by the killer. After the car crashes and knocks out the killer, the two girls manage to get out of the car and begin to dart off before Sidney stops and decides to go back and unmask the killer. Of course, when Sidney goes back, the killer is gone and then leaps out of nowhere to kill Sidney’s friend.
Also, Gale and Sidney were at odds in the first film because of a book the former wrote regarding the death of Sidney’s mom. One would think that surviving a killing spree together would make the two appreciate each other more. Scream 2, though, brings them back to square one in their relationship.
Craven and Williamson attempt to shake things up by killing off Randy this time around, but apparently they forgot that Scream wasn’t the first series to kill off a survivor in the sequel. Still, Scream 2 made money, although we wouldn’t see Scream 3 until 2000. There were a number of factors for this gap between entries, one of them being the tragic shooting at Columbine in 1999, which, not surprisingly, made studios think twice before giving horror films the greenlight. Another factor was Williamson had gone on to other projects, and Ehren Kruger was brought in as screenwriter.
Alas, Scream 3 proved an even bigger disappointment than its immediate predecessor, because it just puts out the same, lame narrative. The surviving cast (including Jamie Kennedy, whose Randy is tossed in via a videotaped message for no reason) goes through the motions, this time with (you guessed it) trilogies being constantly referenced.
As it turns out, the killer this time turns out to be Sidney’s long lost brother (played by former Mr. Jennifer Garner, Scott Foley), who’s a down-on-his-luck film director. Poor girl; if it’s not her boyfriend trying to kill her, it’s the brother the screenwriters pulled out of their asses. This film, however, does attempt to suggest that Sidney herself is the guilty party this time around. Indeed, many critics thought such a move would make things a bit more interesting. However, to quote Sidney at this film’s climax: “Christ, I’ve heard all this shit before!”
Scream 3 was the least successful entry in the series up to that point, which is why we didn’t see the next entry until 11 years later. During that time, studios were giving more and more remakes/reboots the go-ahead. This wasn’t just confined to classic scare-fests such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, but to non-horror franchises such as Batman, James Bond, and Star Trek.
So it’s not surprising that when Scream 4 eventually cursed cinemas with its presence, the story’s emphasis was on remakes and reboots. We see new characters in the same high school as Sidney and her ill-fated friends talking about how they grew up with the horror they had to live through, while the killer here asks them about originals versus remakes.
This time, Sidney returns to Haddonfield, er, Woodsboro to promote her new self-help book, which focuses on how she was able to get her life back together after the three killing sprees she went through. Oh, and her return coincides with the town’s anniversary of the killing spree (complete with Ghostface masks adorning the lampposts). At least when Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm went back into the dinos’ den in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, it was for the noble purpose of rescuing Julianne Moore. Here, however, Sidney is returning to her hometown in hopes of profiting from her past nightmarish experiences, experiences which claimed the lives of her mother, friends, and the brother she knew for all of five minutes.
Not that Woodsboro itself has had it any better. For instance, Dewey is now the sheriff (at least both Han Solo and Lando Calrissian proved they had the chops to lead troops into battle when they became generals). Gale is now his wife, and she’s pissed because her journalism career (if you want to call it that) is all but dead, and Dewey’s deputy Judy (Agony Booth repeat offender Marley Shelton) has eyes for him.
Like Scream 3, there’s a bit of effort to suggest that Sidney is the killer, but once again, that suggestion doesn’t go very far in favor of the same old shtick (complete with pointless cameos from Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell).
I would go into how this entry ends, but frankly, it’s every bit as dumb, if not more so, as the previous two films, and its low box office take reflected that sentiment. In fact, the only reason I bothered to sit through Scream 4 at all was to write this article.
Scream itself was definitely entertaining, despite the moments I mentioned earlier. Alas, all three of its sequels basically took said moments and amplified them. Hence, by Scream 3, all the characters were hard to root for because, due to the self-referential nature of this series, they only talked via sarcastic remarks and pop culture references, just like the characters in Friends.
Whether Cox’s presence was a coincidence or not, the Scream series became less of a scare-fest as it went on, and more like Friends with murders sprinkled in. But even that may not have necessarily been a bad thing, had Ross and Chandler been among the victims.