Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Scream movie series revitalized horror—then left no lasting mark on the genre

Scream (1996)
Scream (1996)

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.


The cultural noise Scream made at its moment of impact has faded; in large part, the film’s left no lasting legacy. Its all-encompassing sarcasm revitalized horror, a genre slumping toward direct-to-video doldrums after sucking the life out of Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, etc., but it was a short reign. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson had a brief run of success with inferior work in a similarly self-aware vein (I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty, Teaching Mrs. Tingle), but his moment quickly passed, as he moved on to Dawson’s Creek and a wave of torture porn (yes, that’s a contested term) picked up the slack. After that and the subsequent reflowering of low-budget horror via Blumhouse Productions (The Conjuring et al.), Scream seems like some kind of charming ’90s dinosaur, as emblematic of its time as any Reality Bites or Slacker.

The first three Screams came out between 1996 and 2000; the series returned for one last round in 2011. That 11-year-gap smoothed over (at least superficially) how controversial the initial trilogy was at its time of release. Trouble started before shooting: Wes Craven, who ended up directing all four entries, was going to shoot the original at Santa Rosa High School, but the school board reneged on the deal, leery of serving as the site (per Craven’s AP obit) for “profanity and teen slaughter.” Several teenage murder cases were reported to be inspired by the films; the third installment, released after the Columbine school shootings (and after months of op-eds attempting to assign some measure of responsibility to The Matrix), is especially self-reflexive about its quasi-reviled status. All four films experienced some degree of on-set chaos, requiring daily rewrites and forcing Craven to figure out scenes on the fly. It’s impossible to examine them without heavy spoilers; consider yourself warned from this point.

The idea behind Scream—a horror movie that sardonically anatomizes its own clichés as it unfolds—wasn’t entirely new. Scream more or less picks up where 1994’s (totally decent) Wes Craven’s New Nightmare—in which fictional character Freddy Krueger terrorizes the “real” cast and crew—left off. More obscurely, cult director Rolfe Kanefsky believes the film is derived from his cheapie 1991 labor of love There’s Nothing Out There.

But Scream was far more remunerative and ubiquitous than its predecessors, and for good reason. The famed opening scene is internally timed by a plate of popcorn popping on the stove: the time it takes to swell and smoke is about as long as the sequence should logically last, forcing an escalation of intensity that can’t be delayed too long. When masked killer Ghostface makes the ultimate obscene phone call to Casey (Drew Barrymore), he effectively mocks her for being frightened by common horror movie scares. The more she freaks out, the more he revels in her easily manipulated discomfiture, creating a weirdly antagonistic tone toward the viewer: If you get frightened by this, you’re stupid too. But the scene is exceptionally, effectively charged and jokes are plentiful. Even before any discussion of “the rules” of horror movies, the dialogue is already self-reflexive, with Casey screaming that her boyfriend will be over and “he’s big and plays football.” This will be a movie of simultaneously deployed and mocked teen-movie tropes.

The rest of Scream alternates between actual horror scenes and meta-discussions of the tropes of the genre versus what’s happening to the characters. The ratio’s more funny than scary, but Craven often synthesizes the two into one, deploying Marco Beltrami’s ominous cymbal clangs and other traditional cues of big scares for nothing more prepossessing than a shot of a yellow school bus. If literally everything is punctuated and associated by horror, then the film’s entire narrative is one mean joke.

The series is anchored by Neve Campbell as the perpetually stalked Sidney Prescott, rapacious journalist Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette). These three make up the unkillable trio at every film’s center; despite its perception as a fundamentally meta, heartless series, the Scream franchise loves these three far too much to kill them off. (That wasn’t part of the original plan—Williamson was open to killing one off in the sequel—but it became part of the overall design.) There’s an expendable cast of supporting ’90s players who’ve hung around professionally but are no longer in the firmament of potential top stars; Matthew Lillard as a moronically gaping proto-Stifler, and motormouthed video store employee/rule-expounding geek Jamie Kennedy take top pride of place. Periodization comes through in topical emphases on movie ratings (“Would you settle for a PG-13 relationship?”) and, in Weathers’ hustling, hounding reporter, a diatribe on the awful news media that isn’t that far off from, say, Mad City. The dialogue isn’t sarcastic just in the meta-discussions of the rules of horror films; it places entire characters in air quotes. When Sidney apologizes to her creepy boyfriend with “I’m the one who’s been selfish and self-absorbed with post-traumatic grief,” it’s like a parody of the level of constant apologizing that bone-headedly privileged men expect from women who’ve done nothing wrong.

The enormous success of the first film sent the sequel scrambling into production, disrupted by the then-novel phenomenon of script pages leaking to the internet revealing the killer. In lines like “That is so Moral Majority” and “The ’90s are no time to play hero,” Scream 2 doubles down on the self-conscious zeitgeist courting. It’s the draggiest and most complacent of the series: A scene in which a classroom of students discusses the rules of sequels has them cracking each other up, which no longer keeps up the pretense of a potentially imminent threat. The first film’s killers were—in the Natural Born Killers and To Die For vein—obsessed with leveraging murder for media fame (a satirical diagnosis that, then and now, seems to unhelpfully overstate the case). In this film, the murderess is just taking revenge on Sidney for her adulterous mom, whose sleeping-around destroyed the new killer’s marriage—slut-shaming on an epic level, to be further flipped-around and diagnosed in the third film.

Scream 2 is most fondly remembered for two sequences. There’s another bravura opening, in which a crowd of theatergoers gathers to cheer on Stab, a fictional movie-within-a-movie that restages the first film’s opening (fellow Weinstein hire Robert Rodriguez directs the sequence). Reluctant viewer Maureen (Jada Pinkett Smith) is dragged by boyfriend Phil (Omar Epps). Her protests against seeing the movie are weak and haven’t aged well: She claims to find the spectacle of stupid white people getting offed of no fundamental interest, but is duly sucked in, chastising any non true believers in the audience. Both characters get offed, and Craven cranks the dramatic score and thunderclaps way up, indulging a theatrical sensibility that’s amplified by Campbell’s onscreen participation in a similarly intense production of Cassandra, where every prop and extra conceals a threat. The other big sequence is, simply, Sidney crawling out of a car over Ghostface’s corpse: You know he’ll come back to life, but the longer he doesn’t, the more unnerving the effect is.


Written by Ehren Kruger instead of Williamson, Scream 3 is generally considered the weakest, most-drained installment of the series. This is the work of exhausted people contractually obligated to come back, resulting in a snarkiness that goes beyond meta-riffing into outright cartoonishness. (Some of this is intentional; some of it is just playing the studio game: Fellow Weinstein intellectual-property stablemates Jay and Silent Bob have an atrocious cameo.) Stab 3 is in production, and this time they’re re-creating Sidney’s story rather than the stabbing of Drew Barrymore’s Casey, with new doppelgängers for all the main players. Sidney wandering onto the set of her literal life is a destabilizing moment of reality seeming like a lucid dream. Like Freddy and Jason, Ghostface has now been Xeroxed to infinity: When the actress playing Sidney flees the newest incarnation, she hides in a clothing rack full of his costumes, fending him off with a flimsily flapping plastic prop knife.

Comedy finally takes the lead (not least thanks to Parker Posey as faux-Gale Weathers; her goofy, frightened leap into a bodyguard’s arms is the kind of leavening improv you couldn’t write in advance). The finale takes place in a Hollywood mansion, with the original trio and their onscreen doubles running from the latest Ghostface. The literal door-slamming nature of their repeated escapes verges into farce, never more so than when a character slides down a stairwell as a piano glissandos all the way down the keys: That’s the kind of underlining of a pratfall Carl Stalling would have pulled in a Looney Tune. And this installment, made with the at-the-time intent of closing the series once and for all, has a supremely unsatisfying new villain: His motivations are sound enough, but the attempt to rewrite the master plan for the last two films never come off as better than post hoc.


Against all this, there’s the odd fact that Scream 3 is the rare Hollywood narrative attempt to excoriate casting-couch culture and sexual abuse as a normalized part of the entertainment industry. The movie’s way of doing this isn’t particularly subtle: Stab 3’s director is named Roman (“Variety called me a pariah!”). It emerges that before Sidney’s mother was Woodsboro’s scarlet woman, she was a bright exploitation movie aspirant actress who had… something happen to her at a ’70s party, kicking off the events that would lead to the first film. “It was the ’70s,” protests producer John Milton (Lance Henriksen). “Everything was different.” This is the exact language used by Polanski’s defenders who don’t know when to quit, and Scream 3 isn’t being subtle with its accusations: A culture of sexual violence and silent complicity is far more likely to lead to real-world damage than any slasher film. Sidney’s mother isn’t exactly cleared of all charges—she’s still the town adulteress who ruined everyone’s lives—but she’s been given a (granted, very reactionary) origin story that locates original sin in Hollywood sexual abuse. None of this necessarily makes Scream 3 a better film, but it’s unusually, bracingly, and anomalously direct in its charges.

By the time Scream 3 came out, Craven knew the series—and its steady dismantling of each individual part’s particular generic expectations—had probably hit the point of inevitably diminishing returns. “It’s like the ultimate car chase in The Blues Brothers,” he said. “After that, all car chases look like parodies. So there’ll probably be a move away from irony—until horror establishes a new reality to be ironic about.” What brought Scream 4 about was increased strip-mining of libraries by studios committed to maxing out well-established brands. Long belated sequels—Scream 4 preceded more successful, long-overdue entries like American Reunion and The Best Man Holidayinevitably play upon audiences’ sense of nostalgia for long-ago favorites and a desire to check in one more time, to see how people are standing up to time’s inevitable ravages. In such a context, even Reunion’s sight of Stifler shitting in a cooler acquires a certain stoic survivor’s gravitas.

Craven was 71 when the film was released, and this is very much a cranky old man’s film. That’s not a judgment, just an observation: With time for a generational gap to firmly emerge, Scream 4 pits its unkillable central trio against a younger group of kids who are, yes, always on their smartphones, captivated by the internet, and obsessed with fame at all costs. The language of media has changed, with Gale being asked how she plans to revitalize her “tarnished brand.” (Response: “In about two seconds I’m going to revitalize your face with my tarnished brand.”) It’s no surprise that the new Ghostface is one of the Woodsboro high schoolers, but the big final speech explaining the motivation is blunter than Network. “I don’t need friends, I need fans!” the killer shouts—and keeps going on, and on, about how “you don’t have to achieve anything” to get fame anymore. This isn’t dialogue so much as it is an old man yelling at a cloud, but there’s something refreshing about the diagnostic bluntness.


Scream 4’s movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie opener is possibly a series best, and the big set pieces are effectively timed and deployed: This is much more an on-task horror movie than its weary predecessor. Besides the elder-statesman crankiness and an increase in explicit gore (including a ghastly shot of a corpse’s entrails splayed out across a bed), the movie’s main innovation is to reflect old media’s increasing concern about New Media competition: It’s no accident that one of the killers is also obsessed with live-streaming his life in proto-Periscope fashion. This is a movie that keeps up with technology because the people making it have been forced to, observing without approving; it stands with the relatively elderly.

Room was left for a sequel—everyone’s contracts were signed for another trilogy—but 4 underperformed, so 5 and 6 never emerged. MTV’s Scream series is its own thing, with a new Ghostface mask and voice (blasphemy!). In the end, the Scream series ended up celebrating only itself, not what it had wrought, but it’s an oddly cuddly tetralogy of death. Among other things, the franchise chronicles the on-and-off relationship between Dewey and Gale; off screen, the actors became a real couple, married in 1999, separated in 2010, and divorced in 2013. Hints of their romantic problems are built into the fourth film, and one way to look at the series is as the oblique chronicle of a love affair from start to finish. Who would’ve expected that in 1996?


Final ranking:
1. Scream
2. Scream 4
3. Scream 3
4. Scream 2