The year was 1996, and the slasher-film genre was dying. Long-running franchises like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street had long since spiraled into the upper numerals of self-parody. Thirty-six years after Janet Leigh was stabbed to death in Psycho, and almost 20 years after her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis taught us that virginity is a killer-shield in Halloween, people just seemed a bit tired of the genre built on the semi-Freudian foundation of “Hot Chicks Being Stabbed.” And then Scream changed everything. Directed by Elm Street auteur Wes Craven and written by pop culture savant Kevin Williamson, Scream poked fun at slasher films, but it wasn’t a parody: It was a great scare film in its own right, and it spawned a new boom in teen horror films (and even an echo boom in non-horror teen films). Two films followed — one a worthy successor, one a travesty of in-jokes. Now, 11 years after Scream 3, the series returns to theaters. Join us in a long, loving look back at the original trilogy, and don’t forget to tell us your favorite Scream memories in the comments.
Darren Franich: The first time I saw Scream, I was young enough to be legitimately scared. (Wait, Drew Barrymore’s already dead? But she’s the biggest face on the VHS box! The big face never dies first!) The second time I saw it, I figured out just how funny the movie was. But rewatching it this week was a serious revelation. In my memory — which, to be fair, had almost certainly been clouded by Scream 3 — the first Scream was a deadpan parody, with characters who talked like Dawson’s Creek characters getting killed off one by one. But the joy of the first movie, I think, is that it resolutely does not take place in Movie Land. Looking at it now from about a decade and a half away, I feel it actually looks like a uniquely pristine thriller: savvy dialogue, great twists, and a relentless third act where all the plot strands come together in a remote country house.
Keith Staskiewicz: It’s far more old-fashioned than you would expect. Barrymore’s death is a total Janet Leigh psych-out, and the whole series is more about suspense and suggestion than actual murder set pieces. I’d almost be tempted to brand it a mystery rather than a straight-up I Know What You Did Last Friday the 13th at Sleepaway Camp killer-on-the-loose slasher. There’s a certain Agatha Christie elegance to the fact that you literally have no idea who the killer is until the reveal. Kevin Williamson’s script actually manages very effective misdirection — and more red herrings than a Communist fishmonger. The lack of that well-executed whodunit element makes the two sequels a little flat and miserable, respectively.
DF: The mystery element grounds the first movie, and totally justifies the film’s hilarious leaps into meta-reality. (And there are a lot of those: My favorite is when the character played by Jamie Kennedy is telling Jamie Lee Curtis on TV, “Look behind you, Jamie!” as the killer sneaks up behind him.) Scream 2 is a lot of fun, but the final-act revelation is a total dud: Oh, so the killers were a weird semi-character and a totally random non-character. Did not see that one coming!
KS: The meta aspect is what the Scream franchise is known for, but it’s great that the first one managed to be a good example of the genre even while deconstructing it from within. It was winking at you as it stabbed you. Craven had tried this before with New Nightmare, which is actually a pretty fun, smart movie — that’s the one where Freddy Krueger crosses into the real world and starts killing people involved in making a Freddy Krueger film. New Nightmare is more overtly meta than Scream, although it has a lot in common with Scream 3, particularly in terms of people dying according to a movie script.
DF: There’s an interesting subtext behind the Scream movies, because the trilogy almost perfectly maps the creative rise and moral fall of Miramax. Scream fits in nicely with films like Pulp Fiction, Clerks, and El Mariachi: It’s an independent film created with abject adoration for Hollywood entertainments, and as you point out, it manages to simultaneously criticize and one-up Hollywood. Scream 2 presents the Miramax train chugging along at the height of its powers: It’s got a bigger budget and some cool cameos (Heather Graham!) and it’s fun, but there’s also the encroaching sense that the studio is just starting to relive old victories. (See: Mallrats, Jackie Brown, every film Robert Rodriguez made after El Mariachi, every film Lasse Hallström made for Miramax.) Then you get to Scream 3, which makes a great double bill with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back: They’re both filled with relentless inside-baseball puns (“I’ll give you final cut!”), they both feature a ha-ha cameo by Carrie Fisher, and they’re both weirdly navel-gazing retrospectives of earlier, much better movies. They almost seem like videos that were made for a Miramax corporate luncheon, but the Weinsteins had a bit too much champagne and decided to release them to the public.
KS: Jay and Silent Bob make a cameo in Scream 3, while Wes Craven (and everyone from Good Will Hunting) stops by for JASBSB. I’m surprised they didn’t have a badly burned Ralph Fiennes wandering around both sets. I feel like there was a lot that could have been done in Scream 3 with the threequel-within-a-threequel format, but it just ended up going for the easiest answers, the most nonsensical twists, and not particularly new or incisive critiques of Hollywood. It might be because Williamson was replaced by Ehren Kruger — who has also now done work “polishing” Williamson’s Scream 4 script.
The third film has this strange obsession with continuity, focusing on Sidney’s mother and improbably bringing Jamie Kennedy back from the grave to give the requisite “Dese are da rules” speech. But it still feels disconnected from the previous two. Also, the worst plot device in Scream 3 is literally a device, one that somehow lets the killer sound like anyone he wants to. It’s like some super-advanced Talkboy that even has the ability to mimic the voices of the dead. It’s so, so lazy, and they never even explain where he got it. They might as well have given him a jetpack.
DF: Hi, kids, we’re home early! Scream 3‘s biggest mistake, I think, is that it takes Sidney Prescott way, way too seriously as a character. In the first movie, Neve Campbell makes a pretty awesome heroine — she’s a little bit spunky and a little bit cynical, and just feels way more fun than an angelic horror virgin like Jamie Lee Curtis in the Halloween movies. (She’s a lot like Sigourney Weaver in the first couple of Alien movies — just a little bit cooler than you’d expect the bland protagonist to be.) By the third movie, she’s a recluse haunted by memories — there’s a dream sequence featuring her dead mother that is the worst scene in the franchise until the last half hour of Scream 3, which is a relentless assault of ever-more-awful terribleness. Yes, in real life, someone who lost her virginity to the psychotic dude who killed her mother, and then watched another boyfriend get killed by yet another psycho, would probably end up psychologically damaged. But that’s the recipe for a somber character study, not a madcap horror film.
KS: Once the Scream trilogy and Party of Five both wrapped up in 2000, Campbell kinda disappeared. Watching these movies you realize, in terms of acting style, she’s totally the precursor to Kristen Stewart. Lots of blinking, lip biting, pausing in the middle of a conversation to look wistfully off screen, and random sharp exhalations.
On the other hand, Matthew Lillard is clearly channeling the extremely loud insanity of Nicolas Cage as he Over-eNUNciates RANdom syllAbles. Courteney Cox comes off the best, I think. She’s both slimy and endearing as Gale Weathers, and also willing to take a few Friends cracks at herself: In Scream 2 Gale says the nude pictures of her online were just her face and Jennifer Aniston’s body.
DF: We haven’t talked very much about Scream 2, probably because Scream is so awesome and Scream 3 is so magnificently terrible. But there are plenty of things to enjoy about the sequel. The first scene in particular is incredible — you have an onscreen reenactment of the Drew Barrymore murder from Scream (with Heather Graham playing the scene in a skimpy bathrobe), and you also have a figurative reenactment of the murder (with Jada Pinkett as a moviegoer who gets killed).
There’s an awesome moment in the sequence where Graham/Barrymore and Pinkett/Barrymore are BOTH screaming as they get killed. (Message to Ehren Kruger: THAT’S how you do meta.) Scream 2 is full of fun moments like that — Sarah Michelle Gellar’s death-cameo, the genuinely shocking murder of Randy, every time Jerry O’Connell shows up in a ridiculous flannel shirt…
KS: I remember when I was younger and first saw Scream, for some reason I mistook Liev Schreiber for Jerry O’Connell (whom at this point I knew only from Sliders). Then, when O’Connell showed up in the sequel, my head exploded. There is one good through-line in the whole series, which is the fact that the killer is always getting knocked around. Whereas Jason and Michael Myers are these mythic figures that never get hurt, Ghostface constantly gets hit by beer bottles, vases, tumbling bookcases, slammed doors, girls’ fists: It’s slasher slapstick. And it works great. It’s exactly what you would imagine would happen if a teenager tried to actually run around in a sight-obscuring mask trying to stab people.
DF: Yeah, there’s a fantastic disconnect between how the Killer sounds — with Roger Jackson doing a great funny-scary that almost sounds like trailer-voice narration — and how the Killer acts, which is silent-film-farce-worthy. Jackson — like Campbell, Cox, and David Arquette — is back for Scream 4. Which leads us to the ultimate question, Keith: Having spent this week watching the Scream trilogy descend from brilliance into awfulness, do you think they can make a legitimately interesting fourth movie?
KS: I totally do. The elements have always been there, in the same way that it’s always possible to write a great mystery if you have the skill and inclination. The key will be going back to the roots of the first movie (which they’re doing by returning to Woodsboro) without just copying it beat for beat. Give me two or three great set-piece scenes and a halfway-decent plot, and I’ll be happy. Luckily for them, there’s a long history of fourquels being the best film in the series. Films like…um…um…oh God, they’re doomed.