Movie of the Week: Scream (1996) / Scream 2 (1997) / Scream 3 (2000) / Scream 4 (2011)

Wes Craven directs Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Drew Barrymore, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Jamie Kennedy, Roger L Jackson, Liev Schreiber, Timothy Olyphant, Rory Culkin and Emma Roberts in this meta-comedy horror series where various disguised murderers stalk victims following the tropes and pattern of slasher classics.

Scream came just at the right time in my life. Horror was in the doldrums. Sequels to the canon were weak affairs often going direct to video… and these were my first underwhelming experiences of Michael Myers, Jason, Leatherface et al. The movies getting wide cinema releases when I hit the right age for scares were fantastic but quite cerebral… I love Candyman, Fire Walk With Me, New Nightmare and In The Mouth of Madness but you can’t really approach any of them as popcorn joyrides. Then Scream came along and it was hip, funny, smart, silly, gory and relentless. A real multiplex hurricane. It worked as a comedy. It worked as a murder mystery. It worked as a teen movie (that soundtrack!). And as a horror it was a celebration… tense, bloody and an absolute rampage of tricks, near misses and rug pulls. Impeccably directed by a master of horror who knew how to make an attractive looking package.

Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson’s knowing script wasn’t trying to say anything or show off, just deliver a fantastic night at the movies. Packed houses gasped and guffawed at in in communal glee. Matinee or midnight showing or VHS sleepover, Scream was a generation defining experience. The revolutionary Drew Barrymore opening stalk sets the stall out. This film was going throw you off balance, bite your nails, build, build, build and… deliver. Strap yourself into the rollercoaster, there’s plenty more deaths to come and nobody is safe. Not even your snacks. The first Scream is full of expertly orchestrated set pieces. The video delay creep up and the garage door escape are equally playful but captivating.

I sat in the multiplex with my mates, my brain tying itself into knots over who the killer was. This is the franchises’ key pleasure. It is a giallo whodunnit filmed like an episode of 90210. I figured out there had to be two killers at least by the start of the iconic lengthy party bloodbath but was still satisfied when they revealed the murderous pair of Billy and Stu. They weren’t so Scooby Doo left of field so as to strain credulity and it felt pretty revolutionary to make your prime suspects turn out to be the killers… and due to excellent misdirection that still feel like an actual shock divulgence.

A quick word on Matthew Lillard – he’s consistently performing at 11 here and absolutely cooks. It is a badgering, unrestrained bit of overacting and the film is all the better for it. The first film’s only real misstep is killing him off as Lillard could have made a fine teen jock Hannibal Lector-style figure to recur throughout the rest of the entries. Not the killer coming back, but an unsettling, influential presence revisited in his cell. “LIVER ALONE!”

Craven’s continual involvement aside, I’d say the initial casting is what kept the franchise consistently strong. Very few actors introduced after the first chapter make a lasting impression or return outwith their own story. Any series that survives the early killing of the perfectly recruited Barrymore, Lillard and Rose McGowan must be doing something right. McGowan again is really far too good here and fetchingly pulls off perhaps the tightest outfits outside of superhero cinema when she isn’t destroying her lines. Obviously in horror movies recognisable faces can die and should die but Scream happily hacks up America’s Sweethearts (the kid from E.T., Buffy, Oscar Winning Anna Paquin) while being rather precious about its returning players.

It was a indisputable boon for the follow ups that the winning core of Campbell, Cox, Kennedy and Arquette are left standing at close of play. Nearly all filming on their limited downtime from hit TV shows, their chemistry and commitment to the series has been a credit to them. Even if some are only kept alive by video messages from the grave or test audience reshoot resurrection.

I’m pretty sure Arquette’s Dewey is killed off in the first two entries only to be revived by quite blatant late in the day rejigs. And why would you want to lose him? The role of the boyish law enforcer fits him like a glove and his heart of gold never fails to bring an unforced warmness to his Screamtime. He is the saga’s secret weapon and if none of the originals but him returned for the belated fifth film I’d be content.

Cox and he have a lovely magic together. In Scream 2, their reunion makes you swoon. I’ve never seen a horror series do this before or after. Execute a burgeoning, tumultuous, mismatched romantic relationship like Nora Ephron or Frank Capra did a ghost write. Sure Marco Beltrami just steals a musical sting from Broken Arrow to underline their pregnant moments together in 2 but that stolen Hans Zimmer stanza works beautifully.

Cox’s ruthless reporter Gail Weathers goes through a fascinating arc. Clearly Cox (the biggest star in 1995) took on the black hearted tabloid journo role as the antithesis of her Monica in Friends role but by the fourth entry she has essentially become Monica anyway. Overbearing, competitive and married to a funny beta. Gail weathers the worst hairstyling choices of the movies too. It is almost a relief in 4 she doesn’t have severe cancer bangs or riot grrl streaks!

The thinking lad’s teen crush, Neve Campbell is a stronger than regular final girl but they do struggle to know what to keep doing with Sidney, especially in 3 where she clearly was only available for a supporting role so Gail & Dewey take full spotlight. Sidney Prescott is a bit too vanilla and sweet to go full Sarah Connor or Laurie Strode (though it is threatened a few times). She’s a pretty and dainty bellweather but if I was marshalling the property I might have let her shock demise define the end of 2 or the prologue of 3 or 4. Maybe Sidney is only as good as her eventual antagonists and that’s why she feels more like the straight girl to all the other overachievers in the first two sequels. But every franchise could do with such an unfussy lynchpin, better to be an integral Danny Glover rather than gorgeous but unemployed.

The first sequel successfully reanimates who and what worked efficiently. It might not always hit the original’s ridiculously high gold standard but I’d struggle to name a rushed into production Part 2 of a horror franchise that is this compatible. Not that it is perfect. The movie preview prologue with Jada Pinkett-Smith feels unconnected and a little overly mean spirited toward our less stellar Drew replacement. The new cast members could very well be the understudies and second choices who didn’t make the cut in 1995. Why would you cast a young menacing wild eyed Timothy Olyphant in his first featured role and not expect us to instantly peg the eye catching loon as the killer? There were many desperate mid-shoot rewrites after the original killers identities were leaked on the internet. With this and introducing all the fresh victims / suspects taking up so much of the runtime it takes a long while to pick up pace… but then we get fifty minutes of expert slasher sequences – the sound booth and car crash escapes are both on a par with anything in the original. The slow dread of Sidney having to climb over an unconscious Ghostface is sweat inducing. Scream 2 ends up a great night at the movies – warts and all.

Horror where the teen ensemble watch horror movies, obsesses about serial killers, have cell phones, internet and Blockbuster memberships were in! I Know What You Did Last Summer, Halloween H20, Urban Legend, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty, Valentine, Urban Legends: Final Cut and Teaching Mrs Tingle were born. A whole new cycle. None were as good as the first two Screams. Many weren’t even as good as last 6 Stab movies.

3, the final spin of the sub-genre, is harder to defend and love. The self aware, movie obsessed killer aspects are ramped up to near parody. Jay and Silent Bob turn up… what is this… Scary Movie? Does anyone care about “the rules of a trilogy finale”? Are they even true? If they are, are they even followed? And we all knew this was never going to be THE END anyway… only Back To The Future has the balls to destroy the Delorean and full stop the series. See Alien: Resurrection!

The Hollywood studio setting creates some uncomfortably close to home scenes for a Weinstein Brothers produced product. Seriously, is Wes Craven shining Harvey on, daring his disreputable paymaster to cut a scene where a top executive admits to rapes and exploiting young hopefuls?! Campbell takes a backseat for much of the mystery yet wants a full emotional arc. The actual killer when revealed is unmemorable. Dewey doesn’t even get killed but then wheeled into an ambulance at the last moment before the credits?! Don’t they know what we want?!!

Only Parker Posey, as the spoilt flake actress cast as Stab 3’s Gail Weathers, adds anything new and uncompromised while the returning players dash around half hearted rehashes of their glory days. The Cotton Weary opener is intense, Sidney revisits a fake Woodsboro, has creepy dead mum nightmares… It just about gets away with it all, familiarity breeds content, but you are glad they then took a time out and got Kevin Williamson back before greenlighting a fourth chapter.

What 4 lacks in originality (it is a self conscious soft reboot / legacyquel so let’s not be too hard on it) it makes up for in its final half an hour. For 70 minutes we are gifted a pretty solid retread of the first film with the veterans giving up half their screentime to an attractive bunch of new personalities. Alison Brie, Rory Culkin and Marley Shelton make a nice impressions as evolutions of the original cast. You care as Ghostface harasses and eviscerates them in a way that not even Sarah Michelle Gellar’s two scene C.C. could generate back in 1996. And the deaths and cold calls feel pointedly more severe, nastier and extreme than a decade ago too.

Yet the big party bloodbath turns out to be red herring finale, too many of the principals are still standing. Our newly minted final girl / Sidney 2.0 is played by emerging comedy horror star Emma Roberts. This is her breakout role and she isn’t content just surviving another Ghostface massacre. She has bit more agency and ambition than that… The epilogue goes off the rails and Scream 4 suddenly has the anarchic, unpredictable blood soaked wit that made a little hyped release in 1996 such a game changer! It is well worth a revisit.

10 / 8 / 6 / 7

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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