Do you like scary movies?
What’s your favorite scary movie?
If you grew up in the 90s, there’s a good chance your answer to that question is Scream. In Episode 7, we plunge bone-deep into the millennial teen horror craze with the film that (re)-started it all, the meta horror-comedy written by a then-unknown Kevin Williamson and directed by shocker maestro Wes Carpenter… err, Craven. We all agree that opening scene starring an ill-fated Drew Barrymore is as iconic as they come, but does the rest of Scream hold up? And how about those sequels?
So burn some popcorn, lace up your generic black boots, and prepare to see what your insides look like, because we’re about to discuss why the Scream movies are the ultimate slut shame and bicker about which movie has the best Gale Weathers hairdo. (It’s definitely Scream 2.) Then, in an ironic “gotcha!” twist, you’ll discover that this is all just a podcast within a Stab movie within a Scream movie that Tori Spelling is listening to.
Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have to go investigate a strange noise. We’ll be right back!
Budget: $14 million
Domestic Total Gross: $103 million
Worldwide: $173 million
Opening Weekend: $6.4 million
Release Date: December 20, 1996
Scream has always been a favorite of mine, and as I explain in the podcast, is one of the biggest influences on my own writing. Kevin Williamson and Joss Whedon got to me at just the right moment. Though I’m not overly fond of horror in general, the ways Scream and Buffy The Vampire Slayer turned tropes inside out and blended meta humor with real teen angst and character development always hit that sweet spot for me. (I talk a lot more about my history with the late 90s teen horror craze here.)
I know Scream inside and out and have loved the series for a long time, despite its decline in the later entries, but doing the podcast was the first time I really considered the franchise as a whole, watching the movies more or less back-to-back. What came into focus overall was how much the four films are about trauma, explored through the character of Sidney Prescott, who is more integral to the Scream series than any other Final Girl I can think of — unless maybe we count the Alien series as straight-up horror. (And even then, they did eventually bump Ripley off.)
MTV has obviously tried to extend the Scream brand beyond Sidney (and even Ghostface), and though there’s plenty of meta-juice in the horror-comedy hybrid that isn’t character specific, in a way it’d be a shame to see a Scream film without Sidney because she so anchors these movies. From that very first iconic opening scene, murder matters in the Scream universe. We get to know Casey Becker for only a few minutes, but her death is brutal and terrifying, not just because of the carnage, but because we’re sorry to see her go. Rubbing salt in the wound is something you rarely see in a slasher flick — honest-to-God grief from Casey’s horrified parents, who discover their daughter gutted and hanging from a tree. Yes, it’s a gore-fest worthy of any other slasher movie, but in this one it’s actually a sad sight, too.
That sadness is echoed in the way Sidney mourns her mother, Maureen, murdered one year earlier. Sidney is in denial about her mom’s widely rumored promiscuity, “flashing her shit around town like she was Sharon Stone.” Sidney’s boyfriend Billy is semi-patiently awaiting Sidney’s readiness to “go all the way,” but Sidney won’t let herself go there yet. She’s still clinging to innocence, to a pure and unspoiled vision of her mother, unready to accept the complications and disappointments of adult life. In this way, Ghostface represents the haunting past, the truth Sidney can’t face. There’s a version of the Scream story in which there is no actual killer; Sidney is merely haunted by the “ghost” of her mother, unable to accept or forget the truth.
This is the first instance of Ghostface embodying trauma… it’s no wonder then that the boy who wants her to “open up,” so to speak, is the one who ends up being the killer. Billy wants to penetrate Sidney — sexually, and with his weapon of choice, that hunting knife. But he’s also penetrating her sense of safety, the cocoon she’s attempted to build for herself. Of course, in true Final Girl fashion, Sidney gets the upper hand, even going so far as to stick her finger in Billy’s wound near the end, essentially penetrating him right back. Sidney isn’t a virgin anymore at this point, because Scream allows its women to transcend that tired cliche. Sidney herself is guilty of perpetuating the “madonna/whore” myth, unable to see her mother outside of these dueling stereotypes and accept her for the complicated woman she is. But by the end of the movie, both Sidney and Scream itself have accepted that women aren’t just one or the other; unlike in most horror movies, the women in Scream are more than just virgin survivors or slutty chum.
Budget: $24 million
Domestic Total Gross: $101.4 million
Foreign Total Gross: $71 million
Worldwide: $172.4 million
Opening Weekend: $32.9 million
Release Date: December 12, 1997
Nobody expected Scream to quite hit the zeitgeist the way it did, grossing over $100 million, which still ranks it as the #1 slasher movie of all time. Scream 2, released just under a year later, was hugely hyped, by contrast. It had a red-hot cast and all kinds of internet-fueled fandom, including a major leak of the script, which reportedly had Kevin Williamson change the identities of the killers. (For the better… the original ending was pretty senseless.)
Siskel and Ebert split on the original Scream, with Siskel giving it a thumbs down. He took a liking to the sequel, however, with both critics giving Scream 2 a solid thumbs up. I agree, of course — in many ways, I prefer Scream 2 to the first Scream, though of course the original is the more iconic and groundbreaking film. I find the character work in Scream 2 slightly superior to the original, thanks to its core cast of returning survivors, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, and Jamie Kennedy. I also think it contains some of the best thriller sequences in the series. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s terrorized sober sister at Omega Beta Zeta is a nicely played echo of the Drew Barrymore opening in Scream. (Seeing her in a previous scene as a sassy, cinema-savvy sorority girl cements her as one of the silver screen’s all-time greatest heroines, but I’m willing to admit that I’m biased on that.) The scene in which Sidney and her BFF Hallie have to shimmy past an unconscious Ghostface in a cop car is totally nerve-wracking (and not at all undermined by the fact that Williamson wrote a similar scene into I Know What You Did Last Summer, too). My personal favorite is Gale and Dewey’s chase through a college classroom, particularly when Gale watches in horror through glass as Dewey is stabbed and apparently killed (only to be revived for a second time in the film’s closing moments). It’s beautifully tragic and haunting, perhaps the best “death” scene of the entire series, outside of Drew Barrymore’s. (Catch my ode to the horror blondes who got raw deals here.)
As great as all that is, what really makes Scream 2 sing is the way it manages to elevate the first film’s meta quality. Scream brilliantly opened with a teen girl making popcorn, getting ready to watch a scary video. It immediately put us in this girl’s shoes, since that’s exactly what we’re doing. Scream 2 shows us another classic movie-watching ritual — going to the theater to enjoy being scared out of our wits in a dark room with strangers. Not only that — Heather Graham appears as an actress who lacks the chops of Drew Barrymore, playing Casey in a just-slightly-off-kilter recreation of Scream‘s now-legendary opening. It’s ironic, that the scene that worked so well in Scream could play as so flat and cliche in Stab, the movie-within-the-movie. Casey Becker’s death was haunting, and even seeing her badly portrayed by Graham reminds us of how powerful that sequence was. Yet seeing all these plastic-knife-happy college kids in the audience reminds us also how far we’ve come, how easy it is for us desensitize ourselves to violence. Scream 2 doesn’t let us forget that.
Jada Pinkett, playing Maureen Evans — another of my favorite movie heroines, if only for the fact that she reads her Entertainment Weekly and knows her shit — calls out the morbidity of watching people getting slide and diced for hijinks. Of course, the tables turn on Maureen, and soon she’s the one everyone’s watching getting stabbed to death. We see the truth dawn on the faces in that crowd, as the “fun” horror of the horror movie becomes true horror in real life. Scream is always concerned with that thin line between frightening fact and fun fiction, and it is perhaps never better explored than in this moment. Why do we like this? Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson seem to be asking. Do you really enjoy this? That’s a bold inquiry coming from a guy who made a living off of cinematic killings, and a guy who worships him. And for all involved, the answer is, disturbingly, yes. We do enjoy this.
Budget: $40 million
Domestic Total Gross: $89.1 million
International: $72.7 million
Opening Weekend: $34.7 million
Release Date: February 4, 2000
The Scream movies have been blamed for real life killings, further blurring the line between what is real and just a movie. In 1999, the Columbine massacre shocked America and forever changed the ways teenaged psychopaths are framed in cinema. For a while, Hollywood got awfully skittish about mixing high school and violence, even though Scream had just kicked off a major wave of films that did just that — from The Faculty to Urban Legends to Halloween: H20 and so on and soforth, a lot of which were written by Kevin Williamson and starred a who’s who of WB stars filming during summer hiatus. By the time Scream 3 rolled around, Bob Weinstein was less enthusiastic about depicting teen horror on screen, preferring to play up the series’ comedic elements.
That’s partly why Scream 3 mostly fails at the pathos so adeptly displayed in the first movies. The other reason is that Kevin Williamson was basically the hottest writer in Hollywood at the time, and became too busy to rewrite his Scream 3 treatment according to the Weinstein’s notes. (Or maybe he just didn’t want to.) Writing duties went to Ehren Kruger, who most infamously inflicted the Transformer sequels upon us. Perhaps this is why we get a lame visit from the late Randy’s never-before-or-again-seen sister, played by Heather Matarazzo, or cameos from Jay and Silent Bob, of all people. (Carrie Fisher’s cameo is better, if equally random. Did we forget this was a horror franchise?)
We know we’re in trouble with Scream 3’s lame opening, which doesn’t kill off a hot Hollywood actress like Drew Barrymore or Jada Pinkett, instead centering on Cotton Weary and his girlfriend, Christine. Unforgivably, Scream 3 abandons the Scream staple of having iconic openings that are all about the ritual of watching horror movies. Why not begin the movie with a scene from Stab 3, since that film becomes so integral later? What if Ghostface first struck by popping up on set of the movie, killing off an actress while filming? (Particularly if it was the actress playing Sidney?) The casting of Scream 3 is also off. In contrast to the hot cast of the first two films, Scream 3 gives us Jenny McCarthy and Patrick Warburton? A lot of these actors are perfectly talented in their own right, but aside from Posey, the new characters are duds across the board, and become what other Scream movies mocked: cardboard cut-outs who exist solely to be knocked off. We’re not sorry to see them go.
Scream 3 has its pleasures, particularly Parker Posey as Jennifer Jolie, an actress playing Gale Weathers in Stab 3. This is thanks almost entirely to Posey’s performance, since the character as written is only so-so. Sidney’s trauma is also competently carried over. Scream 2 saw Sidney struggle with whether or not she could open up to another man in her life, after the epic emotional abuse Billy put her through; her inability to trust Derek gets him killed. (Though I’m sure Mickey would have killed him anyway.) Scream 3 picks up with Sidney alone and in hiding, a very sensible place for her to be after no fewer than four psychos have attempted to kill her through two separate killing sprees. She spends her time counseling women in trouble over the phone, a nice reversal of the menacing Ghostface does using that very same device. It’s like Sidney is “undoing” all the damage Ghostface has done — or at least is taking a solid go at it.
Moreso than the other Scream movies, Scream 3 is all about a haunted past. Unfortunately, Kruger decides to take this literally, having the ghost of Maureen Prescott haunt Sidney through dreams and fantasies, and possibly through the lame voice-changer used by the killer. Scream 3‘s killer turns out to be Sidney’s illegitimate half-brother, after Scream‘s mastermind was the son of the man Maureen had an affair with, and Scream 2‘s was his wife. This makes the Scream trilogy the ultimate slut-shaming, pinning dozens of murders on Maureen’s indiscretions — and making her daughter pay for them. I don’t entirely mind this aspect of the story, but in both Scream 2 and Scream 3, the unmasking of the killers is by far the weakest link, devolving into camp.
That’s true to an extent in Scream, too, except for the eerie resonance that the buddy-buddy stabbings have with real-life teen slayings, most notably Columbine. Like its creators, I don’t believe that Scream could inspire anyone to kill who wasn’t already going to, but it certainly explores the “movie-freaked” minds of people who do in an intriguing fashion. I somewhat enjoy Timothy Olyphant’s “freaky Tarantino film student” villain Mickey in Scream 2, since his motive is bonkers, but the Loomis and Maureen Prescott-connected killers always end up feeling like a reach. (Gotta love Laurie Metcalf for trying, however.) It isn’t until Scream 4 that we get another murderous motive to rival the first Scream.
The most brilliant sequence in Scream 3 has Sidney return to Woodsboro via the Stab 3 set, where she is chased by a killer in a mirror of the first movie. In this way, Sidney literally revisits the past and gets haunted all over again, literally, via another Ghostface attack, and figuratively. But it’s also another clever hall-of-mirrors effect that Scream excels at, adding a layer of Hollywood artificiality on top of a real life crime scene. It’s all aces, until Sidney’s dead mom shows up to beat us to death with a metaphor that was already working perfectly.
It’s useless to try and add a literal ghost to Scream 3, since Ghostface serves that purpose already. The masked killer and the sexy-slasher voice he uses to terrorize his victims are consistent throughout the Scream movies, even though the killers are not. Most major horror franchises have the same killer rise from the dead in each movie — Jason, Michael, Freddy, Chucky — but in Scream, its more like the spirit of horror itself infuses its victims with an urge to get meta and start stabbing. The Scream movies don’t deal with the supernatural, but you could read them that way — and, in a way, it makes them more believable. Ghostface is the embodiment of trauma, which Sidney can’t escape. It isolates her, killing off the people she loves one by one, causing her to mistrust anyone who appears in her life. Sidney is stuck with Gale Weathers because, at least, she knows Gale has been through this enough that if she was going to snap, she would’ve done it long ago. (Having any of the core Scream cast turn out to be a killer would be a massive mistake in exchange for a lame “gotcha,” one I’m very glad every movie avoided.)
Even if most actual trauma victims aren’t targeting by the same kind of tormentor over and over, they can often feel like they are, or might be. This is why I’m dismissive of those who are dismissive of the Scream series, who see it as merely shallow and jokey. Whether fully intentional or not, the Scream series, like all the greatest horror films, has a hell of a lot of subtext and speaks volumes about the things that actually scare us — like sexuality, like trust, like the past coming back to haunt us. It’s a hell of a feat for a series that is also so funny, frightening, and entertaining.
Budget: $40 million
Domestic Total Gross: $38.2 million
International: $59 million
Opening Weekend: $18.7 million
Release Date: April 15, 2011
Scream 3 was a more modest hit than its predecessors. The series wasn’t revived again until 11 years later, when new blood could be injected into the premise. Unfortunately, Kevin Williamson again came into conflict with Bob Weinstein, meaning that Ehren Kruger once again put his stamp on a Scream movie. I can’t say so with certainty, but it seems pretty easy to tell which pieces of Scream 4 belong to Williamson (the good stuff) and what we can thank Kruger for. I can’t imagine Williamson penning Anthony Anderson’s “fuck Bruce Willis” line (after this character has been stabbed through the forehead), or the incessant banter about Marley Shelton’s lemon squares.
Scream 4‘s script is a significant improvement over Scream 3, particularly when you watch the deleted scenes and learn how much smarter the movie was before Bob Weinstein hacked it to pieces. Both versions begin with a double-header of Stab fake-outs that recall the brilliant meta openings of Scream and Scream 2, revamped for 2011. It’s delicious overkill. Then, the real killing in Woodsboro is serviceable, but the cut scene is infinitely better — with a teenager watching her friend get stabbed to death, rolling her eyes because she thinks it’s just another prank. It’s a brilliant exploration of how desensitized we are to violence these days, but Bob Weinstein apparently thought it wasn’t scary enough. Whatever, Bob. I go into a lot more detail about what was cut, and why it was so wrong, here.
Despite these unforgivable edits, Scream 4 more or less gets the job done, with a terrific supporting character in Hayden Panetierre’s Kirby (who, let’s hope, doesn’t actually die) and a genuinely clever twist as we reveal the identity of the killer to be Sidney’s cousin, Jill, who wants to emulate Sidney and become a celebrity victim. (The scene in which Jill injures herself is both a brilliant recall of the original Scream, and darkly funny in its extremity.) I wish the film made better use of Gale Weathers, who as portrayed by Courteney Cox in the first two films totally slays. Does Kruger just not know how to write her? One thing the Scream movies never get enough credit for is the way they depict the media as the twisted sister of Hollywood horror. Gale Weathers’ true crime reportings are just as glossy and manipulative as any slasher flick.. There are three layers in every Scream movie — the truth, the media’s take, and then the Hollywood version, each with a diminishing connection to reality. Gale’s conflict in Scream 2 — trying to stay impartial and do her job after she’s literally become the news — is a fascinating arc, but she’s basically comic relief in the next two movies. (And her hair isn’t as good, either.)
Scream 4 failed to revitalize the Scream franchise, and Scream 5 remains up in the air while the series’ name lives on on MTV, even though that show has little to do with the movies. Given that Wes Craven passed away last year, it’s probably wisest to leave it well enough alone; I don’t trust Bob Weinstein to hand the reigns to someone worthy of the Scream legacy. (Unless he hands it to me? I am available.)
I’m always amused when I recall Owen Gleiberman’s review of the first Scream in Entertainment Weekly, in which he declares, “I seriously doubt that Scream will spark a splatter-movie revival, but anyone who has ever shuddered into their popcorn at the sight of a kitchen knife dripping Karo-syrup blood will have a fine time watching Wes Craven, who has turned out almost nothing but duds since A Nightmare on Elm Street, rediscover his craft with this inspired wink at the cliches he helped invent.”
So much for foresight, right? Scream did, in fact, spark a splatter-movie revival — with a vengeance. Scream was more influential on pop culture than virtually any other movie in the 90s, revitalizing the entire horror franchise and kicking off a whole wave of teen films — not just slasher flicks, either. Almost any teen film from the late 90s owes something to Scream, as it reframed the way teenagers speak in movies and made casting these hot, young WB-ready stars bankable. Of course, Scream‘s parody, Scary Movie, set off a whole (bad) genre of its own.
As much as I’ve dug into why I love Scream here and in the podcast, I could go further and further. There are endless layers here, just as there were designed to be, when Kevin Williamson first penned a movie that was all about the way we watch and think about movies — about the ways our lives reflect them, and how they reflect us. It’s no accident that the first script I ever wrote had me inserting myself into a Scream movie — adding just one more layer of meta to the mix. I credit Scream with inspiring my first screenplay, and maybe, then, the trajectory of my whole life.
As the tagline says, “Someone has taken their love of scary movies one step too far.” I’m happy to admit that it was me.
Happy 20th Anniversary, Scream!
When We Were Young is a podcast devoted to the most beloved pop culture of our formative years (roughly 1980-2000). Join us for a look back to the past with a critical eye on how these movies, songs, shows, and more hold up now.
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