It’s Halloween which means it’s time for my self-inflicted yearly torture. Every October I pick a horror franchise, watch every instalment and go slowly insane as they inevitably descend into depths that the most depraved mind could only dream of. Yes, I am talking about Hellraiser IX: Revelations. In the past, I’ve subjected myself to the entirety of Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Saw and the already mentioned Hellraiser. However, I’m not necessarily recommending you read them. My old writing is fucking atrocious.
It is 2020, though, and if there is a year where I deserve to do something nice for myself, it’s this one. So, rather than putting myself through another ten plus films, I am working on easy mode, as we dive into the self-referential world of Scream. Four films? All of them directed by Wes Craven? This can only be a delight.
It all starts so atypically. A young women (the cameoing Drew Barrymore) home alone being terrorised over the phone by a mysterious voice before her violent and bloody death. The only hint of what is to come is the references to other franchises, most of which are the films I’ve covered in years gone past.
Because this may start like every other teen slasher, but it quickly becomes apparent that it is nothing of the sort. While Wes Craven had already dipped into dismantling horror when he returned to Freddy Krueger and pulled the meta out in New Nightmare, now he wanted to go a step further. He wasn’t just taking apart his own work. He was coming for the whole goddamn genre.
For Scream is a horror film that has seen other horror films. It’s not only seen them but studied them, learning their tropes and picking apart their tendencies. Kevin Williamson’s script is born from his love of the genre, and it shines through in every scene. From the now-classic explanation of the ‘three rules’ to the janitor in a distinctive sweater, he knows his shit.
What works best, though, is the stuff that twists rather than pays homage. The way that Ghostface takes a thrown beer bottle to the balls and crumples over, a grunt escaping him, catches you off-guard, as it’s a far cry from the unbreakable stoicism of Michael Myers. The chase scenes through houses and the murders that follow are classic slasher, but the dance that takes you there is designed to elicit giggles alongside its shocks, crazed killers taking well-timed doors to the face before carving up their victims.
And that’s Scream’s real success story, as it is one of the few horror films to be genuinely scary and funny. Many have landed on one, but few have collected both, unable to walk that tightrope. However, as horror nerd Randy Meeks sits on the sofa, yelling at Jamie Lee Curtis to turn around on his TV, Ghostface sneaking up on him at the same time, you’re both tense and laughing.
Credit for that also has to go to the cast, who were somewhat unique in horror by being well-known. The likes of David Arquette and Courtney Cox are having a ball, playing up to their tropes, but administering them with enough personality to burst through the norm. They’re over the top and silly, yet that’s the exact register this film requires. Central victim, Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott, can get away with being a bit bland because she’s surrounded by a hell of a cast.
It’s a film that feels like it should have changed slashers forever, but the truth is that few, if any, have managed to match its wit and invention. Scream revived the genre only for the genre to go back to doing the things it had always done. Now, I’m not necessarily complaining about that, I love a good slasher, but it would be nice to have a handful more that matched Wes Craven’s standards.
If doing these Halloween binges has taught me anything, it’s that sequels which come out a year after a successful original, are bad news. They’re usually rushed through, desperate to cash-in on the hype. Scream 2 was no different. While Kevin Williamson had come up with the basic premise for this film at the same time as the original, the actual script was often being cobbled together on the day of filming, struggling to keep up with the frantic schedule.
Worries about the script or not, Scream 2 starts where you’d want it to. We’re dropped back into a world where the events of the first film have been adapted for the big screen. Unfortunately, a packed opening night screening sees a young woman brutally murdered by Ghostface in front of a baying audience who are convinced it’s a publicity stunt. The meta begins!
For what do you do when film number one twisted the genre already? You go after the number twos. All the big slashers have ’em, and they nearly all fall into the same traps, so from the second horror nerd Randy’s film class discusses whether sequels can ever surpass the original, we know where we’re going.
And it hits all the beats, the deaths get more gruesome, the body count is higher and we even (spoiler) knock-off an original to tug on the old heartstrings. Importantly, though, the script, despite all those issues, is still just as knowing and tight as the original. The only flaw is that it’s lost its surprise factor, as you come in expecting the subversion. Sadly, you can’t reinvent the wheel every time.
Instead, Scream 2 is that horror rarity, a decent sequel. Yes, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of the first, but it’s still tense and funny in equal measure. Not everything lands, for two people who got married David Arquette and Courtney Cox have very little chemistry while central character Sidney remains little more than a prop for the film to revolve around, but it can be forgiven. By the time it hits its deliberately stagey final act (it literally takes place on a stage), it has you hooked, and Wes Craven has done it again.
The rarely seen horror trilogy is what Scream 3 claims (via incredibly clunky exposition) to be sending up. Unfortunately, I’m not even sure you can claim the horror trilogy is a thing, certainly not in the slasher genre. Christ, Halloween III was a completely different film, although it did have a very catchy theme song. It leaves you wondering where exactly Scream 3 is going.
Sadly, it seems to be getting lost. With Kevin Williamson gone and Ehren Kruger taking over the script (which was still being written during filming), Scream 3 becomes the very thing these films once mocked. We’ve got a nonsense plot, painfully unfunny comedy and (worst of all) it’s fucking boring. If the first two managed to be both scary and funny, this succeeds with neither.
What’s even more frustrating is that there are hints of something interesting here. This being Hollywood, Scream 3 gets its meta from introducing a film within the film, Stab 3, the in-universe franchise about the Ghostface killings. Most of the jokes associated with it fall flat, the self-obsessed actors barely counting as tropes, but there is a wee side plot that stands out and feels surprisingly 2020. Throughout the film, there are constant references to the sexism of the film industry, Carrie Fisher even popping up in a cameo to drop a joke about sleeping with George Lucas. With what we know now, it all seems surprisingly sharp (it is a Harvey Weinstein film) and is a superior attack on cinema than any of the horror nonsense. Unfortunately, it’s barely an aside, a few throwaway lines that are never expanded beyond that.
Instead, Scream 3 goes down the easy route and, with it, the one of disappointment. And yet, I found it kind of hard to get angry about it. There isn’t much good about this film, but it’s not a total shit show. It just feels tired and worn out, like everyone involved had a contractual obligation, so they gritted their teeth and got through it. I certainly did.
Scream 3 was set-up as the end, the happily ever after that would see Sidney Prescott walk off into a bright future. However, this is horror, and even when you’re taking subtle jabs at the films that came before, the big bad can’t resist rising up once more.
Scream 4 is a soft reboot, both in concept and in the direction it focuses its satirical gaze. The old cast is all still here, but they’ve had a bunch of plucky newcomers join them, closely set-up to mimic the tropes of that original ensemble. There is one big difference, though. Modern technology has entered the game, as we’ve got mobile phones, live streaming and text messages. They even manage to slip in a message about how being obsessed with the internet might be a bad thing, how very 2010.
Unfortunately, none of that leaves Scream 4 feeling fresh. This is Scream with a fresh coat of pain, as they’ve gone full Force Awakens on us. Although, as it came first, I guess Force Awakens went full Scream 4 on us. Then again, I’m not sure this had quite the same cultural impact. Anyway, that’s probably not important. The point is that once again, this falls into all the holes it’s supposedly mocking, attempting to do the original with a twist, but getting nowhere close.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as Kevin Williamson is back on writing duty and you can tell. The script zings in a way that three never did and does land a few of those jokes. It makes it a superior watch to that one and, honestly, you probably could slot it in as a decent slasher. If this were Teen Murder 1 rather than Scream 4 there would be a lot of stuff that made no narrative sense, but it would also probably land a lot better. It’s hurt by the fact you expect better.
Sadly, it would also end up being Wes Craven’s final film, one of horror’s greats going out on a middling effort. Not that it would taint his legacy, a literal steaming pile of shite couldn’t have done it. He was still one of the best, and with Scream 5 currently in development, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett have some big old shoes to step into.