Sometimes when you’re watching a movie, you just know you’re witnessing something special. Something that’s going to permanently alter its genre, influence the pop-culture zeitgeist—and maybe even change filmmaking itself. The Sixth Sense. Pulp Fiction. Iron Man. The Matrix. These are just a few of the movies I thought of off the top of my head that I knew were going to change the game while I was still in the theater watching them.
And back in 1996, as I took a seat in the balcony of the Brew ‘n View theater in my neighborhood, I should’ve known Scream was going to be such a movie, too. The fact that I was there in the first place should’ve been my #1 clue. See, until that point, I had never seen a scary movie in the theater. In fact, I think the only time I had ever seen a scary movie at all in my 20-something years was Children of the Corn, which I regrettably watched on cable while babysitting one night. Let’s just say I was ready for those parents to get home so I could retreat to the safety of my own room and try to forget all about the creepy-evil Malachai (Courtney Gains).
But I went to Scream because there was just so much buzz around it. FOMO still existed back in the ‘90s, kids, we just didn’t put an acronym to it. Plus, it starred the ever-happy-and-cute Drew Barrymore, Monica from Friends (Courteney Cox) and Julia Salinger from Party of Five (Neve Campbell). Those were two of my favorite shows at the time. How scary could this movie be if they were in it?
Turns out, REALLY (#$*ing SCARY. A creepy masked killer (known as “Ghostface”) who’s obsessed with horror-movie trivia is terrorizing the teens of Woodsboro, California—and he/she is not messing around. I was nauseous by the time Drew Barrymore’s character met her fate early on in the film. In fact, that image remains burned in my memory and I wish it would just go away. But her death scene has now become one of the most infamous in the horror genre, and it served to let the audience know that just because this movie starred a bunch of famous and good-looking actors and actresses you know and love, it didn’t mean the brutality was going to be dialed down one bit. After the opening scene, we were introduced to Campbell’s character Sidney Prescott, who Ghostface seemed to be targeting, while Cox played Gale Weathers, a local reporter, and David Arquette played Deputy Sheriff Dewey Riley.
Having said all of that, I did end up enjoying the movie overall because it was like nothing I’d ever seen. Brutal, yes. But thanks to the brilliance of longtime horror director Wes Craven paired with smart, snarky dialogue, clever twists and brilliant riffs on horror-movie clichés from writer Kevin Williamson (who would go on to helm one of my other all-time favorite TV series, Dawson’s Creek), Scream was not even close to being your typical horror movie. I’d learn later that those were just some of the factors that led many other women like me to the theater to see it. Scream was responsible for significantly widening the fan base for horror films.
The massive success of the movie guaranteed there would be a second—actually, it was given the greenlight while Scream was still in theaters. Craven, Williamson and the three leads rushed back into production to bring us Scream 2 just a year later in 1997. The cast was rounded out with a ton of recognizable stars (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jamie Kennedy, Jerry O’Connell, Timothy Olyphant, and more) and the plot revolved around a copycat Ghostface killer who was targeting students at Sidney’s college. It also served up hilarious commentary on horror sequels, as well as a brilliant movie within a movie: Stab (starring Tori Spelling, Luke Wilson and Heather Graham). Scream 2 ended up being the most highly critically rated installment of the franchise!
But three years later in 2000, Scream 3 fell flat. Originally conceived to be the final film of a trilogy, it actually fell victim to some of the same tired old horror-movie plot devices that its characters once made fun of … maybe because it was not written by Williamson. Further, the fact that it featured another movie within a movie (Stab 3) gave the audience a feeling of “been there, done that.”
Perhaps that’s why over a decade later in 2011, the creative team of Craven and Williamson, along with the three leads, decided to come together again for Scream 4. It’s now the 15-year anniversary of the Woodsboro murders, and yet another Ghostface has surfaced in the town. Sidney, Gale and Dewey joins forces once more to try and solve the latest crop of killings, while popular younger stars of the time (Adam Brody, Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere) rounded out the cast. In addition to snarking on the clichés of horror-franchise reboots, the film also shines a prescient and foreboding light on the dark side of social media and the pursuit of internet fame.
And finally, we come to the latest Scream (aka Scream 5) from earlier this year, which I reviewed in full here. While the original trio is back, it’s the first installment in the franchise where neither Craven (who passed away in 2015) nor Williamson were involved. However, thankfully, I found it to still capture the original spark from the original—this time making fun of itself once more with sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek slams of “requels” (reboots + sequels).
How long can the franchise keep going? Well, there’s going to be at least one more movie, and it’s already scheduled to come out in 2023 after being filmed this coming summer in Canada. I can’t wait to see what aspect of horror movies—and our culture—it takes aim at next. Regardless, the franchise has already succeeded in raising the bar for horror films and leaving an enviable legacy of smart filmmaking.