Review: ‘Scream’ Trilogy (know the rules)

A celebration of slasher genre tropes (for fun and profit).

In the 1996 original film Scream, teenager Casey (Drew Barrymore) is quizzed by an unidentified phone caller (voice of Roger L. Jackson) on her knowledge of scary movies and horror tropes — “What’s your favorite scary movie?” — building innuendo and suspense until the costumed killer Ghostface emerges to stab his surprised victim. After this introduction, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) becomes a central target of the slasher among her high school friends in Woodsboro, California; local deputy Dewey (David Arquette) and journalist Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) help to uncover Ghostface’s identity while film fanatic Randy (Jamie Kennedy) lays out the rules for surviving a slasher film. In the 1997 sequel Scream 2, survivors of the first movie have gone off to college — joined by an all-star who’s who for a supporting twenty-something cast — to fend off a new Ghostface menace; a movie-within-a-movie called Stab rips sequel tropes based on a Gale Weathers novel about the original film’s events. Scream 3 completes the trilogy in 2000, moving to Hollywood for the making of Stab 3, reinventing the first film’s motivations and book-ending the series with survival rules for a presumably final installment.

Director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson created the original film and series as a celebratory send-up of horror tropes contributing to the genre itself. The Scream franchise exists somewhere between Shaun of the Dead and Behind the Mask, a self-aware who-done-it with slasher trappings. An excuse to call out filmmaking foolishness while at the same time embracing it, the films are entertaining even at their worst. Wearing the Ghostface dime-store Halloween costume conveys its own set of rules, including impossible voice changers, taking endless amounts of damage without showing it (and without conveying said damage to the wearer), and the ability to silently appear and disappear on a whim. The bread and butter of Scream, however, is following the bodies back to each new killer — and whatever excuse they have for luring out Sidney Prescott — but is the plot even important to the fandom?

The first film can be credited for reinventing a tired genre when big 1980s franchises flamed out, such as Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. Even new sequels like those following the first Candyman movie quickly burned out, and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare didn’t get the attention they probably should have. With Scream, supernatural elements were purged, going back to real-world basics and relying upon better casting to surprise audiences. The audience felt like part of the show, relating to the characters who embraced horror films and but stopping with those who crossed the line, because “Movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative.” When Scream 2 came out, everyone wanted in on the act, even an appearance by Jay and Silent Bob in character; does that mean the Scream franchise is part of Kevin Smith’s “Askewniverse”? With the conclusion of the trilogy, it felt like everything that could be done had been done, with the high point in the final film a postmortem warning to survivors, but the virtual superpowers of a Ghostface who isn’t supernatural is definitely a step down.

The on-again on-screen, off-again off-screen romance between (at the time) real life couple David Arquette and Courteney Cox satisfies the relationship angle since everything else is played for laughs or scares, a trope in itself. Campbell’s Sidney arcs from bad romance to aspiring actor to “Unabomber recluse,” lured out by each new Ghostface. By the third film’s intention reinvention — looping back to the beginning with new insight on how we got to this point — Woodsboro has been reduced to a sound-stage set and it’s clear who the survivors will continue to be without a firm reboot. Ghostface has a tendency to flail when he moves, arms out — not the most graceful movement for an actual killer — presumably to accentuate the sleeves and make it more “father death” like, but it looks silly in spite of being consistent.

It’s too bad Liev Schreiber’s Cotton Weary didn’t make the core group because he seemed like a promising character; it was never explained why Sydney was so sure he was the murderer or what she told a jury to convince them to convict Cotton. If the franchise can’t move forward from the legacy characters or at least retire them favorably, it’s only a matter of time before Scream: The Final Chapter buries the leads for all time. Maybe. Probably.

Scream: three skull recommendation out of four

Scream 2: four skull recommendation out of four

Scream 3: two skull recommendation out of four

Scream Trilogy: three skull recommendation out of four

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