A scream is heard in the background as a phone rings, and the camera cuts to a young blonde woman answering the phone. After a few minutes, the man on the other end of the phone asks the woman, “What your favorite scary movie?” and with that, the Scream franchise was born.
The story of Scream begins when Casey Becker, played by Drew Barrymore, receives an anonymous call. At first, the call is light, flirty and fun until the man on the other end reveals that he can see everything that she’s doing. But it’s Drew Barrymore, so clearly we expect her to get away (Spoiler Alert) …until she doesn’t. Her body is gutted and hung from a tree, and viewers are left in shock as the horror genre is flipped on its head.
Scream was met with instant critical acclaim. Its ability to recognize the rules of horror films (e.g. never say, “I’ll be right back.”) while adhering to and breaking them at the same time turned the expected into the unexpected. For the first time in horror film history, not only is the audience aware, but also so are the characters they are consuming. Scream takes innovation to a completely new level.
Sidney Prescott, the protagonist of the story, and the playing out of her story are signs of that innovation. She gives the audience a relatable structure and character to identify through. Viewers can find versions of themselves in Sidney; whether it’s through her realization that her role models weren’t the images of perfection she saw them as, her lack of true friendship, or her insecurities and trust issues. Sidney’s struggles become our own struggles, and as a result, we pull for her. But what truly makes Sidney the greatest protagonist in horror is her refusal to be the victim because even when she sees herself as the victim, she fights back.
Kevin Williamson’s execution of the script fueled the film’s ability to take the expected and make it unexpected. Drew Barrymore’s death scene is just one instance of his capability and it is furthered in Scream 2 when a main character is killed as well. Williamson created a backstory that was central to the plot without making it the main focus of the film. Maureen Prescott, Sidney’s dead mother, had a troubled past that ruins her daughter’s life and all of those around her, and though Sidney is the main character, this backstory is there to remind us that Maureen caused all of this. While Maureen’s story could overshadow the plot, Williamson only allows it to enhance the overall story, making it a crucial aspect of Scream and Scream 2’s success and the reason Scream 3 failed to live up to those expectations.
When Scream 3 began production, it was met with a lot of negativity. Neve Campbell couldn’t film for more than 20 days, Williamson wanted to work on different projects outside of the series, and the school shooting at Columbine called for a lot of script rewrites. Unfortunately, Ehren Kruger, the replacement writer after Williamson’s departure, took the Scream brand and tarnished it through unrealistic deaths, out-of-place paranormal activity, and a lack of plot consistency. Kruger focused solely on Maureen Prescott’s back-story by making it a central plot to the third film, something that Williamson walked a fine line with doing. Not only that, but Kruger’s script made Sidney become the victim who victimized herself rather than the victim who refused to give in. Furthermore, the killer’s antics and identity aren’t justified in a sense that it could never happen, and while the horror genre is based on extreme cases, the Scream series took pride in its realism. In a sense, Scream 3 became everything that the first two films made fun of.
Ten years later, Williamson returned to his Scream roots, proposing a new script for Scream 4 (and a new trilogy). The film embodied everything that the original Scream stood for, including Sidney’s perseverance, unexpected deaths, relatable characters, and a nod to Maureen Prescott’s past. Unfortunately, Scream 4 couldn’t revitalize the already tarnished brand, and it suffered at the box offices, resulting in the end of any future projects.
While the Scream series had its successes and its failures, its ability to revitalize and, once again, bring legitimacy to the dying brand of horror in the 90’s is something that shouldn’t be ignored. The films gave us characters that were aware, a protagonist worth fighting for, and a back-story that couldn’t be denied, but what makes the Scream series so successful (minus the third iteration) isn’t its meta-analysis, relatable characters, or scare factor. It’s the fact that as all of those things no longer become factors, the series manages to remain a staple in the horror genre because of its cinematic excellence. You don’t have to have to be scared to enjoy Scream, and you don’t have to be a horror film expert either; all you have to do indulge in a little bit of Sidney Prescott’s reality.
From Best to Worst: Scream, Scream 2, Scream 4, and Scream 3.