With a fourth installment about to hit cinemas, Luke Owen dissects Wes Craven's 'Scream' trilogy...
This coming Friday sees the release of the newest instalment of the Scream franchise, a good 15 years since the first one. Which means, as residents of Great Britain, we only have 4 more days to refer to Scream as a trilogy rather than a quadrilogy. And if Dimension gets their own way, we’ll be heading for another 2 sequels, turning the series into a saga.
But enough talk of future instalments (for now at least), let’s go back to the beginning, where a young man named Kevin Williamson was writing a script inspired by movies he grew up watching.
Scream (Craven, 1996)
The 90s were dark times for the slasher genre. The big dogs of the 1980s had seen better days and had all come to a close or were, ironically, dying of death. Halloween was spewing out poorly received sequels and Freddy and Jason had hung up their respective claws and masks in the wait for a film that wouldn’t see the light of day until the turn of the new millennium. Much like the tortured teenagers that populated the movies, the genre was dying and in need of reviving.
The revival it needed came in the unlikely form of a film that, for all intents and purposes, was spoofing the very thing it was portraying. In 1995, Kevin Williamson had penned an 18 page treatment called Scary Movie along with 2 five page treatments for potential sequels - the plan being that he could sell them as a package so a production company could franchise the property. The script grew and grew throughout this time and was eventually sold to the Weinsteins and Miramax who gave it to their sister company Dimension Films. Wes Craven jumped on board shortly after his Haunting remake fell through and the script was renamed Scream. Production began in April of 1996 and ended in June of the same year. The film was edited quickly and released just before Christmas to much applause from fans and critics alike. The slasher genre was back and it had a new face – a Ghostface.
What makes Scream an interesting film is that it became the first successful post-modern slasher movie. It blurred the lines between film world and real world – something that was quite popular among films in the early and mid 90s. The post-modern aspect of Scream was not something that was not new to director Wes Craven - he had tried something similar with Freddy Kruger in 1994s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Unfortunately, the idea behind New Nightmare was never really conceived to its full potential which hurt the film. Scream on the other hand, got it just right. Its post-modern with enough seriousness about it, but still has its tongue placed firmly in its cheek.
And that’s what makes Scream such an excellent film - it balances horror and comedy and it never feels like its juggling too many balls at one time. Despite the fact that Scream is a spoof of the genre, Craven’s excellent direction keeps its audience on edge like a true horror film should. I believe that without Craven at the helm, the film may not have been so widely received. Because Craven is spoofing a genre he has extensive knowledge in (and at times spoofing his own work), he understood the balance between being poop your pants scary and wet your pants funny.
The best example of this is the film’s opening 12 minutes. We watch Casey (played by Drew Barrymore – who requested the role despite being offered the lead Sidney Prescott) as she awaits her boyfriend to arrive so they can snuggle up with some popcorn and a scary movie. Her evening is interrupted however when she receives strange calls from a man who wants to play a game with her - asking her questions about horror movies (in particular, slasher movies of the 80s such as Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween). As the unattended popcorn starts to get out of control, so does the scene as the strange caller’s game takes a deadly turn. Casey now must answer the phonecallers questions correctly or her boyfriend (played by Kevin Patrick Walls, who nearly got the role of Billy - which is highly ironic when you consider the ending) will be killed. When the game is turned on Casey, and she becomes the prey, we as an audience are treated to a marvellously made ‘stalk-and-slash’ sequence that is a masterpiece in horror filmmaking.
The brilliance of this opening sequence doesn’t just lie with Craven’s genius. Kevin Williamson’s script peaks and troughs with beautiful nuances that really build the scene to a fantastic climax. This is capped off with the brilliance of casting Drew Barrymore, who was a big star at the time, in the “Janet Leigh” role – as well as killing her off in the first reel just as Hitchcock had done 40 years prior at the Bates Motel in Psycho. The dialogue between Casey and the killer is almost realistic and could have occurred between horror fans outside of the cinema. The general consensus among horror fans is that A Nightmare on Elm Street is a great movie with terrible sequels and I’m sure that in the heat of the moment, some horror fans have a slip of the tongue and claim that Jason was the killer in Friday the 13th rather than his screw-loose mother Pamela. All of this culminates into an excellent and dizzying opening scene that really sets the tone for the rest of the film – and it never slows down from there.
I could go on all day about how great I think this film is. All of the characters are well rounded, the performances are great for the genre’s standards and the tongue in cheek comedy never lets up or gets old. It really is a wonderful film and thoroughly deserves its place as one of the best of its kind.
Scream opened up in cinemas in America 5 days before Christmas of 1996 and has earned Dimension films over 170 million dollars worldwide. It has garnered a high class reputation and continues to be one of the best of its breed.
With the huge mainstream success of Scream, it would have been foolish to capitalise on it. After all, Kevin Williamson had already started plans for a sequel and Dimension were not fools. They decided to go down the same route that a lot production companies in the 80s travelled. The survivors of Scream were about to head for a sequel – and with a sequel, comes new rules...
Scream 2 (Craven, 1997)
Scream 2 opened in America less than one year later on 12th December 1997. With a slightly larger budget, Scream 2 did significantly better than its predecessor and has taken in just over 173 million dollars worldwide. But critically, it didn’t fare as well.
The main problem with Scream 2 is that it feels rushed. This could be down to the Kevin Williamson writing the script too quickly and not giving it time to mature. Large portions of the script, particularly in the killing sections which just read “Wes Craven will make it scary” (this is something I will come back to later). One of the other reasons perhaps could be that Craven had been pressurised by the studio to knock the film out quickly as possible to capitalise on the first films success. Whatever the reason, Scream 2 at times feels like a cheap knock off of its far superior predecessor.
That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. Set two years after the events of the original film, the town of Woodsboro is still reeling after the attacks from Ghostface. However, Sidney and Randy are moving on with their lives as they attend college – trying their best to ignore the fact that Stab, the ‘movie within a movie’ adaptation of the killings of the first movie, has been released. On top of that, there appears to be a copycat killer of Ghostface on the loose – and he’s after Sidney.
While I do concede that Scream 2 is inferior to the first instalment, it does have some very nice touches to it. The set pieces are very well orchestrated, the script (despite being written quickly) is strong and the overall experience still has that balance of horror, comedy and self parody.
As afore mentioned, Scream 2 feels rushed and I theorised that this could be down to the quickly written script. Kevin Williamson had written several drafts of Scream 2 – each one having a different killer reveal. Part of the success of Scream came from the “whodunit” aspect – which meant that secrecy was key to the success of the sequel. However, one of these drafts leaked onto the Internet and Williamson was forced into a hasty rewrite phase – meaning the film went into production with an unfinished script. In my opinion, this could have attributed to one of the weaker aspects of the film – its ending.
The ending of Scream 2 is what really lets the film down. Rather than the well played out twist that came from the original, Scream 2 took a different approach by having the killer as a character we’ve never been introduced to before. The ending doesn’t feel as gripping, engaging or as well written as the first instalment. It’s such as shame because if the film had a better ending, it really could have raised the bar on the films standards.
Scream 2 may not have been well received by critics or fans - but its success could not be denied. Scream had now become a major player in not only the horror world, but also the film world in general. Just as Freddy had done 10 years previous, Ghostface had gone mainstream. However, it would be 3 years before we saw another sequel – and this time with a different writer at the helm...
Scream 3 (Craven, 2000)
In 1999, the Weinsteins approached Kevin Williamson about writing Scream 3. Unfortunately, despite being tied into a three movie contract with Miramax, Williamson was involved in developing some other projects and could not sign on to write a first draft. However, he did pen an outline which was passed into Ehren Kruger. Kruger admitted later that because he didn’t write the film from the start of the series, he found it hard to engage with writing the characters. This could be the attributing reason why Scream 3 is the weakest entry of the series.
This time with a much bigger budget ($40 million), Scream 3 opened February 4th 2000 and despite having a good opening weekend, didn’t manage to surpass Scream 2’s takings and was panned by both critics and fans alike.
The film takes place several years after Scream 2. The ‘movie-within-a-movie’ series Stab is entering into its third instalment and through a convoluted series of events, Sidney, Dewey and Gale find themselves on the set of the movie to stop another copycat Ghostface killer. Turns out this killer is knocking off the cast members of Stab 3 in the order they are killed in the script – but has Sidney as his main target.
One of the funniest things about Scream 3 is that all the “cast members” of Stab 3 sit around talking and complaining about how this entry isn’t as good as the other two. It’s highly ironic and certainly not intended. I get that they were trying to be funny, but they really weren’t doing themselves any favours. In comparison, the cast of Scream 2 all sat around talking about how some sequels are better than the original. While in that case they were wrong, at least they didn’t set themselves up for ironic backlash.
On top of that, the poorly written and conceived script hampers the film to a point where it can’t be saved. Where the first two films managed to pull off the balance of comedy and horror, Kruger’s script doesn’t quite get the grasp of it. In another stroke of irony, Scream 3 almost feels like the sort of slasher movie Scream was spoofing in the first place. With horrible, awful clichéd set pieces, badly written, unrounded characters and a boring presentation, Scream 3 feels like an unbalanced and badly made mess.
I mentioned in my Scream 2 review that the ending really let the film down. Scream 3 also suffers from the same affliction, but because the film is just bad all the way through, its poor ending is just the icing on the cake. Worse than just introducing a character we’ve never met before, they use an already established character but tack on a badly written backstory to justify the choice. Its a million miles away from the brilliance of Scream’s ending.
Scream 3 was a bad ending to an otherwise good trilogy. But the real question surrounding the series now is whether or not Scream 4 will right the its wrongs. Is Scream in need of another attempt? Or should it have been left to die like the victims of the films?
Well, initial reports have not been good. Kevin Williamson, who was brought back on to pen the script, left the production before it ended – meaning the writing reigns were once again handed to Ehren Kruger. However, Wes Craven stated in an interview that, “There was a bumpy period when things shifted over from Kevin to Ehren. I signed up to do a script by Kevin and unfortunately that didn't go all the way through the shooting. But it certainly is Kevin's script and concept and characters and themes" - which does inspire me with confidence. While Wes Craven will be given a lot of credit for making the films horror gems, the real genius of the first two films was Kevin Williamson’s scripts. They did such a good job of being funny spoofs of a genre we all loved while still being entertaining and frightening horror films that they deserve to be recognised as such.
“Do you like scary movies?” – Ghostface, Scream (1996)