Looking back on these films is interesting. Scream hit our screens in 1996, at a time when the horror genre was somewhat in the doldrums. The Freddy Krueger franchise appeared to have played itself out with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994; the slasher cycle had run out of ideas, recycling itself over and over to growing disinterest from audiences; many of the great genre directors had either departed the genre (such as Cronenberg and Raimi), or struggled to get a film made (Romero) during the decade.
So when Scream came along in 1996, and cleverly chose to openly acknowledge the audience’s over-familiarity with the slasher genre before mildly subverting it, it felt like a breath of fresh air. That its massive success spawned a revival of the slasher genre that was for the most part entirely lacking in the wit, intelligence and skill of Scream is not really its fault. But it is ironic that Scream 4 has come along as the second wave of slasher movies is itself running out of steam with desperate studios turning out blander and blander remakes of lesser movies from the first cycle. Will Scream 4 turn things around again? Will it acknowledge the rise of the tougher naughties cycle of horror films that followed Saw and Hostel? We will find the answer soon, although a full scale third slasher revival seems unlikely (and unwanted).
Turning back to the original three Scream films, what made them so successful? It’s fair to say that the success of Scream was not a sure thing. Miramax changed the title from the original, more on-the-nose, Scary Movie (count how many times those two words are spoken in Scream? Turn it into a drinking game and you’ll end up in A&E), and marketed the film as a “thriller” not a horror film. Craven put together a cast of young actors who were either little known, or had come from TV. The most high profile actor was probably Drew Barrymore, and back then she was still in career recovery mode after a slew of tabloid drug tales. Neve Campbell was from TV’s Party of Five, Courtney Cox was still making Friends, David Arquette was then less well known than his actor sisters Patricia and Rosanna. Among the actors to have passed through the franchise are: Carrie Fisher, Heather Graham, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jamie Kennedy, Jerry O’Connell, Joshua Jackson, Lance Henrickson, Liev Schreiber, Luke Wilson, Matthew Lillard, Omar Epps, Patrick Dempsey, Parker Posey, Rose McGowan, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Skeet Ulrich, and Timothy Olyphant.
Scream (1996) ???? is actually most directly a parody of John Carpenter’s Halloween; the film’s party-set climax plays out to Carpenter’s seminal soundtrack as Halloween plays on a TV set. Halloween is generally regarded as the first slasher movie (although it’s actually Bob Clarke’s Black Christmas) and Screams’ teen cast of cine literate characters is fully aware of the rules and clichés of the genre. Where a character breaks one of the "rules" other characters are quick to bring them up to speed.
Scream sets the template for the subsequent sequels: an extended pre-credits stalking sequence that features the death of a high profile guest star; extended discussion of genre conventions by the characters; the distinctive ghost face killer costume; a complex climax in which killer or killers are unmasked and motivations revealed Scooby Doo style. Looking back at Scream, I don't think it's a classic of the stature of Halloween. For one thing it sags quite a bit in the middle section. However it is a very good film, it's clever without feeling like a media studies lecture, the cast are good, and Craven directs the scares with the efficiency you would expect.
Scream 2 (1997) ???? moves the action on a year finding the survivors of Scream at college (studying film of course). Rather than resurrect its killers, the Scream movies introduce copycat killers with their own twisted motivations. The meta film references are more complex than in the first Scream. African American characters appear for the first time (Scream is quite Midsummer Murders in this regard), cue discussions of race in horror. There are some pleasing Giallo-esque touches, such as a brilliant stalk and slash sequence that takes place in broad daylight, and another in a recording studio where a character can see but because they are sealed in a soundproofed recording room they cannot warn another character that "he's behind you".
Scream 2 has the best pre-credits sequence of all three films. Set in a movie theatre showing a preview of Stab – a fictionalised version of the events of the first film – this sequence is alternately funny, scary, and horrifying and raises issues about the consumption of screen violence. Scream 2 can't top the demented final act of Scream, but overall it's my favorite of the three.
Then there's Scream 3 (2000) ??. Oh dear. Dispensing with the screenwriting skills of Williamson, Scream 3 is written by Ehren Kruger (writer of The Brothers Grimm, the US remake of The Ring, and one of the credited writers on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). Scream 3 is bad, really bad. The meta references don't work (horror doesn't really do trilogies; it goes back to the well until there's nothing left. I can only really think of Romero's original Dead trilogy, and that doesn't work here); the pre-credits stalk and slash scene is tired; the plot is confusing; and crucially a central character is sidelined from the action (possibly because the actress was not all that enthused about a third film). A woeful cameo by Jay and Silent Bob epitomises how the nods and references that were clever and surprising in the first two films became banal and obvious. It's a sorry end to an otherwise enjoyable series of films.
The Blu-ray presentations of the three films are top notch as you would expect, the picture is crisp and colourful, and audio makes great use of surround. Each film comes with a reasonable array of extras (commentaries, deleted scenes, outtakes, trailers, making ofs).
EXTRAS ★★★★ Scream: Audio commentary by director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson; Production Featurette; Behind the Scenes; Q&A with Cast and Crew; Trailers. Scream 2: Audio Commentary by Craven, Producer Marianne Maddalena, and Editor Patrick Lussier; Deleted Scenes; Outtakes; Featurette; Music Videos; Theatrical Trailer. Scream 3: Audio Commentary by Craven, producer Marianne Maddalena and editor Patrick Lussier; Deleted Scenes; Alternate Ending; Outtakes; Behind-the-Scenes Montage; Music Video: Creed's What If; Trailers.