The Scream Series: Rules, Ruse, and Retrospective

May 30, 2011 3 Comments by

Following his review of Scream 4, writer Justin Hamelin takes a look back at the original trilogy….

Randy Meeks said it best.

“Simplicity! If it gets too complicated, you lose your target audience!”

Writer Kevin Williamson had a recipe for a blockbuster juggernaut. Horror legend Wes Craven was fresh off of resuscitating his own gory empire with the kick ass A New Nightmare two years earlier. Craven had the wit, creativity and reputation to bring Williamson’s monster to life.

Wes Craven knows how to make a horror franchise. It’s really quite simple: hot, young, up and coming actors, the perfect ratio of blood to laughs, and an iconic serial killer hiding behind a Halloween mask that was already on sale at just about every convenience store in the nation.

The horror genre had all but been pushed aside by mainstream Hollywood through the 1990’s after a wonderfully successful run in the 1980’s. Was that due to the cinema rule of thumb that everything eventually cycles through, or was it because no one had the creativity or the cajones to soak Hollywood in blood, once again?

In 1996, Scream gave a whole new generation the chance to absorb a true horror film experience, much like their parents had with the likes of The Exorcist, Jaws, and Halloween (1). Scream also offered a new question to ponder when asked, “What’s your favorite scary movie?”

Kevin Williamson was not only a screenwriter, but also quite the salesman. He provided a solid outline for a sequel to Scream even when he was taking bids for the original script. Hoping to establish his own original franchise, Williamson immediately struck gold. His viciously tongue-in-cheek exposé on the sagging horror landscape of the 90’s swiping at just about every social caveat mainstream Tinsel Town had to offer was an easy trilogy (and then some) to pitch.

Scream opens with one of the most memorable high tension scenes in horror history. The beautiful and very much established Drew Barrymore plays the sweet and innocent Casey Becker. Casey meets her maker in incredibly gruesome fashion almost before the opening credits are done rolling. Following a nerve-racking game of horror trivia, we’re treated to the eye opening evisceration of her jock boyfriend. After a deliciously anxious shot of her parents taking their sweet assed time coming home from a night out, Casey is turned into a human piñata. Craven does an excellent job of tearing at the audience’s guts as we watch Casey’s mother listen to her daughter’s last gasps of life over the telephone line.

Not only does the film instantly play on the horror cliché of living in big houses in the middle of nowhere, but movie nights alone with Jiffy Pops will never be safe again!

The next day, the wholesome town of Woodsboro is turned upside down – shocked by the ruthless murders of two squeaky clean teens and getting sucked into the paranoid frenzy that accompanies the arrival of a serial killer on the loose. We meet the gorgeous Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who’s still emotionally traumatized over her own mother Maureen’s brutal rape and murder almost a year earlier. The film circles around this murder and the dark consequences Mrs. Prescott’s infidelities had on all involved.

Skeet Ulrich plays Sid’s certified douche bag boyfriend, Billy Loomis. He looks like the poster child for 1990’s teen angst, complete with greasy long hair and an omnipresent darkness about him. No doubt in this writer’s mind that Billy loved Nirvana. Ultimately, we find out Billy and his buddy Stu (Lillard) are the slice-and-dicers behind the massacre. After an awesomely drawn out, but completely necessary dialogue between the two nut cases and target-number-one Sidney, the two fellas finally get put out of their misery by Gale Weathers of all people.

Scream is chock full of brutal slayings – Rose McGowan’s one sided battle with a garage door, Principal Himbry’s (Henry Winkler) sudden demise in his office, and TV cameraman Kenny’s filleted throat are about as good as horror gets.

The cast of Scream is as close to perfect as a film can get for a genre-bashing gore fest. The likes of David Arquette as the goofy Deputy Dewey Riley, Jamie Kennedy as a horror film buff and self-proclaimed nerd Randy Meeks, TV A-lister Courteney Cox as bitchy television journalist Gale Weathers, and the extremely off kilter Matthew Lillard as Stu are strokes of casting genius by the film’s crew. These four in particular provide perfectly timed laughs to break up the tension of a simple blood bath. And let’s not forget the contributions from buxom chick Rose McGowan of Charmed and Planet Terror fame, good looking male lead Skeet Ulrich, well-established Hollywood star power from Drew Barrymore, and yes – FONZIE! Henry Winkler can never make a movie worse, only better. The stunning Neve Campbell puts the cast of characters over the top.

Scream had it all- humor, psychological twists, and legitimate scares complete with eye-opening gore and terror. The film had sharp-tongued swipes at horror, to boot and the most fun list of rules any film has ever brought into conversation (2). My two favorite Scream in-jokes are Wes Craven’s uncredited role as the high school janitor Fred, complete with a Mr. Krueger sweatshirt and hat, and Sidney’s anecdote about scary movies, “They’re all the same, some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who’s always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door.”

The film is also a commentary from Williamson and Craven on the state of the nation’s youth. Deputy Dewey asks his sheriff if he believes Billy Loomis is guilty of the murdering Casey Becker and her boyfriend, to which the Sheriff replies, “Twenty years ago, I would’ve said not a chance. But these kids today….damned if I know.”

And finally, Marco Beltrami’s score propels the film fantastically. He scored all three original films plus the fourth installment, another home run by the brains behind the operation.

Simply put, Scream is a massive achievement both within the horror genre and as a box office performer. Having helped create more spawns that one could possibly want to list, with the I Know What You Did Last Summer series being the most clearly influenced. Scream has also been spoofed, the ultimate nod of respect. The Wayans brothers live in mansions thanks to their Scary Movie franchise.

Scream has raked in over $172 million worldwide since it’s release fifteen years ago. I not only recommend it to anyone who has yet to see it, but I suggest it to anyone who has trouble answering that famous, age old question, “What’s your favorite scary movie?”

Less than a year after the release of the original film, Scream 2 followed in the footsteps of its predecessor both in style and box office performance, earning over $172 million since its respective release.

Randy Meeks returns, and in this installment he’s discussing sequels with fellow uber-movie nerd Mickey (Timothy Olyphant) during a college class. The two argue over whether or not any sequel is better than the original. Many believe Scream 2 achieved such status.

Two years after the Woodsboro murders, we reunite with Sid and Randy, who are now students at the fictional Windsor College. After a brutal double-murder during the premiere of the movie’s film-within-a-film “Stab”, (based on Gail Weather’s bestselling book), Ghostface is back and ready to hunt down Sid. Windsor becomes a media circus, led by the fame-intoxicated Gale Weathers (Cox returning as the television journalist from Hell). Good old Deputy Dewey (Arquette) comes to town to look after his hometown pals Sid and Randy. Love is also in full bloom for Gail and Dewey, with life imitating art in this case.

We meet a new group of familiar up-and-coming Hollywood faces, namely Sarah Michelle Gellar, Joshua Jackson, Timothy Olyphant, Jerry O’Connell, Portia de Rossi, as well as Tori Spelling, Heather Graham and Luke Wilson, who star in the “Stab” sequences. Casting became admittedly much easier following the success of the first film as well as Drew Barrymore’s willingness to be attached to the franchise. Spelling plays Sidney in “Stab”, both a nod and a jab to the original Scream film, in which Sid sarcastically predicts they’d get Spelling to play her if they ever made a movie about the Woodsboro killings.

Inevitably, Ghostface makes its way onto campus, thus beginning a harrowing game of cat and mouse with Sid that eventually costs the lives of her roommate, her boyfriend, and – NOOOOOOOOO! – Randy Meeks. Killing Randy was widely frowned upon. I for one, see it as the most disappointing moment in all of the films. It really didn’t need to happen. A dead Randy does a lot less for the eventual third movie than a live Randy would have done.

To cap off a solid film that was about as much fun as the original, we find out the killer tandem at Windsor is Randy’s ‘black swan’, Mickey, and….Roseanne’s sister? Yep, it’s Mrs. Loomis, AKA Debbie Salt (Laurie Metcalf), the small town newswoman who bugs Gale throughout the film.

Mickey is driven by his passion for the rules of cinema and Mrs. Loomis is deranged by the murder of her son at the hands of Sid as well as her hatred for Maureen Prescott for tearing her family apart. Not to worry, they both end up getting pumped full of lead for their troubles. Care to guess who’s there to help off them? You guessed it, Gale Weathers!

With the success of the first film and the booming internet effect, Scream 2 was hit hard by leaked information. The entire script was leaked. Williamson and Craven were forced to write and film from the seat of their pants. The manpower behind the cameras would not be bitten twice. The final pages of the script were not given to the actors until weeks prior to shooting and the pages revealing the killers were only given to the actors involved on the day of shooting.

Shot on a budget of $24 million, the film made just under $33 million on its opening weekend. In fact, Scream 2 was viewed as a powerhouse by Hollywood even before its release. So much so that films such as James Bond’s Tomorrow Never Dies and James Cameron’s Titanic bumped their release dates back a week to avoid going head to head with the second film in the Scream series. It’s also worth noting that Scream 2 broke December opening weekend records until 2000’s What Women Want took over the throne. Damn you, Mel Gibson!

Personally, I believe Scream 2 is just a slight hair beneath the original, with the killing of Randy and the half-baked character development of Debbie Salt as the main reasons this sequel isn’t quite as good as the original. We hardly have any reason to believe she is the killer until everything is explained to us in the last eight minutes of the film. However, Scream 2 is still one of the best follow-ups Hollywood has offered.

Fittingly, three years after Scream 2 ends, Scream 3 picks up. Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette all return and Liev Schreiber reprises his role as the exonerated Cotton Weary, wrongfully accused of murdering Maureen Prescott in the original film. Based on early press clippings, Scream 3 seemed to have promise. However, that would be presumptuous, no?

Shortly before production began, the Columbine High School tragedy occurred. This led to The Weinstein Company forcing a greater emphasis on the comedy in the third installment while making the violence and horror a menial element, much to the chagrin of Craven, who also returned for the third film. Craven went so far as to threaten to retire from the horror industry. Craven supposedly claimed, “Either we make a Scream movie or we make a movie and call it something else. But if it’s a Scream movie, it’s going to have certain standards.”

Original writer Kevin Williamson was tied up with other obligations, leaving just a stack of notes for whoever was to take his place on the third film. That someone would be Ehren Kruger, who decided to scrap the notes and go about doing his own thing. The goal of The Weinstein Company and Kruger was to avoid backlash from critics regarding real life violence imitating film violence.

The third film kicks off with Cotton Weary and his girlfriend murdered within the first ten minutes, and thus, Ghostface is back!

This film revolves around Sid’s isolation as a telephone hotline crisis counselor. Gail and Dewey are back as lovers and a very fun murder-investigating duo. Newcomer Patrick Dempsey is Detective Mark Kincaid, hell bent on keeping a serial killer out of his jurisdiction while also having a bit of a thing for Sidney.

The production of “Stab 3” is going on in Hollywood, with Dewey as a consultant for the film since he survived the actual events and before long the cast of the flick are being picked off one at a time.

While the laughs are overly cheap, the scares practically non-existent and the character development wafer thin, the overall body count of Scream 3 is impressively high. Interestingly, considering the insistence by the higher ups to avoid violence, although most of the violence in Scream 3 is kiddy stuff compared to the first two films.

Cotton, his girlfriend, several cast members of “Stab 3”, a security guard played by Seinfeld’s Patrick Warburton (we’ll always love you, Putty) all get axed. Also biting the dust are Lance Henriksen (oh no they didn’t) as film producer John Milton, as well as the lone killer in this film.

Turns out, Sid’s got a half brother. Roman Bridger (Scott Foley) is a love child of Rina Reynolds – Maureen Prescott before she was Maureen Prescott. Roman is the director of “Stab 3” as well as the director of the newest massacre. If I thought Debbie Salt was poorly developed in Scream 2, then Roman Bridger is the quintessential hurry-up-and-just-pick-a-murderer example.

A few elements that saves Scream 3 from becoming an all together lame bust are these: Another solid crew of well-known faces including Parker Posey, Jenny McCarthy, Dempsey, Emily Mortimer and obviously the three remaining big wigs Campbell, Cox, and Arquette. And the return of Randy Meeks, sort of, with a videotaped run down of the rules a trilogy must follow. Although this one hardly covers the biggest rule Randy points out, but we’ll get to that in a moment. (3)

One rule is never broken, humorously enough. Throughout the trilogy, each killer bestows a rambling rant upon Sid when they should be cutting her eyes out. This gives Gale the opportunity to save Sid’s life in all three films. Those meddling kids!

Scream 3 still managed to gross $161 million. It also ironically became exactly what the first two films raked over the coals. Scream 3 is a predictable, unenthusiastic and uncreative film that desperately misses Williamson’s input. This film is a lot like an embarrassing uncle. They’re still part of the family, so no matter how cheesy or lame they may be, I can’t bring myself to hate it. Lord knows there are enough reasons to do so.

All in all, the original three Scream films were made for a collective $79 million. $40 million of that went to part three. The trilogy has racked up an incredible $550 million and counting.

So, to recap, Craven and Williamson achieved a monster success by keeping it simple. A gorgeous female lead who avoids the shortfalls of the ‘rules’? Check. Loveable goofballs to offset the horror? Got ‘em. Red herrings to keep the audience guessing? Yep. Above all else, it made fun of everything that was wrong with horror in the decade leading up to the original Scream’s release. Simplicity. Keep that in mind, Hollywood.

End notes:

1) I am by no means comparing the horror value of Scream to any of the three films mentioned. I am simply comparing the theater experience all four films had on their audiences, complete with popcorn throwing and screaming at the movie screen throughout the film.

2) The Rules!!! For the most part, the films did a great job of keeping these rules in mind. Here’s a quick rundown of The Rules for Surviving a Horror Movie, made famous by Randy Meeks.

Scream:

1- Don’t have sex.

2- Don’t drink or do drugs.

3- Never say “I’ll be right back”. Because you won’t.

4- Never investigate any strange noises, especially outside.

Scream 2:

1- The body count is always bigger.

2- The death scenes are always more elaborate, with more blood and gore.

3- Never under any circumstances assume the killer is dead.

• Randy starts to describe the third rule: “If you want your films to become a successful franchise, never, ever…” before being interrupted by Dewey. The joke is that the filmmakers are admitting there is no surefire way to ensure a film franchise is successful. However, the film’s original teaser trailer featured an extended version of the rules scene which reveals that originally the third rule was supposed to be, “Never, ever, under any circumstances assume the killer is dead.” This references Randy’s last line in the original Scream which stated that a killer always comes back to life for one last scare.

Scream 3

1- The killer is going to be superhuman. Stabbing will not work. Shooting will not work. You have to cryogenically freeze his head, decapitate him, or blow him up.

2- Anyone, including the main character, can die.

3- The past will always come back to bite you in the ass. Any sins committed in the past are about to break out and get you.

4- Basically, all bets are off.

In all three movies, at least one rule is broken, namely:

* Several characters survive Scream even after having sex, Sidney in particular.

* In both Scream 2 or Scream 3, the death scenes are never any more elaborate than those in the first. Sure, the body count is much higher in part three than it is in either of the first two films, but the only even remotely elaborate kill was watching a dude get burnt to a crisp by lighting a lighter in a house full of gas.

And….

3) * In Scream 3, Roman Bridger is not superhuman, as one head shot is enough to kill him. However, he was stabbed multiple times earlier in the film, surviving due to a bulletproof vest he wore, a fact which he revealed to Sydney before his last attempt to kill her, an attempt that ended when he was shot in the head.

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About the author

Justin Hamelin hails from Waukegan, Illinois- home of Ray Bradbury. He has published a collection of short horror stories and has been featured in Sanitarium Magazine, among other publications. He runs a blog, Mangled Matters, and also regularly contributes to the Women In Horror Month websites and movement. When he isn't writing horror, he can be found collecting books or watching horror movies at his home with his wife and three black cats. Justin has been a RavMon contributor since 2011.

3 Responses to “The Scream Series: Rules, Ruse, and Retrospective”

  1. Eryn Hamelin says:

    JUSTIN!!! It’s your little sis!! GREAT ARTICLE. you’re an amazing writer- I’m so proud of you! keep going!!! love ya=] lol.

  2. Eryn Hamelin says:

    ps- hahaha yeah, mom still justifies showing us The Exorcist at such a young age. Terrifying….yet inspiring? Hmm….=]

  3. Remembering Wes Craven: a revolutionary career | Mangled Matters says:

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