In a world of Rick And Morty, Family Guy and Deadpool, the idea of a major franchise hinging on meta discourse and trusting its audience to be in on the joke might not seem all that groundbreaking, or even interesting. In 1996, however, 12 years after Wes Craven had already confirmed his place in horror's hall of fame thanks to A Nightmare On Elm Street, the visionary director reinvented the wheel once again with Scream: a fun, tense, ingenious meta-slasher that riffed wonderfully on some of horror's most shameless tropes while managing to carve out a genuinely thrilling addition to the genre.
In the process, he created the last great pre-21st century horror icon in Ghostface, a raspy-voiced, knife-wielding, horror-obsessed sicko (ahem, sickos), hiding behind a ghoulish mask as he delighted in terrorising the young citizens of Woodsboro, California. The film was a generation-defining, box office-smashing success - so much so that four sequels have followed since, with another, Scream VI, set to arrive later this year.
Before we get to see Ghostface slice and dice his way across New York, however, we've ranked the five existing Scream movies so far, from worst to best. Alright, from least best to best - because let's face it, this is one horror franchise with a hell of a kill rate. Let's get to it...
5. Scream 3 (2000)
Widely regarded as the nadir of the original trilogy upon release, Scream 3 has nonetheless actually aged surprisingly well and is a much better film than most entries this far down any horror ranking could claim to be. While the newer additions to the cast are mostly as forgettable as any other cookie-cutter teen slasher fodder, they do at least add an extra bit of energy to propel everything forwards, and the idea of our beloved core characters having to contend with shallow imitations of themselves is great fun. Plus, the film's themes of sleaze and sexual abuse in Hollywood were a bold swing all the way back in 2000, and now seem incredibly prescient in a post-MeToo world.
There's still plenty to keep Scream 3 firmly at the bottom of this list, however. The reveal of Roman being Sidney's half-brother feels convoluted and unnecessary, and the commentary on horror 'threequels' just feels a little tired and uninspired. Oh, and then there's Gale Weathers' haircut, of course. Truly the real monster of the film. For the fifth best film in a horror franchise, however, you'll struggle to find much better than this.
4. Scream 4 (2011)
No, we're not calling it 'Scr4am'. Wes Craven's return to Woodsboro after just over a decade away wasn't just a definite improvement over its predecessor, but a damn decent addition to the series in its own right. The likes of Hayden Panettiere, Alison Brie and Emma Roberts bring far more gravitas to the newer cast additions than Scream 3's largely forgettable sprinkling of fresh faces, while the looming legacy of the in-film Stab movies makes for a fun backdrop for our main heroes to rub up against.
Much like Scream 3, the fourth entry into the franchise is also pretty ahead of its time, this time around dissecting the dangers of social media and the toxicity of, well, being a clout-chasing, fame-hungry dickhead (an eternal moral lesson, but one made all the more vivid in a world of influencers and controversy-bating media personalities). It also packs some great kills, Sidney's cousin Jill getting fried by defibrillators and shot in the chest an all-time classic 'final villain' finisher. By this point, it did feel like a lot of the horror meta-commentary was getting seriously played out, but a great cast, fun story and typically compelling direction from Wes Craven made Scream 4 a worthwhile punt.
3. Scream (2022)
If Scream 4 could have been deemed a risky endeavour, a fifth entry, 11 years on, with no Wes Craven, in a climate where horror is more creative and exciting than ever, had the potential to be an absolute clanger. And yet, against the odds, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett produced an excellent addition to the franchise, managing to honour Craven's legacy and staying true to the series while pushing the franchise forwards, finding new things to say on the state of horror movies (and a whole lot else) and even packing in some genuine emotional gut-punches.
As with Scream 4, the film gives itself a great head-start by amassing a seriously talented supporting cast, Jenna Ortega (pre-Wednesday), Mikey Madison, Jasmin Savoy Brown and The Boys' Jack Quaid all putting in compelling, believable star-turns. The film's themes, too, feel pertinent and unforced, analysing the discourse around 'elevated horror', toxic fandoms and incel culture without stabbing us through the chest with any of it.
Really, though, where this Scream excels the most is in its understanding that, at this point, we care deeply about the series' core characters and the relationships between them. The killing of Dewey could have seemed cruel and needless, but it's by far the most emotionally resonant moment of the whole series, an earned hero's death with lasting repercussions. Gale and Sidney's final march on the original Scream house is stirring, too, while a surprise, ghostly appearance from Skeet Ulrich as Billy Loomis is just the right side of too silly.
2. Scream 2 (1997)
Rushed out less than a year after the first film and with the pressure very much on for Wes Craven to somehow repeat a trick that effectively redefined an entire genre, Scream's sequel could have so easily been the kind of cynical, lazy cash-in that the original would have taken great pleasure in lambasting. Luckily, Craven ain't no schmuck: Scream 2 is another absolute classic, managing to send up horror sequels in style while upping the blood and gore and perfectly balancing tension and humour every bit as well as its predecessor.
Its opening scene, in which Jada Pinkett-Smith's hapless Maureen is brutally slain in the middle of a Stab screening in front of a baying audience who presume it's all part of the show, is a stone-cold classic - amazing, when you consider that the first film's opening segment is one of the most iconic of all time. It's such an effective moment, in fact, that it's often overlooked that during the very same scene, Omar Epps' Phil is despatched only a few moments earlier in a toilet cubicle scene that is equal parts hilarious and gut-churning.
While the reveal of Mickey as Ghostface (plus his accomplice, er, Billy Loomis' mum) just can't compare to the manic brilliance that follows Stu and Billy's unmasking in Scream, and the death of Randy Meeks still feels like a sizeable narrative misstep, Scream 2 remains that rarest of things in the 90s: a horror sequel that truly lives up to its namesake.
"You never told me your name."
"Why do you need to know my name?"
"Because I want to know who I’m looking at."
With those three lines, Wes Craven crafted one of the most chilling swerves in horror history, and the bloody, thrilling chaos that followed confirmed Scream as boasting one of the most impactful and unforgettable opening scenes in all of cinema. While Craven had already dabbled with meta horror courtesy of his thoroughly decent New Nightmare entry into the ...Elm Street series two years prior, Scream's smart, snappy, knowing dissection of horror tropes was a blast of fresh air that revitalised a genre.
Packing a charismatic cast with great chemistry, a killer of a script by Kevin Williamson and a whodunit-style plot that kept viewers guessing, Scream was tense, thrilling, scary and funny in equal measure, a satirical masterpiece that'd influence a generation of slashers to come. Watching it back now feels like opening up a time capsule of pop culture perfection - barely a scene goes by without a memorable line or well-executed takedown of classic horror cliches, all of which could only have been delivered so convincingly by a true auteur who knows and lives the medium.
Its combination of cool, emerging Hollywood players (Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan) and established stars (Courtney Cox, Drew Barrymore) was a dramatic shift in the usual casting choices for a new horror franchise, while its characters' keen awareness of horror canon drastically changes the stakes once the action truly gets going. Over a quarter of a century on, and Scream still sizzles with all the propulsion of a pop culture hallmark, establishing a franchise that has rarely dipped too far in quality since. If you like scary movies, you love Scream. It's as simple as that.
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