Scream (1996) was hailed as a breath of fresh air in its reinvention of the slasher film and success in rising above the cliches and tropes that helped kill the subgenre in the first place. a stark contrast to Scream 3 (2000) which was heavily criticized as succumbing to the silly tricks the original had satirized. How could a series garner extreme ends of critical reaction at the beginning and end of its lifecycle?
The answer is somewhere in the middle – okay, literally in the middle: Scream 2 (1997) represents the height of the franchise’s popularity and didn’t have the element of surprise as the original did. It had to continue to deconstruct the formula while at the same time adhering to it, in order to please the audience that wanted more of the same. Scream 2 was a precarious balance that way, and came out largely smart and successful, with a just forgivable amount of wear and tear on the concept and plot logistics. If Scream 2 was the benchmark sequel, that is perhaps why subsequent chapters have been sneakily patterned after it, hoping to achieve the same results.
It’s a formula, a very simple formula! Let’s look at five story elements that originated in Scream 2 and have been used – nay, overused – ever since.
1. THE WHOLE MOVIE META HOLE
Movies within movies are nothing new, but like the other cliches that 1996′s Scream turned on its head, this one was intelligently improved-upon. That was accomplished by using real life movies instead of made up ones. By mentioning slasher movies that existed in our reality like Psycho and Prom Night, the safe space between movie and reality was frighteningly short and the events seemed like they could really happen because they were taking place in the same world we live in.
In Scream 2, the first point of division from reality for the series was Stab, but it worked because it was simply a story tool to mirror Scream: the original was about characters forced to live a real-life horror movie whereas the sequel is about characters dealing with the effects of a horror movie portraying their lives. Two sides of the same coin, you see. In that way Scream and Scream 2 function better as a flawless double-feature than a flawed trilogy.
While Stab was the peeling of an additional layer of self-reference that built upon Scream, it was a motif that would be repeated – with consequences. Scream 3 added another layer of fiction/life with Stab 3. But if Stab was supposed to be a mirror held up to reality in Scream 2, than in Scream 3 it was a mirror held up to a mirror – not quite the same eloquence. Scream 4 at least acknowledged itself as a mirror of a mirror of a mirror. The more mirrors held up to each other, the less reality is represented anymore.
As Scream went on, Stab became an easy substitute for the real-life films the original had used to form a personal connection with the viewer. Not to mention it’s hard for the mainstream to identity with plots increasingly reliant on a fake movie. Match that up against the beautiful simplicity of 1996 when Halloween playing on the TV in the living room was paralleled by events happening in and outside the house. This year in Scream 4 when Ghostface attacks Gale in the barn – while the scene intercuts similar moments in Stab starring Heather Graham – it’s nowhere near as powerful as it should be and is almost a direct ripoff (or homage, take your pick) of Scream 2‘s opening scene which played the Stab card in a more understated fashion. As much as the faux-franchise can be endlessly fun to deconstruct from a fanboy point of view, it has become a crux after Scream 2. Simply put, this mirror needs to shatter.
2. NO, MOVIES MAKE PSYCHO’S *LESS* CREATIVE
An extension of number one, the tendency of the killer to base his targets on Stab is an element originating in Scream 2 that has since been used again and again. The copycat element was sort of loose and always evolving in Scream 2 as the characters struggled to figure out what was really going on. Initially it was theorized that the killer was making a real-life sequel to Stab, but after Cici kisses cement Ghostface is instead labeled a copycat killer because they discover the doubling of names (Maureen Evans, Phil Stevens, Casey Cooper). Halfway through the movie, the gang sit around discussing it and conclude the killer actually is not either continuing the movie or copying real life – but sort of both – sequelizing real life by finishing what was started in Woodsboro. Randy’s death proves their theory correct, and this is the strongest clue that the copycat angle is a cover for the killer (eventually revealed to be Mickey) with the true motives being more personal (Mrs Loomis). Most importantly, from this point forward, Stab is dropped – its purpose as metaphor and red-herring fully served.
Scream 3 pulled back Stab as a way to have character interplay within the making of a horror movie – except we never even get to see Stab 3: Return to Woodsboro shoot anything. The killer is basically offing the cast of Stab 3 to make the movie as a real life (sound familiar?) replacement for the one he himself (Roman) is shooting for the studio. Awkward much? What could have been a biting play on studio politics and creative control is never really explored. It just feels like a repeat of Scream 2‘s scenario for the hell of it.
As fine a film as Scream 4, it too succumbs to falling back on the copycat angle. You might argue it’s a completely different deal with the killer reinventing the original Stab as a real life movie… but that’s all semantics, really. What was fresh in Scream 2 is now overplayed, and the killer is hamstrung by the limitations that come with bringing the Stab franchise to life every single time. He cannot be truly menacing when he is forced to play by so many rules – he’s supposed to be the one making (and breaking) them!
3. THE HOT CHICK DIES SECOND
Casey Becker’s terrorizing and subsequent death was unique and one of a kind, even within the Scream film foursome. There was something so real about a pretty girl alone in the house, the 50 phone calls the killer makes, the inclusion of the parents. It was cold and shocking. In Scream 2‘s copycat killer plot, Cici Cooper suffers a similar chain of events, which took the superficial elements of the original Casey scene (the blonde alone, the phone calls, the safety check, the creeping, the chase, the kill) and compressed them. The scene succeeded as a tightly paced terror train charging at the seven-time TV Buffy The Vampire Slayer, almost cockily in spite of the fact it lacked the sustained suspense, gore quotient, and mournful resonance of the scene it was aping.
Which is why it’s a little tragic that the diluted formula of Cici’s kill would become a recurring sequence instead of the superior source it was based on (Casey’s). Blonde Sarah in Scream 3 becomes the recipient of the next duplication, only even more diluted, doubling the window smash and backstab of SMG without a cool chase or lovely sailing through the air. Scream 4 broke the forth wall by vocalizing the trope and offered a more intelligent effort when offing Olivia, but nonetheless we saw the timing and choice of victim coming because it has become a cliche after Scream 2. In comparison, the original Scream relied on tormenting Sidney as well as backstory intrigue to push the story forward through the first two acts.
Coming on the heels of Scream‘s success, Scream 2 had a lot to prove and needed to exceed the original in mayhem to show sequels could be equals. It proved its point well, so there was no need for the next movies to do the same. Scream 3 and Scream 4 earned the right to have more breathing room at this stage in each film but instead followed Scream 2 in a game of one-upmanship against each previous installment.
4. GHOSTFACE, UNMASK THYSELF!
Even in Scooby Doo the badguys had to be physically restrained while one of the gang pulled their mask off to see who the culprit was, but after Scream 2 the main killers cheesily did the honors themselves as if to say “Aha, look! I did it! It was meeeee!” The beauty of the climactic reveals in the original Scream was that there wasn’t an unmasking or disrobing – the movie appreciated the intelligence of the moviegoer enough to convey Ghostface’s identity through the batshit actions of Billy and Stu – I don’t think anyone had a hard time connecting the dots there.
In Scream 2, the killer unmasking himself happened for the first time, so got a free pass. Plus Mickey doing that had a very good motivation – it fed into his plan of playing Sidney against Derek on-stage in the theater of their lives. Plus he intended on being caught and wanted to get as much credit out of the situation as he could anyway. My point is that the unmasking was part of his character and showed us how his mind worked.
Unfortunately both Scream 3 and Scream 4 took a moment that was well-woven into the fabric of Scream 2 and ran it dry, seemingly as it was the easiest (read: laziest) way to show “whodunnit” – a cynical move that dumbed down what should be powerful moments and helped turn lightning in a bottle into an easily reproduced formula. It’s a given the killers will always want to explain their motive to the heroine before they expect to kill her (and the same goes for all slasher films with third-act motive exposition) because I suspect they secretly want her attention and validation. It’s not much of a victory if the ultimate target isn’t forced to acknowledge the criminal mind. That’s why they can’t just dispose of her like the other characters, even though the odds are that concession will cost them their lives. But the constant unmaskings are sloppy and leave Scream open for ridicule.
Even if Ghostface intends on showing his real mug, there’s no reason the mask can’t come off during a tussle or something more organic like that. This is another case where a story choice built into Scream 2 became the de-facto standard to come.
5. CLEANING OUT THE NEW CASTS
After Scream yielded survivors, the horror movie rule would be to kill them all off in Scream 2… except maybe Sidney. And that was the original plan of Kevin Williamson until script development demanded the second chapter leave enough living to carry onto Scream 3. And I’m sure the popularity of the adult survivors also had something to do with that. Poor Randy was the chosen sacrifice that would pair the foursome down to the now-legendary trio of Sidney, Dewey and Gale. So with three core survivors needed for safe travel through the films, that necessitated most of the carnage be carried out on new characters of Scream 2, and this would remain dogma for the rest of the series.
Cotton Weary is a variable in this equation: through the life of the trilogy he was practically a bit player at first, then expanded into a supporting role before being demoted (or promoted) to cameo death status. But Team Scream have their formula for handling new players practically patented: the original survivors live, and the fresh additions don’t – except for one. Whether it’s Joel in Scream 2, Kincaid in Scream 3 or Judy in Scream 4, the new blood is viciously disposed of but one is left standing as sort of a Reverse-Randy. I suspect this has more to do with money then anything – Neve Campbell, David Arquette and Courteney Cox commanded payrises and the power to almost nix sequels by bailing, so to prevent costly repeats it’s easier to just dispose of the new additions before they can gain popularity with the audience.
Telling is that the token new survivor is always someone we can’t possibly see again due to the changes in locale. Whereas the case could easily be made for say, a surviving Hallie to join Sidney in the following adventure, Joel is a local cameraman with no connection to the characters, Kincaid lived in LA his whole life and is a devoted detective there, and Judy’s lemon square doesn’t have the juice to squeeze beyond Woodsboro.
While the first Scream successfully launched a franchise, it was the positive stream of ideas offered by Scream 2 that allowed the series to continue all the way to 4 so far, sometimes to its detriment by relying on a formula derived from the first sequel.