I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but it is something that always bears repeating- Wes Craven was a filmmaker that was ahead of his time. Throughout most of his career, the maven director was always about two steps ahead of everyone else- whether it was where the genre happened to be at during that given time, the types of films that Hollywood was making, or sometimes, even ahead of the fans themselves.

And while he continued to push the boundaries of horror time and time again from the 1970’s through the early 1990’s, perhaps the biggest indication of Craven’s genius as a forward-thinking storyteller has to be the Scream quadrilogy which not only redefined slasher movies but also redefined his career as well. Very few directors get a chance to directly affect the genre as a whole but Craven did so in monumental fashion- and he did it twice.

Scream came along in December 1996, at a time when the horror genre and Craven’s career were both in desperate need of a jolt. Sure, there were some theatrical films prior to Scream that certainly pushed the boundaries and were innovative, but as a whole, very few studio films were finding any real financial success at the multiplexes. Craven, fresh off the disastrous Vampire in Brooklyn (a film that I feel like I am alone in my love for), wasn’t sure he was wanting to return to horror but some persuasion from The Weinsteins as well as Kevin Williamson’s genre-bending script by the name of Scary Movie got him to reconsider his stance, thankfully.

I remember the first time I really heard about Scream- they ran a trailer for it at my college on Halloween night at a screening for The Exorcist and I can remember I was so giddy over my anticipation for a new Wes Craven horror movie that I honestly barely remember watching William Friedkin’s masterclass in terror (and that was admittedly my first time as well). The days ticked by until finally, Scream was released and it worked out that it also happened to coincide with my winter break from school. That Friday night, we went to a late night showing of it and all I can remember is that our theater collectively lost our minds, over and over again. It was one of the most amazing film-going experiences I have ever had (still to this date).

From there, Scream as a phenomenon grew, and I can remember that I dragged as many people to see it as I possibly could until heading back to school in January. There are very few films that I’ve ever really done that with in my lifetime but everything about Scream struck a chord with me- Sidney (Neve Campbell) as the strong and intelligent hero who was also vulnerable and a bit fractured as well, the brilliant opening that paid homage to what Alfred Hitchcock did in Psycho (killing off a marquee name very early into a film), the smarter-than-it-had-any-right-to-be screenplay from Williamson and universally great performances from a perfectly blended ensemble consisting of both established stars and rising talents at the time.

But at the helm of all that perfection was Craven and truly, the success of the film was mostly due to his skillful management of both tone and intent throughout, as without his nuanced and playful touches as a filmmaker and appreciator for the horror genre, Scream could have been a completely different movie entirely. And while I didn’t necessarily fully realize it back in 1996, I have noticed over time just how much of Scream is Craven’s own love letter to the genre and his peers who all also helped define modern horror alongside him over the last few decades. It’s also worth noting that Scream finishes just as strong as it starts, a rarity amongst the slasher subgenre if we’re being perfectly honest, with an ending that pushed boundaries, made us laugh (Matthew Lillard truly being the MVP of Scream’s third act) and shocked us again and again.

To maintain the type of momentum that Craven was tasked with for that finale set piece in particular (Stu’s house) is nothing short of astounding on a technical level alone and the level of ingenuity on display during all the events that take place there are so intricately conceived that they should be taught as a film course to aspiring directors- it’s that brilliant. A Nightmare on Elm Street may have established Craven as one of the premiere maverick storytellers of all time back in 1984, but it was Scream that proved to the world 12 years later that he wasn’t done breaking the rules, not even a little bit.

Scream 2 came along less than a year later, with the sequel being fast-tracked while the original still out in theaters, due to the overwhelmingly positive response to its release. The effects of that insanely quick turnaround are evident in some respects when it comes to the sequel, but as a whole, Scream 2 does an excellent job of amping everything we enjoyed about the first film- a violently fun opening (which celebrates the Midnight Movie experience this time around), more gore and Ghostface shenanigans as well as a clever whodunit mystery wrought with tension (the cop car scene is still one of my favorite moments from the entire Scream series) that keeps you guessing until the very end.

Knowing that expectations going into Scream 2 were at a fever pitch, Craven also used the second installment to give us a wickedly subversive deconstruction of the conceit of film sequels in general, toying with us die-hards who are always quick to think, “Sequels suck.” And certainly while all the horror elements to Scream 2 worked incredibly well, part of the reason I adore the sequel is because it has so many moments have a huge amount of emotional resonance to them. The scene when Jerry O’Connell (playing her boyfriend Derek) sings I Think I Love You to Sidney in their campus cafeteria is absolutely one of the sweetest moments out of a horror movie of that, or any, era.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the grisly death of Randy (Jamie Kennedy) which shocked most fans just because it’s probably the most unexpected moment in Scream 2 and it may also be the greatest misstep in the film as well (his character was sorely missed in the subsequent sequel, that’s for sure, as Randy came to represent the audience in many respects).  There’s also the Ghostface chase scene with Gale (Courteney Cox) and Dewey (David Arquette) when they get separated in the recording studio which was particularly heartbreaking, especially as Gale is helplessly forced to watch Dewey get brutally stabbed in back. A nice touch was seeing Gale at the end of Scream 2 choose Dewey over her career, a touching moment that was also the final time the series got their character’s relationship right as well.

While the Scream franchise always subtly dealt with the impact of the media and their intrusive and unapologetic nature (often personified in the character of Gale), I’d say that Scream 3 certainly took that idea head-on and on ran with it, especially when you consider the evolution of the character of Cotton Weary (Liev Schrieber) throughout the first three films. In the first Scream, Cotton is only a character that’s referenced but we see in Scream 2 how he’s awkwardly forced to embrace the media that had originally vilified him for the murder of Maureen Prescott, even though he maintained his innocence (Schrieber’s delivery of the “I’ve always seen myself as a people person” early in the sequel is pure gold).

By Scream 3, Cotton has become a talk show pariah of sorts, hosting a Hollywood chatfest that often embraced more salacious topics, which makes him probably one of the most interesting characters of the entire series that’s generally overlooked. Also, I just want to take a moment to point out that it is referenced in Scream 3’s opening that Cotton likes to play Ghostface sex games with his girlfriend which is just a wonderfully messed up touch that doesn’t nearly get discussed enough.

While many fans downright disliked it upon release, I actually had fun for the most part with Scream 3, despite Cox’s god-awful bangs and a saccharine-sweet ending that feels a bit forced. While the character themselves aren’t really given any deep material this time around, there’s something to be said about making a movie about making a movie that’s just a lot of fun to watch (especially if you’re big into the craft of filmmaking). Also, Parker Posey absolutely rules in Scream 3 and certainly smoothes over any rough edges this second sequel might have, her lovably insane performance makes this third chapter worth watching.

Another prevalent theme in many of Craven’s teen-oriented films was how children often pay for the sins of their parents and while this was certainly examined In the original Scream, there’s no doubt thematically that was the driving force behind Sidney’s torture in Scream 3, something that worked well for the most part (the killer’s reveal was effective, the ghost-y stuff with Maureen- notsomuch). There’s no escape for Sidney this time around so she must confront who her mother really was in order to put the whole ordeal to rest once and for all; it’s a concept that perhaps was more effectively explored in the Nightmare series (especially Craven’s installments) but you can’t help but admire how integral he makes Maureen’s past to Sidney’s present.

Fans of the Scream series would have to languish for about 11 years until we would get more Ghostface, when Craven finally returned to helm what is now the final film of the series, Scream 4. If I’m being perfectly honest, I didn’t love the fourth installment the first time I saw it, but I will admit that frequently revisiting the last sequel over the last four years has won me over in a big way and made a huge fan out of me in the end. Not only does Scream 4 manage to infuse its approach with some rather clever twists, but at its core, Craven’s final film is also a loving tribute to the first Scream in so many different ways.

Scream 4’s opening playfully sets the tone for everything that follows, toying with the conventions of the shocking opening scene (which became a Scream trademark) by giving us multiple openers, telling audiences early on this isn’t going to be another retread sequel by any means (the biggest gripe for Scream 3 amongst fans). Other nods to the original Scream include Jenny Randall’s (Aimee Teegarden) garage death (an homage to Tatum’s murder), how Sidney’s younger cousin Jill’s (Emma Roberts) boyfriend also pops into her bedroom unexpectedly for a late-night visit (akin to Billy Loomis surprising Campbell’s character at the start of Scream), the scene with Charlie (Rory Culkin, who is awesome in the sequel) bound to a chair, and even how the Jill’s aforementioned ex is dressed during Scream 4’s finale is practically a match for how Sidney’s dad was dressed when it was revealed he was being held hostage in the first movie.

While some of the character choices were a bit underwhelming (the marital strife between Dewey and Gale, the general disconnect between all the returning cast members in general, Sidney’s aunt’s awkward comment about ‘having scars’, etc.), there’s also a lot of brilliance to Scream 4’s premise and Craven’s confident and unflinching execution of the material proved that the Master of Horror still had a bit of a brutal streak to his work. As the film says, “You do a remake to outdo the original” and while I don’t know if that’s true for Scream 4, what I will say is that it’s not for a lack of trying on the part of Craven as his trademark sense of sly humor is all over that movie.

Two other things that I also really appreciated about Scream 4 were Roberts’ performance, especially during the finale where she channels her inner Glenn Close and goes totally batshit on a glass coffee table (so great!), and Hayden Panettiere is also fantastic as Roberts’ pal Kirby, a sarcastic horror lover and party gal. Very rarely do franchise newcomers get a chance to shine like this but Craven, being the forward-thinking guy that he was, recognized that he was working with some amazing new talents with Scream 4 and gave them numerous opportunities to stand out amongst the veterans in the ensemble.

To me, it’s kind of bittersweet that Scream 4 was Craven’s last film as I feel like it may not necessarily have been as warmly received as some of its predecessors but in the wake of his death, perhaps folks will revisit it now and see those strokes of brilliance to it that I’ve been rediscovering time and time again over the last few years. Much like many of Craven’s other films, Scream 4 was a bit ahead of its time (look at where technology and the whole YouTube Generation movement is at right now- kind of eerie when you think about it) and while it may have its flaws, you can’t help but admire Craven’s involvement at the helm with the entire Scream series from start to finish, something you rarely see happen with horror franchises.

It’s also worth noting that fans of the Scream films should definitely check out the documentary on the franchise, entitled Still Screaming: The Ultimate Scary Movie Retrospective as it gives a ton of insight into the original trilogy, far deeper than I could ever begin to go into here.

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.