The Scream franchise is a four-film commentary on the horror genre, making it the ideal sort of franchise to rank. Whereas most horror franchises are accused of repeating the same formula with little to no innovation with each sequel, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson made sure Scream's self-referentiality was as vital and prominent as its unforgiving body count.
Kicking off in 1996, the Scream franchise is a blood-soaked love letter to the horror genre. It brought together director Wes Craven, who was already responsible for creating classic horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Last House on the Left, and aspiring screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Together, Craven's proclivity for horror and Williamson's love of the genre helped craft a surprisingly perfect team.
The Scream franchise walks a fine line between horror and comedy, placing A-list talent in B-movie territory. And, even though the pop culture references may have a considerably brief shelf life, their datedness is part of the appeal. They fit with the genre's oftentimes transitory aesthetic. And, unlike the horror films this franchise equally mocks and tips its hat to, the Scream franchise is as self-aware as horror franchises go.
Now, since horror connoisseur Randy Meeks would devour the opportunity to rank the Scream franchise himself, it's only right to make it official. Let's take a look at all of the Scream films, ranked from worst to best.
On paper, Scream 3 is a strong bookend to the franchise. Considering the whole series is a meta commentary on horror, pop culture, and filmmaking, the film has a "finish where we started" setup, without physically finishing where the franchise started. It appropriately doubles-down on the fact that Hollywood's self-awareness has always been Scream's thematic crux, physically moving the action to Hollywood itself; expanding on, but also recreating, the events of the first film. However, instead of embracing the clever necessity of its location, it instead becomes a kind of narrative ouroboros, circling back to the past, only to eat its own tail in the process.
Where Scream 3 succeeds in the big picture (discovering that Sidney's journey has been orchestrated all along - by a Hollywood director, no less), it fails in the details (said discovery ruins the simplicity of the original). The highs in Scream 3 are too far-reaching and the lows are too unforgivable to excuse. It's ultimately an exercise in not pushing the envelope like its two predecessors, but tearing it open; removing itself from the grounded reality in which the franchise was established and drowning in excess.
Scream 3 had potential, but shaky execution. From the pointless and unrealistic evolution of the franchise's iconic voice changer to the watered-down gore to cameos from Jay and Silent Bob, Scream 3 is an unfortunate outlier in the Scream franchise that could have benefitted from a few more rewrites - or, more importantly, its original writer.
While Scream 4 might seem like an easy film to criticize by design, it's hardly the wasted sequel that too many horror franchises tend to produce. Ten years have passed since its predecessor, and though 2011 may not have been a peak moment for the Scream fandom, Scream 4 goes beyond holding its own, and is easily a worthy companion to the 1996 original.
Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette return as the franchise's main trio, Craven and Williamson (as well as Scream 3's Ehren Kruger, in part) take on directing and screenwriting duties, respectively, and Woodsboro is yet again the center of attention (though, in this film, Michigan replaces California in a noticeable, but not distracting, geographical change). However, even apart from the film's strong foundation, Scream 4 has the benefit of slick storytelling that rivals at least two of the three films that preceded it.
Ten years after Scream 3, Sidney returns to Woodsboro on the last stop of her autobiographical self-help book tour. And, in doing so, she unleashes the threat of a new generation of murders. As Ghostface slices through unsuspecting locals, Scream 4 succeeds in three key ways: cleverly acknowledging the myriad of horror tropes that have tested the waters over the past decade, bringing Sidney's story full-circle, and commenting on the times, contrasting the modern Generation Z with the original trilogy's Generation Y.
In fact, the killer's reveal in the final act is an on-the-nose - and also tongue-in-cheek - representation of the times, which itself a thematic centerpiece of the franchise, done ever so delicately (and disturbingly) here.
Though sequels historically tend to have a weak track record, Scream 2 goes out of its way to prove otherwise. In fact, it even includes a scene in which film students highlight the fact that "many sequels have surpassed their original." And, even though Scream 2 doesn't quite stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its predecessor, it comes dangerously close.
Instead of forcing its way into existence, Scream 2 feels necessary; a true companion piece to the original. Like the first film, it comments on, and sometimes satirizes, horror movie tropes - specifically horror movie sequels - while maintaining its meta commentary on the way life imitates art, and vice versa. Gale Weathers' novel, The Woodsboro Murders, has been adapted into a film, mirroring the events of Scream and inciting a new Ghostface-led killing spree. And, while the sequel stereotypes and rules are a fun component to Scream 2, its success stems from the sum of its parts.
Williamson is extending his reach with classic horror movie references (Sarah Michelle Gellar's cat-and-mouse sequence scored by Nosferatu is particularly satisfying), Craven is given room to put his psychology degree to use with deep dives into Sidney's damaged psyche, and Dewey and Gale's romance is as realized as it'll ever be. In short, though, Scream 2 is just a lot of fun. Not taking itself quite as seriously as its predecessor, yet without doing a disservice to the genre, the franchise finds its footing in Scream 2, and its clever evolutions of plot and character makes the first Scream that much more satisfying with repeated viewings - notwithstanding one fan favorite failing to make it out alive.
Scream isn't the first meta horror film, but it did set a precedent. Before Scream, films like Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, Fright Night, and even Craven's own New Nightmare approached the genre with a hyperaware point of view. Horror films exist in these films, and that awareness influences its characters - typically for their own good.
With Scream, though, that awareness isn't just the foundation, but the focus. Its characters are knee-deep in pop culture and are just as likely to watch a horror movie on a weeknight as the audience watching; in other words, where most other horror movie characters can often be the human embodiments of cheap stereotypes, Scream's characters are real. They're relatable. And, in being so, Scream makes it abundantly clear that this isn't your average slasher.
On the surface, Scream is a simple whodunit that borrows from (and even references) films like The Town that Dreaded Sundown, Prom Night, and Psycho. But it also stands on its own. The film's opening scene proves that everyone is expendable, and the final twist juggles two major components: it proves that the aimless slice-and-dice formula is just a red herring for a fully-realized emotional motive, and it also opens the door to the complicated topic of how media might influence the general public.
Do movies really have the power to rattle the skeletons in our closets? Is the youth of America too impressionable to handle on-screen violence? Or is violence in cinemas just an easy scapegoat to justify real-life cruelty and sidestep responsibility? These are the questions Scream posits, and these questions are what elevate it from being some throwaway horror film. On the surface, it might seemingly present one more costumed killer to add to the catalogue of other costumed killers, but it's the grey area - the general ambiguity surrounding these questions - that makes Scream the classic that it's deservedly become.