Five film franchise pokes fun at horror tropes, fascinates fans

Ace Roueche

Major spoiler warning for all the Scream films.
Some films, especially horror films, are reflective of the time period in which they were made. While this can sometimes be helpful in exploring deeper themes, such  as the legendary Jordan Peele’s films like Us and Get Out, they can also explore broader subjects. No film franchise exemplifies this as much as the Scream franchise. Over the course of its five films, directors satirize the horror genre, particularly slashers, their rules, and how they treat women and minorities.

The first film, Scream, released in 1996, is the original and is widely considered to be the best. Directed by Wes Craven, the movie opens with the classic scene of Drew Barrymore, playing teenager Casey Becker, receiving a call from a masked killer, nicknamed Ghostface, and being murdered alongside her boyfriend, Steve.

This was already a big shock to moviegoers in the 90s, as Drew Barrymore was a very popular actress, and was centered on the poster and in the trailers, setting her up to be the main character and “final girl” of the film. Killing the character assumed to be the lead at the beginning is a brilliant way to surprise the audience and plays into the theme of slashers up until that point following the same rules and tropes, emphasizing how changing any part of that formula instantly sets it apart from the redundant Halloween release slasher cycle that had been followed since the rise of slashers in the 70s and 80s.

The real main character, played by Neve Campbell, is Sidney Prescott, a 17 year old girl who lives in Woodsboro, California. Sidney’s mother was murdered, with TV show host Cotton Weary arrested for her murder.

Other important characters include Billy Loomis, Sidney’s charming boyfriend, named after classic character from John Carpenter’s Halloween Sam Loomis, Tatum Riley, Sidney’s fierce best friend, Stu Macher, Tatum’s comedically idiotic boyfriend and Billy’s best friend, Dewey Riley, Tatum’s kind-hearted older brother and Woodsboro police officer, Randy Meeks, a horror movie enthusiast, and Gale Weathers, Dewey’s love interest and an egotistical news reporter who recently published a book trying to prove Cotton Weary’s innocence in the murder of Maureen Prescott.

The abundance of characters plays a part in the horror of Scream, making the audience feel like they can’t trust anyone, and even with so many characters the film still manages to make them memorable, with the main trio consisting of Sidney, Dewey, and Gale returning in every film for the remainder of the franchise and cementing themselves as an iconic horror main cast.

The film follows Sidney and her friends as one-by-one they are killed by Ghostface, Sidney dealing with the grief of her mother’s death, Dewey trying to figure out the killer’s identity, and Gale trying to report on the murders and increase her book sales.

Being a horror fan helps enhance the experience of the film, with its numerous references and plays on tropes, but even a slasher newbie can enjoy the film, with the character of Randy often ranting about horror tropes, unaware that he is in a horror movie himself.

While the film never tops the opening scene in terms of kills, every death or near death scene manages to be inventive, and most play off typical situations in slasher films, such as Tatum going downstairs to the basement alone to get drinks or Sidney almost getting caught after running up the stairs instead of out the door after she finished speaking on the phone with her friend about how horror movie protagonists are stupid for doing so and that she would never make the same mistake. 

While Scream is mostly about more lighthearted horror tropes and keeps a silly self-aware attitude about its contents, its most important message might be what it says about the way horror films treat women.
Sidney as a character is set up to be the typical final girl, innocent and strong in a uniquely feminine way. Even the way she is dressed and the way her hair is styled is reminiscent of past iconic final girls, such as Alice Cooper from Friday the 13th and Laurie Strode from Halloween

Throughout the movie, Sidney is pressured by her boyfriend Billy to lose her virginity before she is ready. Sidney is also mocked by her classmates for her mother’s death, as her mother had gained a reputation for being unfaithful. When the killers are unveiled to be Billy and Stu at the end of the film, it is revealed that the reason Billy was pressuring Sidney was in order to be able to fit her into his delusional view of life as a slasher movie, mentioning the slasher trope of “pure” female characters being hailed as final girls while “impure” women are killed in a misogynistic twisted version of comeuppance.

It is also revealed that Billy and Stu were the ones to kill Sidney’s mother and spread the rumors about her unfaithfulness. Billy and Stu are consistently misogynistic throughout the film, with Billy pressuring Sidney and Stu speaking about women derogatorily and being pushy with his girlfriend, Tatum.
With Sidney prevailing and defeating Billy and Stu in the end with the help of Dewey and Gale, despite being what a stereotypical slasher would consider “impure” was huge at the time and completely subverted the expectations of horror audiences.

While the rest of the movies in the franchise certainly have their themes and merits, none of them have as strong of a message (or better film quality) than the first. The second film, Scream 2, released in 1997, focuses less on the horror genre as a whole and more on sequels specifically. The film, continuing a couple years after the first installment chronologically, takes place with Sidney in college. The main character trio returns for this film, with Dewey almost getting killed off. Fan favorite character Randy also returns for the sequel, resulting in his controversial death early on. The movie follows looser rules than the first, with the main tropes being that there are more deaths and the killers are even more unexpected than in the first.

2000’s Scream 3, my personal pick for the worst in the franchise, takes place mainly on a movie set making a sequel to the movie made about the events of the first film. That really happened in the franchise’s universe. Yeah, it’s pretty meta.

While the decision to do a majority of the kills on a film set is very creative and leads to some very inventive scenes, especially during the climax, this film feels a lot more forced than the other entries.
Another point against it is its abandonment of the two killers rule that is present in every other installment. By revealing the killer as a young music video director named Roman and retconning the Ghostfaces in the first film’s motive to include that he had orchestrated the whole thing all along, it both abandons the format that made the other films so great and lessens the impact and themes of the first. Not to mention, Courtney Cox’s haircut. Yikes.

Scream 4 (hang in there, only one film to go after this!) was released in 2011 to very mixed reviews. Some people praised the creativity, meta narrative, and increase in gore while others bashed the film for being unrealistic.

I take a more middling stance than most. I think that while the use of voice changer technology in Scream 4 can be pushing it at times, but if you ignore the technical aspects it can be a pretty enjoyable film. It can be best described as a product of it’s time, for better and for worse. Scream 4 has all of the elements fans would come to expect from a Scream film, plus commentary on the film environment at the time. As previously mentioned, this one gets wild with the gore in a way that feels natural considering the progression of the previous films. Scream 4 does a good job introducing the franchise to a new age, with more technology and a new cast of younger actors, while still staying true to its roots, bringing back Sidney, Dewey, and Gale.

Scream (which I will be calling Scream 5 for clarity’s sake), released in 2022, is currently the newest addition to the Scream franchise. And yes, it is called Scream. While this could be just for marketing, I think that it is more likely that this is a jab at modern horror remakes taking the names of their predecessors, popularized by 2018’s Halloween and 2022’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This film, for the first time in the Scream series, does not follow Sidney Prescott. Instead, Scream 5 follows Sam Carpenter, the daughter of Billy Loomis who is currently in her 20s and has moved away from Woodsboro with her boyfriend, Richie. When Sam’s little sister Tara gets attacked by somebody in a Ghostface mask, Sam returns to Woodsboro with her boyfriend to figure out the identity of the killer and keep her sister and her sister’s group of teenage friends safe.

This film, like the first, has quite a bit to say. Scream 5 is thematically focused on both modern horror remakes (they use the terms “elevated horror” and “requels” quite often) and the toxicity of fandom culture and parasocial relationships. By being hilariously self aware but still keeping the suspense, Scream 5 was popular with audiences. The movie also easily comes in as the most gory of the franchise. As a special treat for horror fans, popular horror youtubers Chelsea Rebecca and James A. Janisse from Dead Meat make a cameo in the film as a satirical caricature of hateful film critic YouTube channels.

Sadly, this film also marks the end of Dewey Riley, with him being killed in an attempt to save Tara in the heartbreaking hospital scene. While this is very sad, especially for devoted Scream fans who wanted to see him survive, I think it was important for Scream 5 to show that it wasn’t afraid to kill even beloved characters. Hopefully it continues this in Scream 6, recently confirmed to release March 2023.

The way the Scream franchise effectively combined horror with comedic elements without going too over the top on either makes it both accessible for audiences that are newer to horror and appealing to longtime slasher fans.

Its messages about both the film industry and misogyny are timeless. As a diehard horror fan myself, Scream was one of the first franchises to really spark my love of horror, and being able to see Scream 5 in theaters was something really special to me. I can only hope that Scream 6 is able to continue on the revitalization that Scream 5 brought to the franchise.