All of the Scream movies are good, but which are the best?
Wes Craven’s extremely 90s and increasingly meta slasher movie Scream changed the horror game forever when it came out in 1996. With a slick self-awareness and obvious love for all things horror, the landmark film delivered expertly staged and bloody thrills with genuinely likable characters and a sharp sense of humor. The pair of sequels – Scream 2 and Scream 3 – that quickly followed officially immortalized the franchise’s heroes of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), and Dewey Riley (David Arquette) in both the horror world and all of pop culture, as well as the now iconic Ghostface killer. The series also cemented Craven’s place as a filmmaking legend.
Eleven years later, everyone returned to Woodsboro in 2011’s Scream 4, a legacy sequel before everyone was doing it that served as a brilliant modern cap to the original trilogy. It was Craven’s final film before his death and a fitting new finale for the saga. Another decade has passed and Hollywood must do what Hollywood does, and so Scream is back once again for a fifth round with a different pair of filmmakers (Ready or Not’s Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett) at the helm. The good news is that it’s actually pretty great in its own right and a worthy follow-up that carries on the spirit of the first four, which makes ranking this particular horror franchise all the more difficult.
None of these five movies are bad – all have their strengths and some areas and weaknesses in others. So while ranking them from “worst to best” may technically be what this list is, let it be known that four of these are legitimately great, and the fifth is still pretty good. With the latest Scream making big box office cash this past opening weekend, it’s safe to say that this franchise isn’t going away anytime soon. Let’s hope it’s able to keep up its miraculous streak of quality going.
‘Scream 3’ (2000)
The original original ending to the franchise, Scream 3 fully incorporates its in-joke of the ‘Stab’ movies into its plot, as a new Ghostface begins murdering the cast of the upcoming one. The series’ metahumor and murder mystery plot is just as sharp as its ever been, but a troubled production and a studio mandate on curbing the film’s violence stop the third film from being all that it could be. It mostly just feels a bit tired, and its commentary on Hollywood and abuses of power, particularly against women, is inspired but ultimately feels underexplored. Still, this ends up being a strong finale to the initial trilogy. Seeing Dewey and Gale together at the end is emotional for sure, but that final shot of Sidney leaving the front door open, no longer feeling the need to keep looking over her shoulder? Perfection.
‘Scream 4’ (2011)
Scream 4 was ahead of its time in several ways. It’s a legacy sequel that came before the era of legacy sequels, revisiting the past by bringing the original trio back to the cursed town of Woodsboro when a copycat killer emerges killing the current crop of high schoolers. The film’s perceptions of social media, live streaming, and the motives of a 21st century horror villain were downright prescient. Even though it falls into the usual slasher structure, it still keeps a great pace and as always, has a sharp wit. A pair of tremendous performances from Hayden Panettiere and Emma Roberts really give the film a boost, and unlike most other legacy sequels, the original cast is directly involved in the plot rather than acting as mere window dressing. These films always hinge on their third acts, and this is one of the best ones.
The latest entry in the series and the first to not be directed by Craven ups the intensity of both the scares and the violence, making for some of the most nail-biting and brutal sequences of the entire franchise. It’s also one that recaptures the genuine youthful energy of the first two films, thanks to the new cast that are given all the fun lines about the modern day horror and blockbuster scene as well as all of the meta jokes. Once again, going through the same usual motions of slasher movies while commenting on them still doesn’t exactly excuse it, but this time around that inescapable loop and forced familiarity is given some purpose. It’s also very funny and very clever to boot, providing a clever take on toxic media fandom that pairs well with the vicious fun of its final bloodbath. This new movie is, by most accounts, a scream.
Read full Knotfest write-up: ‘Scream’ Returns to Reclaim the Slasher Crown
‘Scream 2’ (1997)
It’s a downright miracle that Scream 2 is often just as great and sometimes even better than the first considering it was put into production and released less than a year after it. Craven’s first sequel is everything a sequel should be – it’s bigger, smarter, funnier, and of course, there’s a higher body count. The death of poor Randy (Jamie Kennedy) is one of the rare times the franchise actually takes the bold step of permanently killing off one of the original survivors, truly giving the impression that nobody is safe. The film’s finale may not be quite as great as the first, but the setup and ensuing action leading up to it are much livelier and more fun. Everything’s working in this one’s favor.
As they say, don’t fuck with the original. While there are many that have a preference for this iconic horror landmark’s sequel (and there’s certainly merit there), the first is still the best for two reasons: The opening scene and the entire third act. They’re the blueprints for not just the Scream series itself, but countless other horrors and thrillers and movies in general from that point on. That first phone conversation between the unfortunate Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) and the sadistic killer on the other end (voiced by Roger L. Jackson) immediately shifted something in the culture, honing in on the period’s fears and growing familiarity with horror tropes and conventions. The final 40 minutes at the house is just flawless; a true masterclass in putting together a climax that still can’t be topped even decades later.