SCREAM 3: An underrated, post-modern deconstruction (2000 in Film #5)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, I’m looking at Wes Craven’s threequel, Scream 3

Did we all misjudge Scream 3? That was the question on my lips by the end of rewatching Wes Craven’s threequel to Scream, one of the defining horror movies—indeed movies generally—of the 1990’s, taking a post-modern blade to horror tropes and conventions and slicing through them with abandon.

The first Scream was released in 1996, a year after the nadir example of The Curse of Michael Myers, the sixth Halloween film that suggested the slasher, and the horror franchise machine in general, was bloated and tired. Scream, coasting on a wave of self-reflective pop-cultural analysis, balanced fresh scares and incisive comedy to create a new horror movie icon in Ghostface, the costume that disguised the very human killers immersed in the tropes and cinematic beats of horror movies. Scream 2, while less effective, took a knife to the horror sequel, building on the mythology of the Woodsboro murders of the original while observing the repeating narrative ideas in follow-ups. It made sense, given Scream was all about upending the horror origin story, to deconstruct the storytelling symbols of horror sequels. Every Halloween has it’s Halloween II, right?

Scream 3 naturally extends this same deconstruction to the horror trilogy, commenting from a metatextual standpoint about endings. One wonders if there was a self-knowing irony in this statement, certainly when it comes to horror; many of the most successful horror franchises – the aforementioned Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm St etc… – all extended beyond three movies, stretching and sprawling out to innumerable sequels designed to extend the menace, often for box office returns. Scream itself would be no different – Scream 4 arrives by 2011, with a TV series a few years later. Scream 3 therefore ends up a moot point, a concluding chapter to a series that will eventually be revived, a property with as much cultural cache as the traditional slasher franchises it lampooned and deconstructed.

Yet we maybe have treated Scream 3 with too much scorn. With distance, though not on a par with its predecessors, it works in context with the films that came before.

The 1990’s had been dominated by the trilogy. Franchises existed across genres – horror had those mentioned above, the superhero movie for Batman & Superman went to four movies by this point, and even Lethal Weapon squeezed out a tired fourth entry in 1998. Nevertheless, the trilogy still held weight.

The Mad Max trilogy, the Naked Gun trilogy, Evil Dead, Die Hard, the Dollars trilogy, Indiana Jones, The Godfather, Back to the Future, for a long time the Alien trilogy until Resurrection came along in 1998 and ruined it. All of these when Scream 3 was made were trilogies. Almost all of them are now franchises, having for better or worse been given a new lease of life in the age of valuable IP by studios keen to maximise profit from recognisable characters and universes.

The biggest franchise of all, Star Wars, still principally operates even by 2019 in trilogies – the Original, Prequel and Sequel trilogies are all now in existence, and attempts to broaden the universe out into a wider franchises have met largely with less success. You can see why Scream 3’s focus would be to examine, through the lens of horror, what the ‘rules’ of the concluding part of a trilogy in cinema are; heck, this even has a cameo from Carrie Fisher playing a failed actress who looks identical to Carrie Fisher and laments the fact she lost the role of Princess Leia to her!

One of the reasons Scream ended up so successful was because it understood the audience had become literate in the broader tropes and tactics utilised by horror filmmakers to invoke scares, and played on them to make the audience complicit in their direct subversion; Ghostface itself was the ultimate trick, the visage of a supernatural force who ends up being the creation of more than one very human killer who is intentionally subverting, in movie, the expectations of characters who are also the horror movie audience.

The mouthpiece for these subversions was Jamie Kennedy’s Randy Meeks, killed off in Scream 2 but who reappears here via pre-recorded video to explain to our characters the context of the latest batch of murders. “True trilogies are all about going back to the beginning and discovering something that wasn’t true from the get go. Godfather, Jedi, all revealed something that we thought was true that wasn’t true”. That becomes the key to Scream 3 – revisiting the events of Scream and recontextualising them in a different, post-post-modern context. Scream 3, perhaps more deliberately than we realised on release, is playing up to the very tropes it previously deconstructed.

Craven’s movie is arguably more overblown, more explosive and more camp than the previous two films. It follows Part 3 rules in that everything has to be bigger, louder, faster. The opening murder, of Liev Schreiber’s now famous Woodsboro survivor Cotton Weary, therefore contains speeding car chases in the glamour of the Hollywood hills. An entire house explodes. The setting of the first scream, where Laurie Strode-esque survivor Sidney Prescott (an earnest Neve Campbell) was stalked by psychopaths, is recreated on a lavish movie set for Stab 3: Return to Woodsboro, the film within a film being shot which dramatises the events of Scream, with our main characters being portrayed by a rogues gallery of self-obsessed or just plain grotesque younger actors. Everything is about coming full circle to Scream and accentuating the events of that story for dramatic effect. Yet Scream 3 is most certainly *in* on the farcical aspects of itself, of dialling everything up to eleven. It understands that by the logic of a third part, the end of a trilogy, the tone transforms while the narrative circles back in on itself.

Even Randy’s next rule is one the film deliberately plays with: “You got a killer who’s going to be super human. Stabbing him won’t work. Shooting him won’t work. Basically in the third one you gotta cryogenically freeze his head, decapitate him, or blow him up”. The person under the Ghostface mask this time ends up being just that – a person, but one who directly upends the entire mythology of Scream and Sidney’s history. It is groan-worthy, the secret brother born out of trauma and rejected returning to visit the sins of the past upon the present, but it’s supposed to elicit groans in this context.

Scream 3 is directly commenting on tropes from films such as the aforementioned Return of the Jedi and how it reveals familial aspects which alter the backstory of its main character. Many of the aforementioned trilogies do the same – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade gives Indy a dysfunctional parental relationship, Die Hard with a Vengeance has the villain be the criminal brother of the original film’s terrorist, Back to the Future Part III explores ancestry. Trilogies are designed to alter the perspective of the protagonist while providing closure and catharsis. Scream 3 does that for Sidney and, in some way, *does* have a super human villain. Roman Bridger represents more than just a murderer. He exemplifies a somewhat retconned, overarching series mythology which is thrown into question. The fact Craven and writer Ehren Kruger then literalise his super-humanity at the end is just part of the punchline.

Randy reminds Sidney, therefore, of the other connected rule: “The past will come back to bite you in the ass. Whatever you think you know about the past, forget it. The past is not at rest. Any sins you think were committed in the past are about to break out and destroy you”. This feels particularly potent now when you consider Lance Henriksen’s movie producer impresario John Milton (a pseudonym often of the Devil), who surely was a thinly-veiled swipe at Harvey Weinstein, one of the Miramax bosses who masterminded Scream’s success.

Milton *is* Weinstein; corrupt, toxic, harassing women and utilising his power to get them roles for sexual favours, and hosting legendary wild parties of secret Hollywood excess in his lavish home. It speaks to the confidence of Weinstein that he would never be exposed that he let Craven include such a character, someone central to the backstory revealed of Sidney’s mother, Roman and the entire motivations of the killers in the original movie in the first place. Scream 3 reveals the root cause of small town suburban trauma to be glamorous, secret and seedy Hollywood toxicity, and this surely can’t be coincidental. Scream 3 feels a little now like it was warning us, even if we didn’t know it.

It’s a shame it chickens out on Randy’s central rule. “Anyone including the main character can die. This means you Syd. I’m sorry. It’s the final chapter. It could be fucking ‘Reservoir Dogs’ by the time this thing is through. ‘Cause the rules say some of you ain’t gonna make it”. Except nobody of import really does. Most of the new characters of Scream 3 are massacred by Sidney, Courtney Cox-Arquette’s (as she was named at this point) anchorwoman turned exploitative writer Gale Weathers or David Arquette’s mild-mannered Woodsboro sheriff turned Stab 3 creative consultant Dewey Riley all make it through unscathed. That could end up being Scream 3’s final subversion – back to tradition. No matter what Michael Myers throws at Laurie Strode, she survives. The heroes endure as much as the villains. Scream 3 ends not just unexpectedly with hope but also with the possibility of more, that the trilogy could morph into a franchise – which is precisely what happens.

2000 doesn’t end up being a year full to burst with sequels. It certainly doesn’t have any more significant third part episodes of major franchises, so in that sense Scream 3 stands alone as a direct commentary and knowing, overblown subversion of a trope that would begin, as the decade continues, build toward the advent of a Hollywood that expects thirteen films rather than three. It’s perhaps a sequel, indeed a threequel, we don’t give enough credit.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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