Why Scream 3 Is the Franchise's Best

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Why <i>Scream 3</i> Is the Franchise's Best

You’ve seen this before: A group of teens on the couch, talking about films, pontificating on the rules, clichés and tropes of the latest scary movies. It winks as itself in the process; almost everyone spends much of Scream (2022), the fifth entry in the horror franchise originally brought to you by Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson in 1996, lamenting Hollywood’s lack of new ideas. It’s not even new to have this cheeky conversation, and these kids know it. The landscape is so arid of originality, impoverished of ingenuity that everyone is reduced to reanimating the corpses of our favorite properties. You know, like the Scream franchise. But this new one, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and written by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, knows that. Like all the films in the franchise, it is cripplingly aware of what it’s doing and how it’s looking back at itself. But as one of the characters, the new quasi-Randy (the series’ resident cinephile) explains why it’s “requels”—a clumsy portmanteau of “reboot” and “sequel”, basically a reboot that still relies on canon—she makes a passing diss at the in-universe Stab sequels, thus having the film mock its own Scream follow-ups. But arguably, the film of the franchise that’s most insightful about the phenomenon of making uncanny doubles in a parched cultural landscape is the one that’s most dismissed.

There’s one scene in Scream 3 that, if you’re familiar with the first film, you’ve watched before. It’s discomfiting cinematic deja vu. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) wanders through her bedroom, being coerced into bringing her relationship to the next level: NC-17. You’ve seen the room before, outfitted with artifacts of teenage girlhood. You’ve seen a killer wearing a mask resembling a melting shriek into the void and a black cloak that sparkles when it catches the light run after her, almost as if Sidney is imprinted on the blade he wields, like offspring and parent. The camera spins around to follow the two as they go up the steps, which you recognize. Then she opens the door and reveals a false entrance, a trap door. It’s one that leads to a different unfinished area of what is actually a set of Sidney’s house from the first Scream, or, actually, the third Stab, the meta-slasher franchise within the meta-slasher franchise. On the set of Stab 3, which Scream 3 cheekily documents the production of, Sidney relives the first Scream.

It’s a fourth wall smashed through, a setpiece that both distills the complexity of the Scream series’ emotional and thematic preoccupations as well as demonstrates the series’ dexterity in delivering fear on film. Though frequently dismissed as the weakest within the franchise’s history, Scream 3’s embodiment and use of the uncanny, its fascination with doubles and its ability to invert itself to be an incendiary indictment of Hollywood’s sordid history of sexual abuse make a case for its essential place within the series, and possibly make it stand out as its best. Its elaborate yet overtly phony design cleaves together the series’ ultimate fascination with memory and cinema, putting forth that the two are almost indistinguishable.

Craven and writer Ehren Kruger send Sidney flying through her trauma as if in replay. She runs through a house that’s not her own, but a facsimile of it: A reproduction of the place where she was attacked as a teen, a counterfeit of the birthplace of her trauma, a copy of a copy that blurs the line between fictional and real (it’s a real set of a fake set for a fake movie within a real movie), cinema and memory. At the time, Roger Ebert sniffed that “Scream 3 is essentially an interlacing of irony and gotcha! scenes,” while Keith Phipps opined, “Scream 3 moves clumsily to the now-familiar meta-slasher rhythms of the series.” But aren’t irony and familiarity embedded into Scream’s DNA, disassociating the next logical step from its original image despite it being a copy of a copy of a copy? What does Hollywood do if not reproduce the same dream over and over again for our entertainment? Only four years have passed since the events of the first Scream, and already Prescott’s life story—the murder of her mother and the bloodbath in Woodsboro—has become a news circuit spectacle and a bestselling book by Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), the latter of which has become the (loose) basis for the Stab franchise. Sidney’s experience is reconstructed as a kind of fiction, traumatic memory transformed into cultural iconography.

It’s undeniable that, as far as the first Scream goes, Craven and Williamson innovated a genre by deconstructing it, offered a poisoned critique of nightly news culture and acutely interrogated ideas around a rapidly corrosive culture of violence and its potential impact on society. And while most of its sequels have been warmly received for building upon the first entry’s ability to vacillate between meta scary movie, soap opera and pop culture autopsy, Scream 3 has rarely gotten the same attention for its contributions, save for a post-Weinstein scandal reevaluation.

But Scream 3—as opposed to a continued riff upon the franchise’s central ideas about trauma, cinema, exploitation and memory—is a surreal deepening of those concepts set in the uncanny valley. The film expresses emotional, psychic and cultural anxieties with serrated clarity. Scream 3 distinguishes itself by being set not merely in Hollywood, but specifically on the studio lot where Stab 3 is being made, Sunrise Studios, a place with its own morbid past. The studio relishes its unruly connection to the real world, its Stab movies their “based on a true story” exploitation series, making the studio a workshop where reality can be demented and deranged. Isn’t every sequel, remake and reboot some form of surreal double? If Scream 3 takes place in the world of the uncanny, isn’t it then an uncanny version of a Scream film? It’s cast with character actors (Parker Posey, Emily Mortimer, Jenny McCarthy) playing character actors with barely disguised real-life portmanteau names (Jennifer Jolie and Angelina Tyler, anyone?), playing people who are real in their world (Sidney, Dewey, Gale, etc.) and fictional in ours, in a fake franchise (Stab) within a real franchise (Scream).

On the subject of doubled identity, Jennifer justifies following intrepid reporter Gale on her gumshoe hunt with a manic monologue, breathlessly explaining:

Here’s how I see it: I’ve got no house, no bodyguard, no movie and I’m being stalked. Because someone wants to kill me? No, because someone wants to kill you. So now, starting now, I go where you go. That way if someone wants to kill me, I’ll be with you, and since they really want to kill you, they won’t kill me, they’ll kill you.

As doubles and imperfect replicas proliferate Scream 3, the film conceives of a Hollywood with a disturbing relationship to expendability. Ghostface’s voice changer can mimic anyone’s voice, the Stab 3 cast that we see are actually replacements and the Stab producer is himself an arbiter of how disposable women can be in the industry.

In John Milton (Lance Henriksen), the B-picture producer of the Stab movies, we have a fictional sleaze that’s like all the real ones. He’s revealed to not only have known Sidney’s mother, Maureen, but also to have been responsible for her rape at one of his drug-fueled bacchanals when she was trying to make it as an actor under the name Rina Reynolds. When Gale, Dewey and Jennifer confront him with this, he brushes it off, saying, “It was the ‘70s. Everything was different. I was known for my parties…Nothing happened to her that she didn’t invite…one way or another. No matter what she said afterward.” Pregnant and traumatized, she, too, was expendable. What’s left of her career is a photocopy of her headshot.

Another copy, another double. The man who’s been making these Stab movies is doing the same with Maureen’s murder, all while reprinting Sidney’s trauma to be consumed by the world around her, out of her grasp. The built set of her childhood house, then, carries within it this disturbed surreality, a version of her past that’s been intentionally constructed as a haunted playground for others. In the franchise’s most enthralling and emotionally complex setpiece, Sidney arrives on set to see the fake house, a perfect facsimile of the past. She wanders around the space, finding her childhood bedroom and repeating lines from memory (hers or ours?).

Maybe Scream 3’s closest relative isn’t Scream at all, but Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), the meta-film that laid the groundwork for Scream not only through its self-reflexivity, but through its insistence on seeing cinema and life as gradually more fractured versions of one another. That film, set during the production of A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot replete with original cast members like final girl Heather Langenkamp, studio heads and director Craven, not only saw the nightmare world bleed into the real one, but saw them both as necessarily in dialogue with one another—a confluence of memory and imagination, reality and fiction.

Scream 3’s elaboration on New Nightmare is at once heady and melodramatic, tying together the series’ familial dysfunction and its obsession with media images as a new kind of memory. For Sidney and the killer, the difference between what’s possessed as personal remembrance and what’s available to be commodified is dwindling. In the film’s grand finale, where the killer rips off the mask and delivers exposition while images of Sidney’s mother are projected onto them, Scream 3 nearly argues that cinema (or media) is memory, more real than consciousness, more reliable than the thawing viscosity of subjective recollection. It’s psychological processing through disassociation. The Dreamland that makes these amazing, horrifying shadows has always been haunted, trapping creators and creation in a blood-spattered feedback loop, trauma feeding and begetting trauma.

That idea is arguably more deeply felt today, nearly two decades since its release, in an economy that prizes trauma narratives and the litany of platforms on which they can be consumed. The chance to tell your story is shaded inevitably by the possibility of it being cannibalized. (An unusual example: Eddie Huang’s memoir of second generation immigrant identity and abuse Fresh Off the Boat was transformed into…the hit sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, starring Constance Wu. Huang departed after the first season.) With Scream 3’s indictment of Hollywood industry sex crimes, a vision of darkness that evokes David Lynch, the real and the fictional burst through their borders and curdle into an expressive shriek from inside the screen, evil flickering viciously. The Scream movies have always been a fractured looking glass, reflecting, in the grand tradition of horror, cultural and social ills. But Scream 3 is a broken infinity mirror. Scream 3’s fury illustrates the terrifying notion that all memory and trauma can only be understood as cinematic melodrama, even as the creation of that cinema is written in blood, pain and abuse. It only matters if someone watches. These days, everyone is.