What’s your favorite scary movie… sequel?
Sequels get a lousy rap, especially when it comes to horror movies. Scary sequels are often assumed to be cash-ins that simply amp up the blood and boobs and send their killers into outer space abound. (Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things!) But just as Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson spatchcocked the slasher film formula with Scream, so did the twosome turn sequel-itis on its head with Scream 2. Released on Dec. 12, 1997, less than a year after its hit predecessor, this sequel rewrote the slasher handbook. 25 years later, let’s look back at Scream 2‘s impact on how horror has treated this subgenre and its survivors.
Building upon the legacy of the original Scream with scalpel precision (which is shocking once you consider what a fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants quick turnaround production it was), Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson took what worked best about the original – an opening scene that would out-meta anything we’ve seen before; impeccably crafted stalking scenes awash in atmosphere and tension; an epic conclusion revealing the killer’s (or killers’) shocking identity/identities and their tangled-up histories with the Woodsboro crew — and began a thrilling new chapter for the slasher genre.
You could make the case that part two was even more important to the franchise as a whole than the original was. Don’t get me wrong – the first film stands on its own as a slasher classic. It was the Big Bang to all that came after. But it’s the sequel where our affection for the core trio of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), and Dewey Riley (David Arquette) becomes the main focus of all the series’ tensions. Our attachment to their beat-about survival is the well that it and every sequel after returns to, time and again, to get our hearts pumping. And pump do they ever.
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Don’t believe me? Watch the sequence of Gale being stalked through the sound studio again, the one where she watches Ghostface creep up behind Dewey but can’t warn him because of the sound-proofed glass between them. It’s unbearable. I screamed in the theater in 1997, and I still scream every single time I have watched it since.
It’s not just Cox once again proving that her work in this franchise has been vastly underrated. It’s that unlike, say, Friday the 13th, which killed off its final girl Alice (Adrienne King) in the sequel’s opening scene with an ice pick to the head, the Scream films know the audience has formed deep attachments to its Final Girl (and Final Journo and Final Mustachioed Deputy). We have ridden alongside them as they have survived the worst of the world and triumphed intact, more or less, and there’s a bottomless reservoir of nostalgia (and fear!) that can be mined from that. Why do slashers tend to toss their characters away from film to film, disposable gristle for the killer’s grinder, fresh slabs of meat for the Saw contraptions and Final Destination car pile-ups, when they could do much better?
Director Wes Craven had a history of exploring trauma through horror.
No one who ever met Wes Craven, an English professor before turning to directing, has ever described him as anything but a quiet and thoughtful man. And across his fear-filled filmography you can see him trying to steer his stories towards serious considerations of violence and its repercussions. His very first film was the excruciatingly brutal The Last House on the Left in 1972, itself a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring of all things, yet despite its grindhouse ethos, House was keenly focused on the trauma endured by the murdered girls and their families. It’s a theme he’d revisit with his Elm Street films, which are about a community cursed by their faulty parenting decisions. The three times Freddy’s final girl Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) reappeared in the franchise, it was Wes Craven who’d brought her back. That was what he cared about — the people who survive, and how, and what survival means to them.
With that in mind, what becomes interesting about the Scream films then is how, beginning with Scream 2 and venturing right up to the most recent “re-quel,” the throughline has been the act of catching back up with Sidney, Gale, and Dewey, and seeing where they are in their lives — and then spending the entire movie’s runtime terrified that their time is up. That’s the thing that has gotten me personally back to the movie theater to watch the Scream films, much more than any excitement over playing the game of guessing who the killer is this time.
Ghostface is the killer who puts the “who” in whodunnit.
Out of the pantheon of slasher baddies, Ghostface is the only one without a fixed identity. Ghostface isn’t Michael Myers chasing his sister/not-sister, Jason Voorhees and his mommy issues, or Chucky with ye olde voodoo doll curse. Ghostface is somebody else — and usually more than one somebody else at that — every single time he’s up at bat.
Craven took his insistence on focusing on the terrorized instead of the terrorizer all the full way with the Scream franchise. It’s utterly impossible to identify with Ghostface, because Ghostface is no one and everyone at once. This flexibility allowed for a pivotal change in this much-anticipated sequel. When the original script of Scream 2 leaked online as the film was shooting, Craven and company simply rewrote it as they went along, changing the killers and their motivations on the spot.
Even once the Ghostface masks inevitably come off and the killers start spouting their motives in the last act, the Scream films forever remain focused on what this reveal means to our core trio. I mean, “Debbie Salt”? Who the hell is “Debbie Salt”? Oh, she’s Billy’s mother? Okay, sure why not. A stellar Laurie Metcalf, the whites of her eyes having the times of their life, makes us think we care about this mother’s anguish in Scream 2‘s final scenes because she’s an ace actress. But like those rumbling thunder stage props surrounding the reveal, it’s all manufactured drama and fury, signifying absolutely nothing. We don’t care about you, Debbie damn Salt nobody! Bam! Sid! Super bitch for the win!
Admittedly, other horror franchises have tried to muck about in this same fashion. There’s the notorious example of some dude named “Roy Burns” doing his best Jason impression in the fifth Friday the 13th movie, which was met with the exact wrong kind of shrieks of terror from the fanboys when it was revealed. And Halloween Ends, the most recent entry in David Gordon Green’s trilogy of Halloween films, did something similar, flirting with passing on Michael Myers’s curse to poor ginger nobody Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell). Cue similar shrieks. These franchises had at those respective points spent too much time making their killers their main characters. They’d become about the dark thrills of walking in Jason and Michael’s big boots; nobody else’s feet were ever gonna fit right.
Sidney Prescott versus Laurie Strode: The Final Girl Showdown!
Indeed, it’s tempting to use the example of Halloween‘s final girl Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, forever and ever) as an example of a slasher franchise that was also more focused on its survivor and her struggle than it was on the killer. But I’d argue the specter of Michael looms too large over those films for that. As hard as John Carpenter tried to make Michael a spectral force of evil, everywhere and nowhere all at once, the franchise itself has continually worked overtime to explain him down unto dust. And Laurie and Michael, whether siblings or not depending on the iteration, seem an eternal yin-yang – victim and victimizer incapable of existing without the other.
But Craven and Williamson baked Ghostface’s inconsequence right into the Scream pie. When Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) tear off their masks in the first film, it’s scary, sure, but it’s also simultaneously goofy and pathetic. Scream 2 digs deeper into that instinct.
Deranged film student Mickey (Timothy Olyphant) is simply a (hotter) rehash of the originals. As Randy says, “Why copy yourself off of two high school loser ass dickheads?” And “Debbie Salt” as a revelation was as delightfully nonsensical as her nom de plume — a last-act contrivance never heard from before or about since, an echo of Mrs. Voorhees rampaging around in a cheap pastel suit. From the moment Sidney and Gale blasted yet another nobody popping up for that “one last scare,” Scream 2 showed Wes Craven had finally managed what he’d worked his entire career toward: handing the survivors, strong and unwavering, the reins at last.