Scream: darkly funny, extremely meta horror and a 90s time capsule that never gets old

Whether you caught the slasher series the first time around or only got the pop culture supercut, the original Scream films are still worth a watch

The first three Scream films are available to stream in Australia on Stan. For more recommendations of shows and films available to stream, click here

Courtney Cox, Jamie Kennedy and Neve Campbell in 1996’s Scream.
Courtney Cox, Jamie Kennedy and Neve Campbell in the 1996 film Scream. Photograph: Allstar/Dimension/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar
Courtney Cox, Jamie Kennedy and Neve Campbell in the 1996 film Scream. Photograph: Allstar/Dimension/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Last modified on Mon 15 Feb 2021 19.22 EST

Somehow, I managed to make it to adulthood without seeing the Scream movies. Well, kind of. There are certain films and TV series that, even if you try and avoid them, still seep into the social consciousness – and, by extension, into your brain.

I’ve never sat down and watched an episode of Seinfeld and yet somehow I know all of the characters’ names, and that one of them eats chocolate bars with a knife and fork. Friends who have never seen Forrest Gump still know that, apparently, “life is like a box of chocolates” – and when I finally sat down to watch The Princess Bride I spent most of the time going, “Oh, so that’s where memes come from.”

I thought I knew what Scream was all about. Without trying, I’d managed to somehow see the opening scene – where Drew Barrymore’s character answers the phone while cooking popcorn on the stove – what felt like 20 times. I knew that the main villain wore a long, warped ghost mask and black robes. Vaguely I was aware that in the second movie someone gets killed in a cinema. In my mind it was a classic series of teen slasher films, much like the I Know What You Did Last Summer series: 90s, gory, and full of heart-throbs and jump scares in equal measure. And so I decided to give it a miss.

Neve Campbell and Rose McGowan in Scream.
Neve Campbell and Rose McGowan in Scream. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Features

This, it turned out, was a mistake. Wes Craven’s Scream films are horror, sure, but they’re also darkly funny, and an extremely meta exploration of the horror film genre, the zeitgeist and themselves.

The Scream films centre around Sidney Prescott, played by Neve Campbell. In the first film she is still recovering from the shock of her mother’s murder one year earlier. The man who did it is in jail but then, almost one year to the day, a series of killings begin in her town. In classic slasher style, there are red herrings and paranoia and a whole lot of really creative and unlikely deaths – the difference is how aware of the genre tropes the characters are. Even in the opening scene, the doomed Drew Barrymore character is asked what her favourite scary movie is – and as the tension amps up, the resident film geek starts to lay out exactly who would be the killer or what would happen next if this were a horror movie. And yet, even armed with this knowledge, the murders continue.

David Arquette and Courteney Cox in Scream 2 (1997).
David Arquette and Courteney Cox in Scream 2 (1997). Photograph: Dimension Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The second film gets even more meta – it’s set around the release of a film, based on a book written about the murders that happened in the first film. It kicks off with a much-spoofed scene where a young couple go to watch the new “Stab” movie at a cinema, where you watch them as they watch a dramatised version of the opening scene of the original Scream movie. It’s like a photocopy of a picture of a mirror looking into a mirror.

By the time you get to Scream 3, the characters who have survived the first two movies feel like old friends – which is why when the rules of a trilogy are laid out, which bluntly state that all bets are off and anyone could die, things feel just as stressful as they did in the first film.

Even though the gore does get less intense across the three films, they are still quite bloody – so if you are really not a fan, then keep on giving it a miss. However, much like The Cabin in the Woods, for me the humour, the meta commentary and the overall silliness of it all was enough to balance it out and make the “scary” elements not really scary at all.

Courteney Cox and Parker Posey in Scream 3.
Courteney Cox and Parker Posey in Scream 3. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

They’re films you can enjoy on a number of levels. They work as slasher movies. They work as commentary on slasher movies. Despite the murders, they are strangely comforting. You can watch one in 20-minute increments over a week. You can turn out all the lights and immerse yourself completely. You can put them on in the background while doing your tax or baking cookies. They’re also just a wonderful time capsule of the 90s. From continuing roles to brief cameos, it’s pretty much a who’s who of actors at the time, with performances by Courtney Cox, Liev Schreiber, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jada Pinkett Smith, David Arquette, Omar Epps, Joshua Jackson, Matthew Lillard, Skeet Ulrich and Patrick Dempsey.

I realise the fact that the Scream series is actually very good is not a revelation to those who watched the films as they came out, but the thing I’ve learned in the time since I finally binged the first three movies (there’s a fourth one, but I haven’t found a way to legally watch it) is that they also don’t get old.

If you haven’t watched them before, now is the time. If you have watched them before, it’s time to revisit. And if you did a rewatch last week – do another one tonight.

The first three Scream films are available to stream in Australia on Stan. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here

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