Satire and sequelization are a difficult combo to pull off, and the Scream series demonstrates what both success and failure look like in this regard. Where 1997’s Scream 2 retains a comfortingly familiar identity when lined up next to the iconic 1996 original from Wes Craven—a film that rescued the slasher genre from utter stagnation and obsolescence in that decade—2000’s Scream 3 is an illustration of what happens when such a franchise loses sight of its own unifying thesis. It’s an utter mess of a film, hamstrung by production woes and a chaotic filming process, let down by a change of screenwriter and inferior script, and generally a disservice to the beloved characters established in the first two movies. Although Scream 4 would eventually reclaim the honor of the series to some extent (and of course there’s another sequel on the way), the fact that 11 years passed between the third and fourth entry speaks to the severity of the damage that Scream 3 did to the franchise. It’s the black sheep of the Scream series, but how did it go so wrong?
First, a quick crash course on the plot structure of Scream, Scream 2 and Scream 3. If you’re trying to avoid spoilers in 20-plus year old movies, this would be the time to turn back.
The original Scream introduces Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), a high school girl whose mother was murdered a year earlier in a mysterious crime. Her small town is terrorized by a masked killer referred to as “Ghostface,” who kills using methods and motivation that would seem to draw inspiration from the tropes of golden age 1980s slasher movies. The killers (there are two) are eventually revealed to be Sidney’s boyfriend Billy Loomis and his slacker friend Stu, largely motivated by the fact that Sidney’s mother had been having an affair with Billy’s father, leading them to murder her. With the help of her newfound friends, particularly news reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and local deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette) Sidney survives her ordeal. In Scream 2, meanwhile, the killings begin again and follow Sidney to college, even as a meta film-within-a-film series called Stab recounts the events of Scream. This time around, Sidney must overcome her innate distrust of the people around her, navigate the evolved rules of slasher sequels, and generally up the ante. The killers (two again) are eventually revealed to be her deluded friend Mickey and a local tabloid journalist who is revealed to be the mother of Billy Loomis, back for revenge.
By the time of Scream 3, Sidney has effectively gone into hiding, living under an assumed identity before a new rash of killings once again draws her back into the fold. The film’s cursory examination of “trilogy tropes” insists that the plot must return “to where it all began,” but unlike Scream and Scream 2, the time paid to examining horror cinema conventions is minimal. Instead, Scream 3 loses sight of any real attempt at satire of film tropes from our world, and instead moves in a direction of comic callbacks to its own increasingly complicated timeline, with quickly diminishing returns. The action largely takes place on and around the set of Stab 3, and the main antagonist is eventually revealed to be film director Roman Bridger (Scott Foley), who reveals himself as Sidney’s half brother, abandoned by Sidney’s mother during the period she ran away to become an actress in Hollywood. In this reveal, Roman retcons the series lore by revealing that it was him who killed Maureen Prescott, before then radicalizing Billy Loomis, Mrs. Loomis and others to go after Sidney in the years that followed. In effect, it returns the crux of the entire series to date to the secret life of Sidney’s mother, and makes Roman Bridger the de facto archfiend of the Scream trilogy, as it was meant to be at the time. Roman takes a seat at the head of the table as the architect of all Sidney’s misfortunes, and with his defeat Sidney Prescott can finally rest easy. Case closed.
At least, that’s the theory of Scream 3, and it’s not entirely unsound. The idea of Roman Bridger as a character, the Big Bad orchestrating all the events of the series to date, could probably have been made to work. But in practice, the execution of the film is so slapdash and so repeatedly clumsy that it undermines the attempt to add another layer of intrigue to the Scream mythos, instead making everything in Scream 3 feel painfully contrived and in direct opposition to the clever origins of the franchise. And ultimately, some share of the blame must fall on both a change of screenwriter and a less inspired directorial job by Craven himself.
Scream 3, you see, is the only entry in the series not written by veteran scribe Kevin Williamson, who was instead replaced in this go-round by Ehren Kruger, a man whose highest profile Hollywood jobs have included writing several Transformers entries and 2019’s Dumbo remake. Suffice to say, the witty pop culture banter and horror geekiness of your average Williamson script is not present here, which makes the resulting film feel a lot less like Scream. Compounding matters was the fact that the original Scream core cast members (Campbell, Cox, Arquette) were far less available in 2000 than they were in 1996, with Campbell in particular (ostensibly the main character) having only 20 days available to film her scenes. This led to a ripple effect of scriptural changes, with many scenes repeatedly rewritten and some filmed in multiple different ways because the crew wasn’t sure which variant they would need in the final assembly. And you can feel that chaos on screen, which manifests in a number of ways:
— Sidney’s role in the film feels significantly reduced, even though she’s the all-time template of the Final Girl, in her third movie of the series as the ostensible star. The script has clearly been rewritten in such a way as to keep her off screen for long stretches of time, while the heavy lifting of the plot is instead transferred to Gale and Dewey, who are not at their best here. Campbell’s absence is felt throughout, but particularly in the crazy amount of time it takes for her to first reunite with the other core characters (50 minutes!), and then in an interminable period (roughly 20 minutes) she spends literally sitting alone in a police station while the rest are out being menaced by Ghostface. Sidney is put in the backseat of this story, despite the fact that she’s the impetus for it all happening.
— Perhaps as a result of needing an easy narrative device to get people from point A to point B, the movie heavily relies on a single prop—the magical, handheld “voice changer” tool that Ghostface killers have used throughout the series to achieve Roger L. Jackson’s iconic delivery. These devices have been part of the series lore since the beginning, but never does their use strain the bounds of credulity like in Scream 3, when it’s revealed that the killer is able to perfectly mimic every other member of the cast. This, combined with a throwaway line about “cloned phones” leads to scene after scene of characters being duped by the same trick. Ghostface impersonates a female fan when talking to Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber). He impersonates a woman in crisis when talking to Sidney. He impersonates Sidney when talking to Dewey and Gale. He even tricks Sidney again by simply duplicating her own voice. This little box becomes a magical MacGuffin, working perfectly to change a man’s voice into a woman’s even when he’s using it 5 feet away from you. In a world where such a device existed, no audio recording could ever be trusted. This kind of indifference to trope repetition becomes a constant theme of Scream 3, a film that has not one but three different instances of people being shot but surviving due to bulletproof vest reveals.
— The last 40 minutes or so of the film take place in an opulent, abandoned mansion, serving as a lazy way to get all the cast in one place where they can be picked off one by one, away from any protection from the rampaging killer who has already murdered several members of the Stab 3 cast. This is the point—when they split up into pairs and begin wandering around the estate—that the Scream series comes closest to genuinely becoming the very thing it was once satirizing, and it’s painful to watch. Even Dewey and Gale, who have already survived two of these massacres, are reduced to behaving like stock slasher characters. These sequences also contain a cheap attempt to remove suspicion from Roman’s character by having him fake his death, but then make the mistake of clearly showing the audience Gale checking his pulse … which leads to nothing, as she then accepts he is dead. Is he a ninja who can stop his own heart to avoid detection?
— Even the veteran director Craven seems to struggle with this material, leading to action scenes and knife-wielding chases (a must, for Scream) that are spatially confusing and often genuinely misleading in terms of continuity. Ghostface frequently warps from location to location in mid-fight, being clearly shown in one place and then immediately appearing in another, when it’s clear there’s no way he could have gotten from Point A to Point B. To savvy Scream viewers, this hints at the idea that there’s more than one killer, as in previous installments, which makes it all the more confusing when it’s revealed that there’s actually only one. The editing and continuity are so haphazard that they create an expectation of a second killer who never materializes—who knows, perhaps there was another killer in some ditched version of the script. It absolutely would not surprise me.
And that’s not even touching on the film’s mishandled themes of sexual misconduct in Hollywood, or its weak condemnation of the “casting couch,” which is played for laughs just as often as it is for drama. This particular topic (along with the lesser atrocity of Courteney Cox’s terrible hair) thrust Scream 3 back into the popular discourse for a time in the late 2010s following the advent of the #MeToo movement, especially considering the connection of Miramax and the Weinsteins, along with original Scream star Rose McGowan’s allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein. Suffice to say, there’s much more that could be written about how factors other than “uninspired horror movie commentary” eventually cast a pall over this installment in the series.
What we’re left with, in the end, is a Scream that lost its identity along the way, despite a basic framework that probably could have been salvaged, perhaps in the hands of a writer like Kevin Williamson. Originally intended to be the end of the series, it left a bad taste in the mouths of film geeks—one that persisted until Scream 4 came along 11 years later to act like a palate cleanser and relative return to normalcy. One wonders if Scream 3 could have been saved, or if, like Courteney Cox’s hair, it is best consigned to the purgatory of bad 2000s-era memories.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.