In a couple of days, a whole bunch of folks are going to dress up as their favorite Star Wars characters and head out to the theater to see The Last Jedi, as they have probably done for every other installment of the series that they were able to see on the big screen. And over the years I've seen folks dressed as the appropriate comic or fantasy (Harry Potter in particular) characters when seeing their respective film adaptations on opening weekend (though never to the extent I've seen for the galaxy far, far away), but alas it's something I don't get to see much at all in my horror-fied neck of the woods. Certainly, revival screenings tend to bring out someone dressed as Jason or whoever the killer of the movie might be, but I don't think I personally have ever seen someone dress as one at an opening night showing - we just settle for T-shirts. Admittedly, it's probably not the best idea to dress in a scary mask and go into a dark place, but still - I feel as a horror fan I get denied part of the fun the sci-fi/comic fans get to take for granted.
But then again, I myself only felt compelled to do it once, twenty years ago this very day. The occasion was the release of Scream 2, a film I was literally counting the days to seeing throughout 1997, scratching my itch with a purchased script from a convention and reading it two or three times before I was able to see the movie, as this was before I entered the "spoilerphobe" part of my life (I even asked someone who saw it earlier to tell me who the killer was*, for some reason). I didn't go all out, mind you - I just wore my Ghostface mask in line and pulled it on a few times during the movie, despite the opening scene clearly demonstrating how that might be unnerving for people. But as I've said before, the first Scream got me back into horror after the early to mid '90s output largely killed my interest thanks to the likes of Brainscan and Hideaway, so I had to honor its sequel in a special way. And by special I mean "What I could afford when I only had a minimum wage part time job and a car to keep running."
Even though I had spoiled all of its surprises for myself, I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and looking back I guess it'd be the last time I walked out of a Scream movie happy instead of disappointed. I didn't go back and see it multiple times like I did for the original (which was the very first movie I ever paid to see a second time in theaters), but I thought it was a solid followup with some genuinely great sequences and a satisfying mystery, despite some sequelitis and what even then I thought was a bit of a bloated runtime. And over the years it only looks better in my eyes, really; the next two sequels disappointed me greatly, and the slasher genre once again started giving us characters we don't care about, along with an over-reliance on humor that kept them from being worth revisiting. Sure, Scream 2 (and even the original) have a number of dated jokes, but they're balanced by genuine terror and what passes for drama in a slasher film, which more than makes up for the occasional cringe-worthy "Oh, the '90s!" moment.
It's also the last time I felt concerned for the safety of the series' primary characters. The Scream franchise is an anomaly in the slasher canon in that they retained not only the same director for all four installments (that would be the late Wes Craven, who unfortunately passed away with the forgettable fourth film as his swan song), but a core group of hero characters: Sidney Prescott, Gale Weathers, and Dewey Riley (plus Randy Meeks and Cotton Weary, who proved to be less invincible). While the Halloween series had Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis, the former disappeared for several entries (and then died) while the latter was never the central character in those films - he was always kind of on the sidelines while the story stuck with the revolving stable of women that Michael Myers was pursuing. Likewise, Tommy Jarvis was in three Friday films as Jason's "nemesis", but the character was played by a different actor each time, making him less iconic than he might have been had one actor kept coming back. But for Scream, all of the series' killers had specific beef with Sidney, and Sidney was played by an actress (Neve Campbell) who was decreasingly less interested in starring in the films, allowing her co-stars Courteney Cox and David Arquette ample amounts of screentime even though the killers rarely had any interest in what they were doing. While the killer always used the same mask, it was always someone different wearing it - they never went the supernatural (or just ridiculous) route and resurrected a "fan favorite" killer, making it the only slasher series that we think about the heroes more than a dominating named villain like Jason or Freddy.
To be fair, by the time the 4th film came around it was a bit ridiculous that they would continue to survive these exploits - they had a perfect opportunity to off Gale in Scream 4 (during the "Stab" marathon party) but neglected to take the risk (she's basically a second Final Girl, really - and let's not forget Sid would be dead, twice!, if not for her), and I think that might be due to the fact that fans were so outraged about Randy's death in Scream 2. As the character most slasher fans (including myself, naturally) most identified with in these films, it was devastating to see him offed so brutally halfway through the first sequel, when he seemed like the kind of character who'd be around long after his more famous co-stars had moved on (like how Screech was the only Saved by the Bell cast member to stick around for The New Class). It was a legit shock, and Craven and co. took a lot of heat for it, so I can't help but wonder if they were too afraid to kill any of the other beloved heroes in the other installments, save for Cotton who was a non-presence in the first movie anyway. Plus, after the "Let's hire a famous person and then kill them instantly" gimmick of the first two movies, it made sense to switch gears and kill a famous character in the opening of Scream 3, with Cotton being the only easy choice out of the ones that were still alive.
However, this is another thing that makes me appreciate the film (and even S3** and 4, to a lesser extent) as time goes on, and we get more slasher films with characters I don't care about in the first place, or simply disappear between installments. Leatherface, for example, went the prequel route, with an entirely new cast of characters (save Leatherface, obviously), giving me no reason to be invested in it as part of a series that I enjoy (ditto Jigsaw, though it's not a slasher). Or they just ignore entries, as the new Halloween film is doing, which is fine for the Cult of Thorn or whatever, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't extremely disappointed that Laurie the drunken mess we met in H20 is no longer canon - I'd be so much more excited about Jamie Lee's return if she was playing the Laurie that I had spent four films with, instead of just the one (as they are ignoring everything after the original). This was one of the few things about Scream 4 I enjoyed; seeing how Gale and Dewey had finally settled down together was a nice payoff after three films of them coming together and breaking apart due to Gale's selfish ways. And while Campbell's aforementioned hesitance about returning to the role limited how much we got into Sid's head (and Ehren Kruger not handling these characters as well as Kevin Williamson), we see her run the gamut, from trying to move on with her life (Scream 2), going into exile (Scream 3), and finally sort of embracing the things that happened to her by writing a book about her ordeals in Scream 4. It's something we've never gotten to see in any other slasher series (hell, you could extend it to all of horror and there would be few exceptions), and as a slasher junkie/defender I found it quite pleasing to see a series finally give it a shot.
But It's not those lesser films' birthdays, so let's stop talking about them and focus on the good one. For those who don't know their history, this was a rushed film, in theaters less than a year after the original (by one week, but still) and dealing with a chaotic production that included excessive heat (they shot in Georgia in the summer - it was often in the 90s even at 3 am) and the aforementioned rewrites that resulted in cast members being given their pages right before they had to shoot them. Plus, while no one's ever offered any specific examples, the surprise success of the first film meant you know Bob Weinstein (and maybe even his brother) was gonna micromanage the film, which I'm sure didn't help matters. Long story short, it's a near miracle that the film is even watchable, let alone quite good, and I can't help but wonder if the rushed production meant that they didn't have time to second guess themselves or hire hacks to rewrite anything without Williamson. And it's got a few misguided moments, don't get me wrong - I will never, ever understand the pointless "The killer is killing people with the same names as the original victims" twist that is literally dropped the second it is introduced - but compared to most other slasher sequels (Halloween II being the easiest to compare) it measured up more than one could reasonably expect it to, all things considered.
And it holds up to repeat viewings, which is rare for any slasher let alone a sequel. For every clunky attempt at a red herring (Sid asking what took Randy so long when he went to get some drinks during a kill scene elsewhere being the most egregious), there are twice as many clever moments that allow them to preserve a mystery that should have fallen apart fairly quickly. Spoilers ahead - I am assuming everyone reading knows that the killer is Billy's mother, who appears in the movie as a reporter named Debbie Salt. You might not even notice that she never shares a scene with Sidney (who would recognize her instantly, obviously) on your first viewing, but they get out of Gale not knowing who she is by having "Debbie" tell Gale she went to one of her seminars, to which Gale replies "I thought you looked familiar". It's a way for Gale to figure out why she recognizes the woman without giving us a reason to think about it all that much, allowing Debbie to be a standard red herring (if that) so that even if you guessed she was the killer, you'd likely have no idea WHY until she revealed her true identity (that it's a nod to the original Friday the 13th is just icing). Ditto for Mickey (Tim Olyphant from Live Free or Die Hard), as once you know that he's the killer you can further appreciate his passionate defense of sequels in the early film class scene.
Don't get me wrong, first time viewers get plenty of treats too. I doubt any self-respecting slasher fan could dismiss the film's AV building chase sequence, where Ghostface chases Dewey and Gale through soundproof rooms. With Craven (and DP Peter Deming) getting lots of use out of both the location and their steadicam, it's a knockout sequence that, for my money, tops any similar chase in the original film, more than making up for its wonky setup (the only VCR they can find in a pre-DVD landscape is in the building the killer happened to be chilling in?). The one in the sorority house is also pretty good, making the most out of the series' penchant for having characters disappear/reappear in conjunction with Ghostface but now with the added bonus of the audience assuming that there are two killers. When Derek is attacked off screen, it could be legit, it could be him faking it as the sole killer, or it could be the other Ghostface staging it! As I've mentioned before, this is really the only slasher series to retain the whodunit angle throughout, so pulling off a satisfying mystery when we're hip to their tricks is an impressive feat. Also, while Dewey's survival was a lovely surprise for the first time you watched, you could have guessed it a few seconds earlier thanks to the Broken Arrow score - used throughout the film as his "theme" - kicked in a few shots before we see hear a medic announce "We got a live one!"
As I rewatched the film on Sunday night to prep for this article, my wife asked why I was bothering, since I had seen it a number of times and could probably write about it from memory (or just by stealing from my Minute by Minute on the film!). She had a point, but it had been a while and again, repeat viewings are rewarded so I was happy to have an excuse to rewatch, plus it would be the first time I watched it on Blu-ray since picking up the collection a while back. This time I had a few new takeaways, starting with seeing Mickey's eyes under the Ghostface mask when he kills Hallie, which I attribute to the Blu-ray. Another thing I never really considered was that the "Stab" film was in REALLY poor taste as it was less than two years later and they were already using the deaths of these teens (by other teens) as fodder for a generic slasher film, but Sid must have been involved somehow since they were able to recreate her private conversation with Billy for the film (no idea who informed them of Casey's murder sequence, however). I also chuckled when I realized that it actually tops Scream 1's unfortunate "What are you doing with a cellular phone?" dated moment by having an entire scene centered around the idea that they should easily be able to find the killer because he is nearby and has a cell phone, finding I think four people in the college quad with the newfangled devices (I guess it balances out the VCR thing, since that actually makes MORE sense now than it did in 1997).
But the main thing I realized was also the most important: the movie really holds up well on its 20th birthday, which is more than I can say for some of its competition. While few would argue that Scream is a legit classic (anyone arguing shouldn't be listened to; if they don't like it that's fine, but the movie still achieved classic status), the films that followed in its wake are pretty hit or miss, and many of them have aged poorly. I recently gave Bride of Chucky a look and found it pretty hard to get through compared to its more recent entries, and while I Know What You Did Last Summer has that terrific chase for Sarah Michelle Gellar's character (much better than the one she gets here) and some other bright spots, the impossible to solve mystery and some questionable acting have also left it hard to revisit (its sequel was never enjoyable in the first place). Hell, even though I'm a fan of Urban Legend and its first sequel, I'll be the first to admit they're very much a product of their time and would likely not win over anyone seeing them for the first time today. But I think Scream 2 could easily make new fans out of those who missed it back then - it's got all the ingredients for a proper slasher, and it does right by the characters returning from a film that is essential viewing for a horror fan. AND it doesn't force a Creed song down our throats, another thing it's got over the next entry. Scream 2 defied the odds and measured up, so let's hope Blumhouse doesn't get the rights to the series and say it doesn't exist in 20 years.
*By then I knew the script I bought had been changed because it had leaked. It was the version where Derek and Hallie were the killers along with Mrs. Loomis, and ended with Sid and Cotton stabbing each other to death.
**A friend recently forced me to rewatch that one - which is my least favorite - and I finally realized the only way to get any enjoyment out of it is to approach it as a comedy, not a Scream film. Then you can fully enjoy Parker Posey's award-worthy performance without all the annoyances that betray the whole point of Scream, such as the fact that Ehren Kruger's script inexplicably has not one single real horror movie mentioned in the entire film.