After 26 years of satirical meta-horror, Scream-mania is still going strong. Here’s our bottom-to-top ranking of the five installments in this monumental franchise.
The legacy begins with a ringing phone. Casey Backer (Drew Barrymore), the high schooler with blonde hair and straight-cut bangs, picks up the receiver and is greeted by a gravelly voice on the other line. Within moments, she locks the doors, grabs a knife, sees her boyfriend tied to a chair outside — popcorn smoking on the stove, glass shattering — and witnesses Ghostface for the first time, described as a "ghostly white mask" in the script. She's gutted like a fish, her insides ripped out, and hung from a tree in the yard, dripping with blood. Those twelve minutes of shocking terror redefined the slasher horror genre. VHS tapes with Barrymore's wide blue eyes and hand cupping her mouth soon lined the shelves of every Blockbuster store in America. Written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Guru of Gore Wes Craven, Scream exploded into five films and a TV series, grossing over $740 million. Reflecting on the entire franchise, here are all five Scream movies, ranked.
5. Scream 3 (2000)
Four years after the original and in the wake of persistent movie trivia chatter, the series finally lands in Hollywood with Scream 3. The plot is a movie within a movie, the story paralleling multiple screenplay drafts of the new Stab 3 — the slasher series within the Scream universe based on its real-life events. The ensemble is back: policeman Dewey Riley (David Arquette), reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), and, of course, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the traumatized survivor and Ghostface's ultimate target.
Sidney, now a crisis counselor, finds herself in another massacre. A scene of carnage unfolds on the Stab 3 set — on the studio lot, soundstages, and prop rooms — with cameo appearances playing cast and crew on the production; Cottony Weary (Liev Schreiber), formerly falsely accused of Sidney's mother's murder, is a talk-show host; Carrie Fisher is a studio archivist; Patrick Dempsey is a detective; Lance Henriksen is the director of Stab 3; Jenny McCarthy is an actress; Parker Posey portrays Gale in the film. What was sworn to be the final chapter in a revolutionary trilogy, the shift in tone from the first two installments can be attributed to a change in writers. Committed to another project, Williamson was unable to finish the script. He was replaced by Ehren Kruger (The Ring movies, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallon), who didn't replicate the same style. It's less ruthless and more of a self-parodying Scooby Doo-like whodunnit mystery, but it still has a few unexpected twists. It was not favored by critics, although Scream fans remain somewhat loyal.
Kill count: 10
4. Scream 4 (2011)
For 11 years, it's been quiet. That low, menacing voice hasn't been heard on the other line since that last "final chapter." But once Marnie Cooper (Britt Robertson) is thrown through a glass door, slashed in the arm, stabbed in the stomach, and hung from a ceiling fan, it's clear Ghostface is back with a vengeance. By now, there have been seven Stab movies. Dewey is the town sheriff; Gale has retired as a reporter, married to him but bored in Woodsboro. Meanwhile, Sidney returns to promote her book, Out of Darkness, and reconnects with her long-lost cousin (Emma Roberts), and Marley Shelton is the town's deputy sheriff tasked with confronting the reprise of killings at Woodsboro High yet again.
Leaving behind the 1996-2000 era of clunky plastic telephones with long cords and no internet, Scream 4 adapts to the times and introduces cell phones, webcams, laptops, and social media. The film aims to reclaim its throne in the genre — emphasizing reboots and remakes — but doesn't quite make the cut. If nothing else, Scream 4 is a re-entrance to the franchise and Wes Craven's last directing effort, which is something to be grateful for.
Kill count: 15
3. Scream 5 (2022)
Up to this point, Ghostface victims have been stabbed with Buck 120 hunting knives, crushed by garage doors, shot, electrocuted, and thrown off rooftops in ferocious, balls to the wall Scream fashion. After Wes Craven's passing in 2015, fans had doubts about the fifth installment living up to his original Scream franchise vision. Nevertheless, Scream 5 revs the engine of the Scream 4, then hauls it in overdrive when more murderous mayhem storms through Woodsboro.
The bloodshed returns after another 11-year hiatus, but the spatter is messier, thicker, and darker, seeping into a new vision by Ready or Not directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. Marley Shelton is now Sheriff Judy Hicks, Gale reunites with Dewey after their divorce, Sidney comes home, and Skeet Ulrich reprises his role as Billy Loomis in his daughter's (Melissa Barrera) eerie hallucinations. New performances by Jenna Ortega, Mikey Madison, and Jack Quaid are dramatic and compelling, always keeping the viewer second-guessing.
In keeping with Scream tradition, the deaths are outside the box — a screwdriver is pierced into a bar patron's neck, a teenager's throat is gashed through his Adam's apple, and someone is lathered in hand sanitizer and lit on fire, scorched into a blazing inferno. It's a frenzied, violent feat with a raging display of craftsmanship. Although Craven's touch is missing, the directors honor his memory by mimicking his style while engraving their own slick mark. The next chapter won't have Campbell, but we're still looking forward to Scream 6.
Kill count: 8
2. Scream 2 (1997)
Riding the heels of the original's incredible impact on the genre, Scream 2 leaves the sleepy town of Woodsboro and arrives on the campus of Windsor College. Mickey (Timothy Olyphant), Derek (Jerry O'Connell), Maureen (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Cici (Sarah Michelle Gellar) join the survivors of the first slayings, and after throats are slit with blood gushing on the pavement, the "copycat killer" becomes a highlight on the evening news.
Richard Potter, executive in charge of production for Scream and co-executive producer of Scream 2, talked exclusively to EW, noting, "We knew the basis of Scream 2 had to come from the first film. It couldn't just be another story; it had to be an extension — a continuation of the story." He and screenwriter Williamson considered where each of the major characters left off, wondering,"What was life like for Cotton now? How did he feel about what had happened to him? The movie focused on family issues with Billy's father and Sidney's mother... What happened to Billy's mother?"
As for final girl Sidney, Potter tells EW, "She's become famous for surviving. How does she move forward into the next part of her life? How does she build relationships? Can she trust people?" And then there's soon-to-be recurring love birds Gale and Dewey, as Potter explains: "Before Scream, Gale had never been part of something. She'd written about things but hadn't lived them. Now she's lived them. Dewey stepped up and became a hero in Scream, defying people's expectations, but lost his sister, got badly hurt, and was betrayed by the woman he loved. How does he find a purpose? All of that was baked into Scream, so Scream 2 feels like it's more of the same story — not something tacked on just to keep it going."
As a thread weaving through the story's theme, sequels are a massive topic of discussion, the formula explained by Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) at length. Scream 2 follows the formula while making its own rules, and it does so with a quality, style, and awareness that's nearly on par with the original, which given how monumental its blueprint was for the wider horror canon, that's seriously saying something.
Kill count: 10
1. Scream (1996)
Hollywood was in a horror movie dry spell when Wes Craven's masterpiece hit theaters right before Christmas in 1996. From the usual players to Billy (Ulrich) and Stu (Matthew Lillard), it was the first time characters knew the "rules" of a horror movie: "you can never have sex…you can never drink or do drugs…never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, 'I'll be right back,' because you won't be back." Jarring, scary, and now a cultural phenomenon, Scream became a revelation that reshaped the slasher sub-genre with whip-smart dialogue, paying homage to classic horror films like Halloween and Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street while becoming a classic of its own.
And that ghostly mask described by Williamson? That was discovered by Marianne Maddalena, a producer on every Scream film since the original when location scouting with Craven and the crew. "We were trying to come up with a mask," Maddalena tells EW. "We were maybe two weeks from shooting, visiting what was supposed to be Tatum's [Rose McGowan] house. When I went upstairs, I found this ghost mask on the bed, but it had a white shroud. And I ran downstairs and said to Wes and Bruce Miller, our production designer, 'Look! Oh my God! Look at this mask! This is perfect!'" Though she says Wes at first was doubtful (he wanted to make his own mask), he eventually came around, and we're all better for it. "Of course, Wes had to make it his own. He altered the chin, I think. And then, it didn't work. We shot it for a day or two, and he said, 'You know what? You're right. The mask works as is.'"
That prototype transformed into the iconic white rubber mask with oval eyes, long mouth, a black hooded robe, faux tatters draped from the arms, and black boots — a guise embodied by nine killers. And, of course, accompanied by Roger L. Jackson's voice spoken into a voice changer.
Behind the scenes, the franchise began when the screenplay was delivered to Potter at the old Miramax Offices in New York. It was 1995, and Potter was a Dimension Films executive at the time. "When the script arrived, the night that it came in, it came in with the title Scary Movie," he tells EW. "I started reading it and the opening sequence is obviously Casey Becker's death, and it scared the crap out of me reading it in my office alone in the dark. Everyone else had left. And then when I got to the end, not only was the writing quality the whole way through and the story brilliant, but when it was two killers, my mind was blown. I was in love with a script."
Scream serves as a tongue-in-cheek, trope-filled, self-referential satire and an unhinged, entertaining scarefest. It tears into the chest, puncturing the tissue and lungs, with Craven and Williamson pushing on the knife handle harder as the blade cuts into the arteries — and finally — killing the once-dwindling genre while ironically bringing it alive all over again.
Kill count: 7