Why 'Scream 2' Is Still One of the Best Horror Sequels of All Time

Scream 2
Ghostface in 'Scream 2' | Dimension Films
Ghostface in 'Scream 2' | Dimension Films

Scream 2, the follow-up to director Wes Craven's meta-horror hit from 1996 that just became available to stream on Netflix, was forged in the fire of the early internet. After the runaway box-office success of Scream, which grossed $173 million on a $15 million budget, launched the movie careers of a number of young stars, and turned the question, "Do you like scary movies?" into an annoying catch phrase, series writer Kevin Williamson was already cranking out a script for the sequel. It proved difficult to keep under wraps. According to Craven, they had to "do backflips" to rewrite the opening after the first 40 pages "show[ed] up on the Internet"; in an interview with Williamson from 2010, the screenwriter said he created multiple potential finales to the script, including a "dummy ending" that surfaced online and identified a different set of killers than the actual ending. (Versions of that controversial alternate script are still readily available.) Even during production, the actors were kept in the dark about the big reveal, which remains a great, bewildering horror movie twist. 

Like many sequels, Scream 2 was a product of both careful planning and in-the-moment problem-solving. It had a rushed shoot, complicated by the fact that many of its stars, like Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and Jerry O'Connell, were also starring in high-profile TV shows at the time. But Williamson had a vision: As he told Fangoria before the movie's release, the writer, who would go on to create Dawson's Creek and The Following, submitted the script for the original Scream with a five-page treatment for two sequels. "I was not being ballsy or overly confident," he said. "I was just suggesting that, if they bought this script, they would have a possible franchise on their hands."

His bet paid off: Scream spawned three movies, including 1997's Scream 2, 2000's Scream 3, and 2011's Scream 4, and a television series, which are all currently available to stream on Netflix. The first Scream, with its dynamite opening sequence featuring Drew Barrymore, quippy dialogue, and tense plotting, remains the high watermark for the franchise and a historic inflection point for the genre, but Scream 2 deserves your attention -- or at least your next stream. It's one of the best slasher sequels of all time, dutifully building on the self-reflexive tone of the first film while deepening the convoluted, death-obsessed mythology of the series. Plus, it's got Academy Award nominee Laurie Metcalf and future Deadwood star Timothy Olyphant! How many other sequels can say that? 

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Opening with an elaborate riff on the first movie, where a flirty college couple played by Jada Pinkett Smith and Omar Epps go on a date to see Stab -- the cash-in horror adaptation of Cox's character's nonfiction book about the events depicted in the first Scream -- Scream 2 quickly establishes its cheeky hall of mirrors approach. After trading some playful, sharp banter about race and genre films, Pinkett Smith and Epps watch the first couple minutes of Stab, which features Heather Graham playing the Drew Barrymore role in an essentially shot-for-shot recreation of the first Scream's inaugural kill. While Pinkett Smith provides era-specific commentary like, "Bitch, hang up and star 69 his ass," her wits can't save her: A copycat of Ghostface, the masked killer of the series, murders her right in the theater. 

From there, Craven and Williamson go about setting up the expanded cast and world of the sequel, which trades Woodsboro High School for the (fictional) Windsor College, where Sidney Prescott (Campbell) has relocated after the traumatic events of the first film. But, like the scream queens of the '70s and '80s who inspired her, Sidney can't escape the past. In fact, almost every major (not dead) character from the first film returns, including Cox's intrepid TV reporter Gale Weathers, David Arquette's put-upon cop Deputy Dewey, Jamie Kennedy's rules-obsessed movie buff Randy Meeks, and Liev Schreiber's fame-hungry oddball Cotton Weary, now free from prison after being framed for the murder of Sidney's mother. 

The opening stretch of Scream 2 might be its most effective section, but the movie also has two terrific suspense sequences that work in entirely different ways. First, there's a thrilling escape from a crashed police car, where Sidney and her friend Hallie (Elise Neal) must crawl over the unconscious body of the killer. It's completely gripping, a pure white-knuckle showcase for Craven, a horror veteran who knew how to work up an audience. The other great set piece is stranger. I'm referring to the the kept-under-wraps finale, which builds on a scene from earlier in the film where we see Sydney rehearsing for a production of the Greek tragedy Agamemnon with a college theater group. It's a mildly pretentious, gleefully over-the-top conclusion that elevates Scream 2 into operatic-kitsch. Does it makes sense? Who knows! 

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A production of 'Agamemnon' in 'Scream 2' | Dimension Films

I won't go too far into details about the actual specifics of the last scene -- really, just go watch the movie yourself -- but the decision to stage the last sequence in an empty college auditorium, where Sidney gets to weaponize cheesy design elements of the production against her tormentors, is a brilliant one. Like the opening, it's a meta-textual minefield. With her boyfriend tied up, Sidney is forced into an ethical dilemma that requires her to reenact the circumstances of the first film and confront the lingering aftershocks of her mother's moral transgressions from the past. Acting as writer, director, and actress of her own fate, she sends a faux-boulder tumbling down on a killer; she creates fake lightning above the stage; she even puts a bullet in one of her attackers. It's one of the more pleasingly batshit and endearingly goofy throw-downs in horror movie sequel-dom. 

As a writer, Williamson's know-it-all glibness can be tiresome and it can be lethal when misapplied, like in the largely forgettable '90s Michael Meyers reboot Halloween: H20, but it's properly cut here by Craven's flair for the grandiose. (The pair are helped along by a thundering score from series composer Marco Beltrami.) Early on, Scream 2 goes out of its way to tell us that "sequels suck" and "the entire horror genre was destroyed by sequels," playing a winking game of chicken with the expectations of audiences and critics. But the gusto of the finale shows that the movie is chasing more than spot-the-reference smugness. Even if it was only trying to outmaneuver an army of online sleuths, Scream 2 achieves some old-fashioned catharsis. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.