Scream Recap: The Killers, The Plots, And The Most Memorable Deaths (2023)

For 25 years now, the Scream movies have been lovingly poking holes in the horror genre, while also poking holes in anyone unlucky enough to be attacked by one of the franchise’s many Ghostface killers. Across four films, director Wes Craven and writers Kevin Williamson and Ehren Kruger have delivered first-rate slasher scares while rooting around in the innards of the genre, calling out the rules and conventions of Hollywood horror in seriously self-referential style.

Now, the series is back for blood with confusingly-titled fifth entry Scream – from Ready Or Not directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick – pitching a whole new generation of teens against another ghoulish Ghostface, with the original survivor trio of Sidney Prescott, Dewey Riley and Gale Weathers back in the mix too. Don’t know your Caseys from your Cotton Wearys? Lost track of who was unmasked at the end of each movie? Fear not – Empire’s got you covered, with a total recap of the first four movies. Before we begin, we just have one question to ask… what’s your favourite scary movie?

Scream (1996)

Scream Recap: The Killers, The Plots, And The Most Memorable Deaths (1)

The basics:

A killer (or, killers) in a Ghostface mask begins bumping off teenagers in the town of Woodsboro, California, adhering to the ‘rules’ set out by classic slasher movies. The only victim to escape her fate is Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) – a high-schooler still reeling from the death of her mother, whose murder was pinned on Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), a local man who Mrs. Prescott was actually having an affair with. Along with bumbling cop Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and ambitious TV reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), Sidney helps unmask the killer(s).

Who were the killers?

Scream Recap: The Killers, The Plots, And The Most Memorable Deaths (2)

The central killer here is Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) – a double-bluff, considering his sketchy behaviour throughout the film made him almost too obvious to be the murderer. He reveals that Sidney’s mother was having an affair with his father as well as with Cotton, causing the break-up of his family and spurring him on a vengeful murder spree. But the twist is, he wasn’t acting alone – he had help from eccentric fellow student Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard), who hosts the third act’s bloodbath party at his house. Together, the pair also killed Sidney’s mother and framed Cotton Weary for it. Stu dies when a TV falls on his head and electrocutes him, while Billy takes a bullet to the head from Sidney.

Most memorable murder:

That opening sequence, which caught cinema audiences completely off-guard. While Drew Barrymore’s face was front-and-centre on the poster, her Casey Becker is the first to die in a ferocious opening sequence. It establishes the film’s self-referential approach from the off, as Ghostface calls up Casey at home and asks the series’ most iconic question: “What’s your favourite scary movie?” From there, the tension ramps up unbearably – Casey’s popcorn goes up in flames, her boyfriend is bumped off, and she’s ultimately stabbed and disemboweled seconds before her parents return home. Smartly written, brilliantly directed, and seriously scary.

Most meta moment:

The sequence in which horror fanatic Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) explains the rules of horror films to those gathered at Stu’s party. Namely: no sex, no drinking or drugs, and never say “I’ll be right back”. Bonus meta points for Wes Craven’s cameo as school janitor Fred, in a nod to A Nightmare On Elm Street.

Read Empire's Scream review

Scream 2 (1997)

Scream Recap: The Killers, The Plots, And The Most Memorable Deaths (3)

The basics:

After surviving the Woodsboro murders, Sidney has moved to Ohio to study at Windsor College. But a copycat Ghostface killer starts attacking students on campus, apparently spurred on by the imminent release of ‘Stab’ – a horror film based on the events of Scream. Meanwhile, the recently-exonerated Cotton Weary is out to gain publicity for his wrongful imprisonment, and Gale has a new rival in aspiring news reporter Debbie Salt (Laurie Metcalf) when investigating the new murders.

Who were the killers?

Scream Recap: The Killers, The Plots, And The Most Memorable Deaths (4)

Despite appearances that it might be Sidney’s college boyfriend Derek (Jerry O’Connell) in the mask, it was actually his best friend Mickey (Timothy Olyphant) – a film studies student, no less – with blood on his hands. But, as ever, Mickey wasn’t working alone. The real mastermind here was Debbie Loomis, mother of Scream killer Billy, who was hiding in plain sight as reporter Debbie Salt. Seeking revenge for the death of her son – and for her husband’s affair with Sidney’s late mother – she found Mickey online and cooked up a plan with him, agreeing to pay for his college tuition so they could go on a killing spree together. Mickey wanted notoriety for his part in it, hoping to blame his activities on the effects of screen violence. Cotton Weary shoots Debbie, saving Sidney, who kills Mickey with a little help from Gale.

Most memorable murder:

Home alone at the Omega Beta Zeta sorority house, student Cici (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is stalked around its empty halls by Ghostface while Nosferatu plays on the TV. There’s a sustained tension here that devolves into panic as Cici runs up the stairs away from her attacker in a ferocious chase, only to be stabbed in the back by the killer and chucked off the balcony. The same year that Buffy began, the Slayer got slayed on the big screen.

Most meta moment:

The mind-twisting opening sequence – which re-stages the Drew Barrymore opening sequence from Scream as the opening sequence of in-universe movie ‘Stab’ (directed by none other than Robert Rodriguez). In a cinema of baying horror movie fans, all wearing Ghostface masks, Maureen Evans (Jada Pinkett Smith) is freaked out by the gratuitous violence of ‘Stab’, much to the amusement of her boyfriend Phil (Omar Epps). But Phil is swiftly skewered by an actual Ghostface killer in the cinema bathroom, and Maureen is stabbed in the auditorium shortly after, bleeding out in front of the cinema screen as the excitable audience jeers and throws popcorn. It’s not only a bravura sequence with well-timed scares, but finds Craven and Kevin Williamson commenting on the ethical quandary of turning true-crime into entertainment, and the extent to which horror movies inspire real-life violence – a debate later discussed in the film, and an accusation levelled at the Scream movies by the media.

Read Empire's Scream 2 review

Scream 3 (2000)

Scream Recap: The Killers, The Plots, And The Most Memorable Deaths (5)

The basics:

Working on a crisis hotline, Sidney is called up and taunted by another Ghostface killer – who then murders Cotton Weary and his girlfriend, and starts slashing up the cast of movie threequel ‘Stab 3’ in the order they die in the film’s script, to the dismay of director Roman Bridger (Scott Foley). Gale (now sporting an unfortunate short fringe) is drawn to investigate the murders with detective Mark Kincaid (Patrick Dempsey), and finds that Dewey has been hired as advisor to actor Jennifer Jolie (Parker Posey), who’s playing Gale in the movie. Meanwhile, Sidney discovers her mother had a secret life in Hollywood when she was younger, unveiled in clues left by the killer.

Who were the killers?

Scream Recap: The Killers, The Plots, And The Most Memorable Deaths (6)

In a twist on the Scream formula, there’s actually only one killer this time – ‘Stab 3’ director Roman, revealed to be Sidney’s half-brother. Before she was Maureen Prescott, Sidney’s mum went by the name Rina Reynolds and starred in three movies for Hollywood producer John Milton (Lance Henrikson). During that time she was raped at one of Milton’s parties, conceived a child, and gave him up for adoption. When Roman finally tracked her down, Maureen shut the door on him – so he plotted his revenge, ‘directed’ Billy Loomis to become the first Ghostface killer, and eventually decided to go after Sidney himself. If he can kill her and make a hit movie, he can get all the notoriety he craves, and be Maureen’s one true child…

Most memorable murder:

Notably, Scream 3 toned down the teen-on-teen violence of the previous two entries in the wake of the Columbine massacres – amping up the humour, and dialing down the bloodshed. Notably, it includes one death that isn’t even a stabbing. Actor Tom Prinze (Matt Keeslar), playing Dewey in ‘Stab 3’, goes out in a blaze of glory when he explodes in a gas leak. Far from the series’ high-point, it’s a memorably un-Scream death in a Scream movie.

Most meta moment:

As a threequel about a threequel that invokes the rules of trilogy-closers (thanks to a posthumous video cameo by Randy Meeks), Scream 3 is especially meta. But it’s the death of actor Sarah Darling (Jenny McCarthy) that does it best, bemoaning her thin role and complaining that she’s barely in ‘Stab 3’ because she’s the second person to die – before becoming the second character to die in Scream 3 after relatively little screen-time. Bonus points for the moment where she hides among a rail of Ghostface costumes, and attempts to fight back with rubbery prop weapons.

Read Empire's Scream 3 review

Scream 4 (2011)

Scream Recap: The Killers, The Plots, And The Most Memorable Deaths (7)

The basics:

Fifteen years after the original Ghostface attacks, Sidney returns to Woodsboro to launch her self-help book ‘Out Of Darkness’. But her homecoming coincides with a fresh spate of copycat murders, targeting teens including Sidney’s younger cousin Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts), her friend Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and horror-heads Charlie (Rory Culkin) and Robbie (Erik Knudsen). Can Dewey and Gale (now ten years into their marriage) chase down the new killer and survive?

Who were the killers?

Scream Recap: The Killers, The Plots, And The Most Memorable Deaths (8)

In Scream 4 , we once again have two killers, staging their own ‘remake’ of the original events. First up is horror super-fan teen Charlie, who relishes the chance to make his own real-life scary movie. But pulling the strings is Sidney’s cousin Jill – desperate for fame and willing to do anything to get it. The pair hope to paint themselves as the ‘new Sidney and Randy’, innocent survivors of the attacks, while pinning the murders on other people. Roberts gives a thrillingly committed performance once Jill’s unmasked, shooting her ex-boyfriend in the crotch, chucking herself through a glass table, and gleefully celebrating her own success. She turns on accomplice Charlie, stabbing him so that she can be the ‘sole survivor’ – but ultimately gets her comeuppance at the hospital, where Sidney defibrillates her head, and shoots her for good measure.

Most memorable murder:

The brutality of the kills is ramped up this time, so there are some strong options. Poor cop Perkins gets a knife through the forehead (ouch!), high schooler Olivia is stabbed dozens of times and has her intestines ripped out (double ouch!), and Trevor takes a bullet to the nuts (triple ouch!). The winner has to be Hayden Panettiere’s Kirby, though – who beats Ghostface’s horror-quiz to rescue Charlie, only for him to reveal his complicity in the killings and stab her in the gut. Bummer.

Most meta moment:

In true Scream style, the opening sequence of Scream 4 swings for the fences – offering up films-within-films-within-films as Craven and Williamson gleefully toy with the audience. We open on Trudie (Shenae Grimes) and Sherrie (Lucy Hale) as they bemoan torture-porn trends in ‘00s horror, before being called up and cut down by Ghostface. Cue the title card: ‘Stab 6’. Watching that film are Chloe (Kristen Bell) and Rachel (Anna Paquin), the latter calling out how predictable the usual slasher fare has become and picking apart the plot holes – until Chloe pulls out a knife and stabs her friend for ruining the movie. Cue the title card: ‘Stab 7’. And watching that film are Woodsboro teens Jenny (Aimee Teegarden) and Marnie (Britt Robertson), who soon become the victims of an actual Ghostface killer – kicking off the plot proper. It’s a gloriously fun example of pop culture eating itself, and it tastes like popcorn soaked in bright red corn syrup.

Read Empire's Scream 4 review


Courteney Cox

Kevin Williamson

David Arquette

Tyler Gillett

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin

Neve Campbell

Wes Craven

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