There are a handful of iconic horror movies that fundamentally altered and redirected the genre. Frankenstein scared the pants off of everyone in Hollywood’s golden age and left a permanent mark on pop culture. Night of the Living Dead exploited a newly defunct censorship code with graphic violence, and the creation of the zombie. Halloween made slashers fashionable to the point of eventual burnout; it’s arguably the most ripped-off movie ever made. Another film that absolutely belongs in this conversation? Scary-movie maestro Wes Craven‘s Scream (from a sharp, career-making Kevin Williamson script), a maniacally effective, self-aware satire where the characters in a horror movie had actually seen horror movies. It seamlessly blended a whodunit mystery with stone-faced, blood-soaked scares; for the genre, there was no turning back.
This January, co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and co-writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, are taking us back to Woodsboro for Scream 5. Franchise stars Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette will all return for the fifth installment, simply titled Scream (premiering exclusively in theaters on Friday, Jan. 14). In nail-biting anticipation of the first Scream film in a decade (and the first without Craven—who passed away in 2015—at the helm), we’re ranking the series thus far from worst to best, taking into account how scary, entertaining and funny each film is, and how well they hold up. All four Scream movies are available to rent and purchase across major streaming platforms.
Scream 3 (2000)
In the first Scream without Williamson as writer, the genre-bending franchise leaned too far into self-parody and generally lost its way. Plot conveniences abound, like the voice-changing tech that’s more sci-fi than slasher and that exists solely because the plot needs it to, lamentably undermining Roger Jackson‘s masterfully nefarious “Ghostface” performance, critical in making the first film so frightening. Scream 3 is farfetched in the broad strokes, too: Its “revelations” feel so tacked-on that the movie nearly falls apart. It doesn’t fully, though. Much of the credit goes to Craven’s crisp direction, and the pleasures of keeping up with the series’ returning trio of unlikely heroes: survivor Sidney, reporter Gale and cop Dewey are as endearing as anyone in modern horror.
While Scream 3 may be ranked the lowest on this list, it’s important to remember that the Scream series has shown considerable quality control throughout its run; there’s no comparing convoluted, entertaining Scream 3 to other horror series’ low points like Freddie‘s Dead: The Final Nightmare or the abysmal Halloween Kills.
The best part: Parker Posey is hilarious as “Jennifer Jolie,” a ruthlessly selfish starlet playing a watered-down Gale Weathers in the Stab films. Many actors in the supporting cast of Scream 3 seem unsure if they’re in a horror movie or a spoof of one (and that’s probably the script’s fault). Posey reads the room, and when she’s onscreen, Scream 3 is more confident.
Scream 2 (1997)
The wildfire, leggy box-office success of the original film (it grossed $173 million, or well over $300 million today) inspired producers to rush a sequel out less than a year after the first. Especially when taking this into account, it’s miraculous Scream 2 was a worthy successor—lighter on its feet, but red-blooded and tense, too. The returning characters have plenty to do, and the violent death of Randy (Jamie Kennedy) is one of the series’ most surprising and memorable.
Scream pictures are full of red herrings that mostly just add to the fun of trying to guess whodunit, but Scream 2 is notably less gratifying than the first because the identities of the killers aren’t guessable; we get a lot of back-end plot information that’s satisfying enough—it’s not like we feel outright cheated—but it’s nothing like the tag-team reveal of damaged, pop-culture-obsessed kids Skeet Ulrich and Matthew Lillard from the original. At a full two hours, Scream 2 is at least 10 minutes too long—but still, it’s easily one of the slickest slasher movies ever made.
Related: We Ranked the 151 Best Horror Movies Ever—From Frankenstein to Malignant
The best part: Scenes from movie-within-a-movie Stab are used sparingly, to great effect. Playing a version of themselves playing slasher movie fodder, Luke Wilson, Tori Spelling and Heather Graham are wickedly deadpan.