This post contains spoilers for the Scream movies.
Horror film productions have a way of haunting the legacies of the films they create, from the deaths of Poltergeist actors Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne to the MacNeil home set fire that delayed The Exorcist for six weeks to the freak lightning, animal attacks, and plane crash that plagued the production of The Omen. Even The Conjuring—a relatively quaint throwback of a haunted house film—had its share of eerie moments on set. As it nears its 20th anniversary, Scream 3 has entered into its own parasitic symbiosis with reality: The film, a lowly, makeshift trilogy closer, is unique in that it is a Harvey Weinstein–produced slasher flick in which a sleazy, Harvey Weinstein–esque film producer is brutally murdered by his son.
“You can see the similarities in the demise of the very company that produced it,” the film’s editor, Patrick Lussier, a longtime collaborator of the late Wes Craven, told Slate. Lussier cut together many of the horror director’s projects for over a decade, from Craven’s first foray into metanarrative scares with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare to his Hitchcockian thriller Red Eye, and was party to many of Scream 3’s late-phase revisions and tweaks. “Wes, I think, was very interested in that character as not necessarily the villain—he certainly is a villain—but as a catalyst for the villain’s motivation. He’s really the spark for the events, or retconned that he is the spark for the events, in the entire series,” he said.
Scream 3 had to come together quickly for Miramax-owned Dimension Films, according to the movie’s credited screenwriter, Ehren Kruger. They were filming in summer 1999, while Courteney Cox, who plays tabloid TV news reporter Gale Weathers in the films, was on hiatus from Friends. Neve Campbell, who plays repeat serial-killing survivor Sidney Prescott, was only available for three weeks of the scheduled nine-week shoot. “Six weeks out from production there was no script,” Kruger recollected. “There were notions, though.”
One of those notions involved a film-within-the-film called Stab 3, part of a fictional franchise within the movie based on the “real-life” events of the original Scream. In Scream 3, the serial murderer hiding behind the mask this time around is revealed as Stab 3’s director, Roman (played by then–Felicity cast member Scott Foley) who is the result of essentially the exact kind of casting couch sexual abuse with which Harvey Weinstein has now become synonymous, despite his denials. Roman’s father is an old studio hand named John Milton—portrayed by veteran character actor Lance Henriksen as a man whose cynicism borders on total exhaustion—and the producer of the latest Stab sequel, though he is unaware that the director is his son.
Roman’s mother, in an incredibly tidy narrative conceit, is also Sidney Prescott’s late mother, Maureen, whose troubled life story now includes a stint acting in a few ’70s-era B-movie horror films under the stage name “Rina Reynolds.” When confronted about his relationships with women like Maureen about midway through the film, Milton delivers a supervillain-worthy monologue:*
It was the ’70s. Everything was different. I was well-known for my parties. She knew what they were. It was for girls like her to meet men. Men who could get them parts if they made the right impression. Nothing happened to her that she didn’t invite in one way or another. No matter what she said afterwards. … I’m saying that things got out of hand. Maybe they did take advantage of her. Maybe the sad truth is this is not a city for innocents. No charges were brought. And the bottom line is, [Maureen Prescott] wouldn’t play by the rules. You wanna get ahead in Hollywood? You gotta play the game, or go home.
The defining conceit of the Scream franchise is that slasher movies, the sensationalized reporting on the real-life murders that inspire them, the public appetite for the genre, and the broken rationalizations of the killers themselves coexist in a malignant and metastasizing dialogue with one another. Courteney Cox’s Gale Weathers—despite being responsible for exonerating the man falsely accused of Maureen Prescott’s murder in the first film—is also perversely responsible for elevating the murderers to celebrity status. In the Scream movies, the moronic cosplaying pranksters and Stab film fans who don the killer’s signature Halloween costume make it easier for the real killers to commit their crimes and elude capture across innumerable instances within each film of the series.
Both Lussier and Kruger describe the approach to Scream 3 as “a snake eating its tail,” and the film’s Hollywood critique of Hollywood’s exploitative approach to violent crime is something the film literalizes to an absurd degree. “We are the parasite living off of the crimes,” Lussier said, “and we are also the instigator of the crimes we are living off.”
Twisting itself around this convoluted narrative is the fact that Harvey Weinstein executive-produced the movie and appears to have been fine with his brother, Bob, who tended to be the one most involved with Dimension productions, bringing a horror film with this very telling storyline into theaters. Kruger says that while Weinstein never explicitly came up as a source of inspiration during the film’s creation, that kind of imperious disregard was a major point of reference for Scream 3’s John Milton. “We liked the idea of a character who had the ego to give himself the name of the famous poet who wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost,” Kruger said, “with no irony or no understanding of the themes of that.”
Lussier remembered that the Milton character’s “reckless approach to innocence” was very much in line with how Wes Craven saw the industry in general. “In Wes’ mind, this was very much how this city works,” he said. “We will eat into our young. Things that you thought you could get away with because you live in a protected climate of power and money.”
By the end of the film, that recklessness catches up to Milton when Roman kidnaps and stows him away within earshot of a lengthy expository monologue to Sidney. Milton begs for his life and offers Roman the “final cut” on his Stab movie. You can probably imagine what happens next: Roman does get the final cut of something, but it’s not the movie—it’s Milton’s throat.
Lussier said that the Weinsteins’ only real objection to the plot of Scream 3 came from Bob, who nixed a late-pass revision of the ending that would have made another character played by Emily Mortimer an accomplice to the murders. “He felt we had done the two-killers thing [with Scream and Scream 2],” Lussier remembered, “and didn’t want to pursue that.”
What about the final bloodbath of retribution, where the big-shot producer and predator has his throat slit in his own lavish home screening room? When I asked Kruger if there were critical executive or studio notes on the Milton character, or what happens to him, his answer was a flat “Nope. Everyone liked that plot.”
Correction, Nov. 4, 2019: This piece originally misstated the point at which the character John Milton delivers his monologue. It’s about midway through the film, not earlier on.