Oh, the Horror
Oddly enough, the bits of pop-culture detritus that the Scream movies remind me of aren’t the cheesy teen-exploitation horror movies of which they’re near-parodies, but rather cheesy sitcoms. For some reason, the scary voice on the phone rasping “Hello, Sidney” makes me think of Laverne and Shirley‘s Lenny (or was it Squiggy?) squeaking “Hello, Shoirl.” And the movies’ penchant for offing its big-name guest stars two minutes after they’re introduced suggests nothing so much as Police Squad‘s habit of killing its celeb guests (who never actually appeared) in the opening credits.
This connection in my mind might be because half the films’ casts seem to come from silly TV shows. Or perhaps it’s just because the Screams, while good for funhouse thrills, are about as memorable as your average half-hour sitcom.
Mayberry for the 90s
On the other hand, though, Woodsboro, California, is like something out of a 1950s sitcom. A small, upscale town, it’s a place of huge, beautiful houses; fairly wholesome teenagers who wear varsity jackets and are genuine virgins; and a sheriff (with the requisite doofus deputy) who nevertheless does still actually utter the line, “These kids today….”
Since Scream was written by Kevin Williamson (The Faculty, I Know What You Did Last Summer), these kids are incredibly articulate and witty and mostly impossibly gorgeous — there’s nary a zit to be found in Woodsboro High. What the student body does have, however, is a low life expectancy. After Drew Barrymore’s (Ever After) character is, now famously, hacked to death in the first few minutes of the film, it’s open season on the teens of Woodsboro.
What these media-savvy kids of the 90s do have that Wally Cleaver never dreamed of is a shared love and deep knowledge of horror films, which the killer uses to taunt his victims before he gives them a firsthand taste of blood and gore. After engaging them in amicable phone discussions of the relative merits of the Nightmare of Elm Street series (from, hee hee, the director of all the Screams, Wes Craven) or Halloween, the killer then turns nasty and soon shows up to slash and stab, hidden behind a black cloak and a ghost mask. Williamson’s amusing and highly self-referential script actually has the killer say, “It’s like right out of a horror movie,” on the phone to his ultimate target, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell: The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, 54).
Why is Ghostface after Sidney? Does it have something to do with her mother, who was raped and murdered a year earlier? Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber: The Hurricane, Sphere) was convicted of that crime, on Sidney’s testimony, but both the voice on the phone and self-admitted “cheesy tabloid journalist” Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) are suggesting that Cotton is innocent. Motives and characters don’t get too complex, however, because, as video-store clerk and movie lover extraordinaire Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy: Three Kings, Bowfinger) explains, “if it gets too complicated, you lose your target audience.” “There’s a formula to it, a very simple formula,” Randy says; “everyone’s a suspect.”
There are suspects aplenty in Scream: the aforementioned Deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette: Ravenous) and Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich: Ride with the Devil, As Good as It Gets), Sidney’s boyfriend, who both suspiciously show up right after Ghostface’s attacks; Billy’s friend Stuart Macher (Matthew Lillard: Wing Commander), whose sheer repulsiveness seems to indict him; the school principal (Henry Winkler), who hates his students’ “whole thieving, whoring generation” and has a fondness for big scissors; and others. When we discover who the killer is, we never really get a satisfactory explanation behind all the many gruesomely depicted murders, but that’s sort of beside the point. Scream cleverly plays with movie conventions and the audience’s expectations so that we’re kept constantly guessing.
Scream came along at exactly the right time to ensure its success, when a new generation of “nicer” kids — like the mostly upstanding young citizens of Woodsboro — was beginning to replace slacker Generation Xers in teenhood. (Compare the idealistic Sidney with the opportunistic Xer Gale.) It’s no surprise that Scream was a runaway hit, or that it was a harbinger of a new interest in teen culture both on the big screen and on TV. Expect a lot more of the same, but don’t expect most of it to be as sly as Scream.
Take a Stab
Not unexpectedly, then, Scream 2 is neither as clever nor as funny as the original. “The horror genre was destroyed by sequels,” our film connoisseur Randy, returning for an encore, says here, and he’s right. While Scream 2 made me chuckle and jump out of my seat a couple times, it feels, for the most part, like an exercise in self-reference that doesn’t know how much of a good thing is too much.
When a young couple are murdered during a sneak preview of the movie Stab, which is based on the Woodsboro murders, Randy thinks someone is directing “a real-life sequel” of the events in Woodsboro. He and Sidney are now students at Windsor College, he studying film (natch) and she theater. Sidney starts to get calls from the scary voice again — did the real murderer go free in Woodsboro? As Randy explains is the case with sequels, there is lots “more blood, more gore” as the killer, once again, targets Sidney and slices and dices anyone who gets in his way.
As in Scream, there are red herrings at every turn: Dewey, now with a permanent limp and a half-useless arm from wounds sustained in Woodsboro, turns up on campus — he says he’s concerned for Sidney’s safety, but is he just too nice to be believed? Cotton Weary is in the picture, so the speak, once more, his guilt in the murder of Sidney’s mother still up in the air. Besides Dewey and Cotton, though, the potential suspects don’t have much more beyond their presence to suggest themselves: There’s Derek (Jerry O’Connell: Joe’s Apartment), Sidney’s frat-boy boyfriend, and Mickey (Timothy Olyphant: A Life Less Ordinary), Randy’s fellow film student, and a few others. If there’s one movie rule that Scream 2 follows, it is the rule of badly written thrillers: Find the credited big-name actor with the fewest lines, and that person will be revealed as the killer, explaining in a monologue the motives behind all his or her evil deeds.
The scariest things here, in fact, are the Delta Lambda sorority girls — one of whom is played by the truly frightening, artificial-looking Rebecca Gayheart — who, in their attempts to seduce Sidney into their cult, say things like “Hi! No, I really mean that: Hi!”
Preposterousness is the overriding feeling Scream 2 impressed me with. The opening sequence of the film, set at the screening of Stab, suggests that a “real-life” horror like the Woodsboro murders would inspire a pop-culture frenzy — akin to positing that the Columbine massacre might make for a best-selling video game. The climax requires that Sidney not have met or at least seen a character she is unlikely to have been able to avoid. Though this film is more unrelenting in violence and body count than its predecessor, it can’t even match its wit. And instead of playing with film conventions in order to keep the audience on its toes, it merely withholds vital information until the last possible moment.
Where Scream 2 gets most of its amusing moments — and they are momentarily amusing, if not totally satisfying — is from the movie-within-a-movie of Stab. Sidney revealed her fear, in a discussion in Scream, that if the Woodsboro events were made into a movie, she would be played by Tori Spelling. Guess who plays Sidney in Stab? Watching for the semi-famous faces playing the characters from Scream is fun, but they feel like cheap jokes after the intelligence of Scream‘s humor. If Scream was a funny/scary amusement-park spookhouse, Scream 2 is the cheaper version that offers the paying guest nothing more than an array of mirrors reflecting on one another endlessly — it’s temporarily diverting, but you end up feeling as if you’ve thrown your ticket money away.
Randy says disparagingly of Stab, “I’ll wait for video.” I’m glad I did the same for Scream 2.
Scream 3 has all the elements that defined its prequels: big-name celebrity cameos, some of whom die, some of whom don’t; the ever more convoluted references to horror films in general and to the Scream movies in particular; and an enormous body count swimming in gallons of blood. By now, though, the effort to thrill and amuse has obviously become labored. The franchise has officially run out of scream– er, steam.
Production of Stab 3 (we’ve fortunately skipped right over Stab 2), currently shooting at Sunrise Studios in Hollywood, has been halted because, yup, someone is murdering the cast. The scary voice is back — have we still not gotten the right killer? — he’s taunting the cast over the phone and then showing up in the Ghostface costume to slash and hack. Dewey, his seemingly innocent goofiness still making him our best potential suspect, is working as a technical advisor on Stab 3, and he thinks, for reasons that seem to come out of nowhere and make little sense, that the killer is trying to find out where Sidney is.
Sidney is, in fact, in hiding, living in maximum security in the California hinterlands — and, in fact, the scary voice finds her, though we never discover how. So she descends into Hollywood to help the cops and Dewey once and for all put an end to the Ghostface killer’s spree. We can hope, anyway.
Perhaps since there are no actual teenage characters here, Kevin Williamson bowed out of scriptwriting duty — Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road) has that job here, and he fills his script with overdone allusions to both highbrow thrillers and lowbrow slasher flicks, none of which come across as anything other than desperate attempts to make the audience feel as if we’re getting our money’s worth. (We’re not.) On the case is homicide detective Kincaid (Patrick Dempsey) — his office is plastered with movie posters, and he says things like “the old killer-playing-with-the-cops routine… very Hannibal Lechter, very Seven.” Kincaid is kinda like the movie-loving detectives played by Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett in The Player… only nowhere near as interesting. Sidney is being haunted by the specter of her dead mother in a way that’s meant to remind us of Norman Bates’s mother in Psycho, but that doesn’t quite work either.
The Scream movies have always been, in large part, a blood- and gore-drenched soapbox for director Craven and his screenwriters to satirize the supposed influence that violence onscreen has on violence offscreen. But when they take that concept a step further here, with the psychological violence done to impressionable young actors and especially actresses in the meat grinder of Hollywood coming to the fore as a motive for all the bloodshed, it feels too studied, too contrived, too much like an Important Message. The killer in Scream reminded us that motive is passé, that a good old-fashioned psycho is all a horror movie needs. Scream 3 forgets its tongue-in-cheek origins to its detriment.
Detective Kincaid mentions the fact that Stab 3 has three different versions of its script — something about (ahem) keeping the ending off the Internet. I won’t give away anything, but I will say this: Film-fan Randy makes an appearance in Scream 3 — via one of the hoariest clichés in moviedom — to explain his rules for trilogies, but all he ends up doing is setting us up for disappointment. I was expecting a much bigger, much more dramatic, and frankly much bloodier ending for Scream 3 than the warm, feel-good wrap-up we get. If I wanted a happy ending, I wouldn’t be looking to a Wes Craven movie for it.