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Non-Review Review: Scream II

Today, we’re reviewing the entire Scream trilogy. Sadly, I’ll have to wait to get a look at the latest instalment, but reviews of the first three will be going on-line throughout the day.

I actually like Scream 2 a great deal – perhaps as much as I enjoyed the original Scream. Which, to be honest, takes me by surprise because it’s a much weaker movie in a lot of ways, the most obvious being the fact that it sort of fizzles out in the third act. Still, there’s just something about the cheeky and energy of the sequel that grabs my attention and keeps it, as if moving the series from a stereotypical high school and into a college film class. Of course, as Randy the resident film buff points out, the only thing more stereotypical than high school slasher movies are college slasher movies, but there’s just something cool about the fact that most of the cast (rather than just Randy) are relatively genre savvy this time around.

Film Buff-y?

The Scream movies have always tried to balance their “oh so clever” meta aspects against both conventional slasher clichés and the soap opera antics surrounding the cast. I think the first film balance all three elements evenly, while this film leaned more towards playing with the conventions of the genre, and the third film veered just a little bit too much into the soap opera elements of the supporting cast. My brother made the criticism (and, in fairness, it’s a valid one) that very little actually happens over the course of the film, as characters spend more time dissecting and picking apart the film they’re starring in – instead of doing the traditional “running and screaming” thing.

I think that’s why I like it so much. After all, it’s fitting that a movie, featuring the cast in college and attending film studies and theatre courses, should be a little more academic than what came before. After all, isn’t that what college is about? And, to be fair to Craven, there is a considerable amount of gore and violence on display – it’s just a lot more condensed and contained. I think the sequence in which a class full of (at the time) “bright young things” like Sarah Michelle Gellar, Timothy Olyphant, Joshua Jackson and Jamie Kennedy discuss sequels might even be my favourite of the entire series.

A Randy discussion...

I always admire a movie that can acknowledge its own faults, and Scream 2 certainly acknowledges the problems with the genre and sequels in general. “The horror genre was destroyed by sequels,” the film’s movie geek Randy protests, while starring in a horror sequel. The same character makes an argument that “by definition, they’re inferior products.” It’s smart and it’s funny, just like Randy’s observation that sequels always escalate – despite the fact that both this film and the previous film all feature the same number of killers and victims.

The movie takes things to a whole other level of self-reference, with an opening sequence set at the premiere of the movie based on the events of the first movie. We’re treated to Stab, a fictional account of fictional events, starring (in an in-jokey reference to the original film) Tory Spelling. The film even uses music from the original film (Red Right Hand, which is also played on the soundtrack here), and offers its own version of the famous Drew Barrymore opening scene from the first movie. Of course, this being something of a satire on the exploitational nature of horror films, the character (played by Heather Graham) is more scantily clad this time around.

No one can hear you scream...

In many ways, it feels like the film is even more of a deconstruction of the horror genre than the film that directly preceded it. We’re shown the premiere of the movie-within-a-movie, populated with stab-mad mindless movie fans who are running around dressed as a serial killer, completely oblivious to a murder committed during the screening – they’re that desensitised to violence. “300 people watched and nobody did anything,” Sidney observes. “They thought it was a publicity stunt.”  There’s something slightly telling about how the first victim in the film dies while eavesdropping on another person – after all, isn’t the horror film built on a sort of creepy voyeurism?

Indeed, while unable to match the power of the iconic scene that opened the original film, there’s something undeniably terrifying and disturbing about that moment:

The theater falls silent. As do the members of the real audience, the opening to Wes Craven’s Scream 2, is one of the most disturbing that I have seen in a while. While the typically postmodern sequel is, for the most part, a romp of unapologetic, darkly humorous, gleefully self-conscious, reflexive, gory fun, this scene manages to hone in on the (logical) social fear of violence as entertainment, and its potential consequences.

You may feel a sharp stabbing pain...

I think that’s another aspect of the appeal of the second instalment. It sort of steps outside criticising the horror genre itself – the original film did enough exploration of those tropes, and dwelling on them would be redundant – and moves more towards playing with the reactions to these films. Rather than criticising the form and clichés that movies like this adhere to, instead Scream 2 directly addresses more fundamental criticisms about the films – the observation that they tend to ignore minorities, or the fear that they create copycat killers, for example. It’s candid and honest about that, digging significantly deeper than playing with audience expectations. In fact, the original draft of the screenplay might have tackled these more directly, but one can sense them at play even in the heavily revised version that made it to the big screen.

In moving out of the small town setting, the film is suddenly populated with young teens who define themselves by the pop culture they observe and digest. In fact, they don’t just consume pop culture, they connect to one another through it – in much the same way, for example, people of a certain generation can relate to one another through quotes from The Simpsons. It isn’t just horror, as the movie treats us to an improvised musical number lifted directly from Top Gun and a member of the film studies class is working on his own documentary. These are the MTV generation, the kids who grew up with all the hip new fads, and are aware of all the old tricks and clichés that films used to take for granted. In a way, this is almost a film populated with the audience of the original film, which takes it a step further back – references within references.

Is he Oly there?

There are some wonderful moments, especially as the serial killer suggests that they will blame pop culture for their spree – something which seems a genre savvy attempt to play off the popular idea that horrible actions can be placed at the feet of movies and video games, rather than those who commit them. “I’m an innocent victim,” the killer protests, clearly aware of just how guilty they are. Part of me wonders if all killers who use similar excuses are just as cynical. I suspect they might be.

Of course, this is an acquired taste. It’s a much more volatile house of cards than the earlier film – which worked equally well as a slasher and post-modern exploration of slasher films. This lends itself more toward meta-commentary, gleefully toying with our expectations. It isn’t necessarily what anybody expected a slasher movie might want, and there are times when it seems just a little bit too clever. Still, I love that aspect of the film, and I think that’s why I rate it so highly.

Please be warned. I remarked above that the film falls apart in the third act. It’s only fair that I discuss how and why I think that is. I will be discussing both the original intended (and leaked) ending, as well as the actual ending. This will involve spoiling the identity of the killers. Fortunately, this is least satisfying mystery of the four films, so it’s probably not as big a deal as it might seem.

Yeah, he wants to dance with somebody...

Originally, there were going to be three killers: Sidney’s boyfriend, her roommate, and Cotton Weary. The movie continues to suggest all three, even though the ending was changed and – to be honest – any and all make a better fit than the surreal tag team combo that we do get. The boyfriend represents a clever double-bluff, with the audience sitting there thinking it couldn’t be the boyfriend again (indeed, the movie’s actual ending teases this possibility). It also provides a nice meta-reference to the originality argument – sequels are inherently derivative, so it makes sense that one of the killers fulfils a familiar role in Sidney’s life.

In watching the sequel, it becomes abundantly clear that Cotton really doesn’t serve a purpose in the plot. He just wanders around aimlessly, not connected to anybody, trying to get his fifteen minutes of fame (or ten minutes on primetime news). While all Liev Schreiber is good Liev Schreiber, and it makes for a nice joke about the predatory nature of media people (which Gale kinda already covers), he still feels a bit pointless. You could argue that this makes him an ideal red herring in the sequel, but it also means he has a character arc which serves as something of a dead end. His role in the re-written climax is kinda cool, though.

We all have our crosses to bear...

It’s the loss of Sidney’s roommate as the serial killer which seems like the greatest loss to the film. From the opening sequence, featuring Omar Epps and Jada Plunkett Smith, through to Randy and Dewey’s discussion of the suspect pool, the movie has a lot of interesting racial stuff going on beneath the surface. “Brother’s don’t last long in situations like this,” Gale’s camera man explains, clearly having seen enough horror films. Or, as the best line in Evolution put it: “I’ve seen this movie. The black dude dies first.” Indeed, the first couple of victims (fulfilling that particular horror stereotype) discuss the way these sorts of films focus extensively on white casts. “It’s some dumb-ass white movie about some dumb-ass white girls getting their white asses cut the %$#& up, okay?” one half of the couple protests.

Indeed, Dewey is quick to rule her out as a suspect because serial killers are typically white males. Randy points out that she makes a perfect choice by that logic, at least for a slightly deconstructionist film, “That’s why it’s perfect! It’s sort of against the rules but not really.” Given the fact that, as someone points out, Ghostface’s mask is white, and (but for the unfortunate implications of the KKK) so would his robes have been, it would have been nice for the movie to play out that way, and actually diversify the important players a bit.

Feeling Weary of sequels?

Instead, the movie offers us a small supporting cast member and… some woman who had a walk-on part. In fairness, the killer film buff sorta makes sense, even if it’s hardly foreshadowed (save his defense of sequels). As for the woman involved, it kinda works, depending on how far outside the narrative itself you’re willing to step. Yes, it’s foreshadowed in a clip from the fictional movie we see with Luke Wilson, and the fact that she’s a minor character who makes a big deal in her opening scene (the argument with Gale) does fit a standard mystery cliché, but she’s still a leftfield choice.

Of course, she might serve as a reference to Jason Voorhees, the killer from the Friday the 13th sequels. The opening scene of the original film pointed out that it was actually Jason’s mother who was the killer in the first film in the series, and so it’s oddly appropriate that it’s Billy’s mother who is the killer here. However, that’s really about all it has going for it. Otherwise, it feels like a pretty massive cop out, as there’s no way to deduce any of this from anything that happens. This is part of the reason the last third of the film doesn’t really work, which is a bit of a shame. Even though I really dislike the third film in the series, its finale holds together much better.

At this rate, the third film will be a walk in the park...

Still, I like Scream 2. Sue me. It’s a fun, clever little film, which does something a bit different than offering more of the same – instead of upping the violence or the gore, it instead amps up the clever commentary that made the original so fun – a superb supporting cast including Jerry O’Connell, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Timothy Olyphant, Rebecca Gayheart and Portia de Rossi only serve as icing on the cake.

You might be interested in our reviews of the films in the Scream series:

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