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Non-Review Review: Scream III

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.

There are a lot of problems with Scream 3. It’s overlong, it’s more soap opera than horror, more camp parody than post modern deconstruction. It’s clear from the outset that very few of the people involved in the film had any interest in making it. However, its single most damning problem is that it has become exactly the type of bland and indistinct slasher movie that the first two films picked apart so skilfully.

Taking a stab at the trilogy...

Being honest, the film should have been canned the moment Kevin Williamson’s screenplay was scrapped. The author of the other three films in the series had drafted a finale for his trilogy, but it was abandoned during production, subjected to what might diplomatically be described as “a page one re-write.” I love Wes Craven, perhaps more than some of the films in his back catalogue should allow me to, but the films work not because of Craven’s tight direction, but because of the dry wit that the screenplay infuses into them. Let’s not forget that Williamson’s original screenplay for the first film was a hot property – and deservedly so.

Asking another writer to take the project was, quite simply, a mistake. You could argue that there are any number of iconic writers who could have had (pardon the pun) a stab at it – I’d love to see Tarantino draft a movie like this, for example, or Joss Whedon – but the movie didn’t end up in the hands of a writer like that. It’s not fair to blame the writing team – Williamson is a hard act to follow, and he balanced the movies so carefully that he made it look easy. However, the fact is that Scream 3 simply doesn’t work as a successor to the original two films.

Will Dewey make the cut?

There are hints of self-awareness which pepper the film. You have to look for them, but they’re there. A movie which concerns itself of the misogyny of Hollywood, for example, opens on a woman wearing a towel – and then nothing at all. One of the heroes at the climax of the film proves just as impossible to keep down as the villain. When one of the starlets makes a stupid observation that everything will be okay, a fellow actor quotes the line from the screenplay (presumably from the scene where she gets stabbed).

The problem is that these don’t seem especially witty observations. The first two films were fascinated with deconstructing the tropes of the genre, playing with the clichés and toying with audience expectation – all while making smart observations about the way that we treat pop culture. Here, those observations are used as sly little in-jokes. We’re informed that the fictional film, Stab 3 has “a new script every fifteen minutes”, and the scripts are all different as a means of “trying to keep the ending off the internet.” If that sounds familiar, that’s because it was what actually happened to the last film. However, these are just throw-away lines designed to tease the film buffs in the know, rather than offering something constructive about how we perceive and relate to horror movies.

Gale Force!

Indeed, there’s very much a sense that the movie is airing a lot of its dirty laundry in public. Roman, the director of the doomed project, protests at being forced to direct the movie – claiming he only did it so he could work on something he wanted. It’s no secret that Wes Craven was pretty much dragging kicking and screaming to the set of this film, only signing on so he could direct Music of the Heart. Similarly, Neve Campbell has a much reduced role this time around, being notably absent for a large part of the first half of the film. It’s clear that neither really has any interest in being there, but it feels strange for the movie to acknowledge it so openly – it just feels like an awkward joke that’s being used to cover an uncomfortable truth.

However, the most jarring problem with the film is the fact that it’s really just your average slasher film, just set in a stereotypically sleazy Hollywood. Hell, the killer’s identity hinges on a really ridiculous twist which is something that belongs in a later Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th film – and yet it passes without either a hint of irony or a hint of deconstruction. At least when a similar random connection was made at the end of the previous film, you got the sense that the movie was aware of how ridiculous was (and it was forced by last-minute re-writes) – instead, this movie plays it entirely straight.

Scream queen...

Ignoring the fact that it simply doesn’t work as a plot twist, and it undermines a lot of the power of the first film, and it’s really just one of those horrible clichés that the Scream movies were meant to pick apart rather than play straight, it also veers into the horribly misogynistic territory that most slashers stray into (and the previous films alluded to). The secret history of the Prescott family, specifically Sidney’s mother Maureen, is laid out to bear – including her time as a young actress. The film suggests that her time on the “casting couch” only “made her a slut.” It’s interesting to note that the first draft of the screenplay featured a female killer, fed up of the institutionalised sexism in Hollywood – instead, the movie ends up just sort of playing into it.

That’s exactly the sort of subtle misogynism that the first film pointed to as a core aspect of the slasher movie genre – the idea that female sexuality was inherently a bad thing. The logical conclusion is that all of this big mess is in some way Maureen’s fault for being “a slut.” She’s clearly the guilty party – the men who slept with her share no responsibility for their actions, because she’s a woman and sex is her fault. It’s that sort of old-fashioned sexism which grounds the cliché that only pure virgins can survive these movies – something the very first film gleefully subverted. Here, instead, the movie engages in the sort of casual sexism the movies lampooned until this point. Remember the climax of the first film? When Sidney not only had sex and survived, but had sex with the killer and then killed him? Yep, that was a big middle finger to the genre’s fear of female sexuality. Instead, the third film simply shrugs its shoulders.

I'd recognise the work of a hack anywhere...

It’s telling that of all the things the killer says, Sidney doesn’t rebut the suggestion that her mother was “a slut” or that it came as a result of her inability to handle what happened in Hollywood (which itself came from her inability to say ‘no’ or stand up for herself – which feeds into this cycle). Sidney can pick apart the “poor little victim” routine the killer constructs (“nobody wuvs me”), but she accepts at face value the argument that a sexual assault turned her mother into a slut. The movie suggests that this sort of lusty behaviour in a woman needs some sort of justification. (In contrast, Cotton is shown to be just as randy, seemingly willing to cheat on his wife with a stranger on the phone, but without the need for a retroactive excuse.) Given the history of the series, I expected more. Hell, the movie opens revealing Sidney now works with victimised women. It seems wrong for a movie series, originally built around proving how wrong these sorts of engrained attitudes were, to turn around and offer them to us as undeniable fact.

Still, the problems are more than that. it isn’t simply that the film adopts the questionable philosophy of a common slasher horror, but also that it adopts a lot of the tips and tricks from those kinds of films. In the introductory sequence, Cotton Weary is informed that the killer is in the apartment with his wife. Cotton proceeds to race home in his car – which is exactly what a character in one of these films would do. Why doesn’t Cotton call the cops? He calls his wife, but the phone is cut off – just like every other horror film. I don’t know why he didn’t call her mobile. Again, this sort of scenario is fairly typical of a horror film, but I prided the series on being smart enough to work around it, or play with it.

I don't think Neve enjoyed the shoot...

Later on, we’re treated to a creepy dream sequence. A creepy dream sequence which includes dialogue like “mother needs to talk to you.” Again, there’s not a hint that the movie is playing with the cliché – or even, sadly, that it’s aware of it. It just offers it up to the audience, as if we’re meant to expect this sort of stereotypical nonsense. And, truth be told, we might in any other franchise – but this used to be smarter than that. Near the climax, chased by a killer in a creepy mansion, Dewey and Gale decide to split up. Are these even the same characters we saw in the original two films? Haven’t they learned anything?

Not even that, the problem is that the movie succumbs to the usual plotting problems one expects in a slasher. How are movie starlets allowed to wander the lot alone after it becomes clear we’re dealing with a copycat killer? Why would Detective McDreamy show pictures from the murder to Gale Weathers, a character who was just before preaching that you should screw over everybody to get yourself a good story. Of course, trusting her doesn’t come back to bite him (as it serves to get the plot going), but it’s still a stupid decision.

Carrie on...

The movie does try some “meta” stuff, to its credit, but it can never quite pull off the tone. Perhaps it’s because all of the references and points feel like they’re being made because we kinda expect them to be made, rather than because they are smart or they fit the movie. “Dewey, you’re not just here because of that second rate, K-Mart, straight-to-video version of me, are you?” Gale asks at one point, in a line that feels like it’s trying to be smarter than it actually is. Randy’s video will is clearly supposed to be some sort of clever little concept, but it just feels more than a little awkward – a convenient plot device, which just so happens to arrive at just the right time. Again, it’s the sort of hackneyed plot device which would be right at home in a standard horror film, but feels out of place here.

Consider, for example, the way that the second film explored the way that we react to violence on film – from that fantastic opening scene where a bunch of movie fans don’t even realise a woman is dying in front of them through to the killer’s plan to excuse his actions by claiming movies drove him to it. There’s a lot of stuff there. Here, that question is dealt in an incredibly dismissive and simplistic manner, without a hint of nuance. Asked if they believe that Cotton’s death had anything to do with the movie, the detective replies, “He was making a movie called Stab. He was stabbed.”And that’s it.

The final final girl?

The problem is that the movie seems to think it’s a lot smarter than it actually is. For example, early on, the cop makes the observation that the killer is clearly screwing with the cops – explicitly citing The Silence of the Lambs and se7en. The movie seems quite proud of itself for that. However, referencing a bunch of movies and the genre that they are in does make for a good movie, nor an intelligent one. It might have been a good idea to pick apart that genre – or even make the dialogue relevant by actually having Ghostface interact with the cops. You don’t get credit for effectively having your characters go “this is like [insert movie name]” and nothing more, especially when it actually has very little to do with the movie in question.

And then there’s the whole John Milton thing. A sleazy studio executive shares a name with the writer of Paradise Lost. It’s standard “make the movie look deeper than it actually is” fare, and yet nobody even broaches the topic. Especially since, while the character is old, he’s not so old that nobody knew who John Milton was when he took the name. It might have been nice to pick it apart, to have somebody point it out and have him explain (for example) it’s his own stage name or something, which he picked simply because it sounded profound (which would be clever because it would make the name a profound meditation on how unprofound profound names generally are). Instead, the movie doesn’t go that far, simply calling the character John Milton.

Erm... this isn't what it looks like...

Then there’s the whole “Hollywood” satire aspect of the production. I really feel bad that Williamson didn’t stick around – if Scream was his response to slasher films and Scream 2 was his response to academic discussion of horror films, the third instalment could have been a biting deconstruction of Hollywood. Instead, it’s a fairly banal and bitter criticism of the movie industry, telling us stuff we’ve all known for decades. Hollywood is unoriginal, the people who live there are sleazy fakes. It’s an old song, and the movie doesn’t exactly put a new slant on it. In fact, it could easily serve as the backdrop to any other slasher movie ever.

However, that said, the fourth film does retroactively make the third film just a bit smarter. After all, the fictional third film is Stab 3: Return to Woodsboro, while the fourth film actually returns to Woodsboro. The fake film includes a suspiciously similar substitute for Randy, right down to the name, while the fourth film includes a suspiciously similar substitute for Randy. Hell, there’s even some sort of clever in-joke about the initial identity of the killer in the early drafts of this script and the actual killer in the fourth film. That’s not a spoiler, by the way – if you look that stuff up, then you’re spoiling yourself.

Detective McDreamy...

And, to be fair, some of the movie is quite fun. The movie turns up the camp to ridiculous levels, as the Columbine Massacre meant the film had to tone down the violence a bit (which Williamson undoubtedly would have tackled head-on). Notice, for example, the fake Gale Weathers pantomiming investigative journalism – it just knocks me out of the film, but I can’t hide a smile. Perhaps because of the camp elements, David Arquette’s Dewey actually seems much more impressive here than he did in the other two films – I love that first scene on the movie set. He fits right in, rather than seeming like the odd one of the cast. He even has a wonderful faux Hollywood nickname “Dew Drop”, given to him by the always awesome Patrick Warburton in a small role.

The supporting cast is also fun. I like Parker Posey. We get Detective McDreamy thrown in as well. Lance Henrickson is always a personal favourite of mine (and I especially like the inside joke of putting a terminator-esque robot in his office). Emily Mortimer is a joy, even in a crap role. The supporting cast is good and there’s a surreal (and wonderful) cameo from Carrie Fisher, which seems like it was drafted by Kevin Smith. It completely jars with the tone of the movie – as it seems to alternate between straight-forward slasher and slightly camp detective movie. Most of the time it’s handled well.

This must be Dewey's fantasy...

What is not handled so well is the seemingly infinite amount of melodrama among the cast. Gale and Dewey have always had a “will they/won’t they?” thing going on, but it has never been this annoying. The fact that Sidney is largely absent for the first half of the movie probably meant the script needed padding, but I don’t care for soap opera. There’s some pointlessly emotional and over-wrought cheesy dialogue (“what was I doing up there?” Sidney asks on joining her friends, resisting the urge to say some nonsense like, “to find the killer, I had to find myself”). The ending in particular, complete with “it’s ridiculously bright” shots and soundtrack, seems just a little bit too cheesy for its own good. These were characters who were defined in the early films by being aware enough of the tropes and clichés to avoid them – to see them playing into these cardboard cut-out theatrics just seems… well, a little bland.

And then there’s the really surreal Jay and Silent Bob cameo, which seems completely out of place. It might not if the pair had a history of appearing in other films, or if they were crossover background characters among multiple franchises, or even if they were included as a bit of a silent punchline, but it’s a little too strange to see them here. I can’t help but think that this is Kevin Smith’s “payback picture” to Wes Craven for his cameo in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. It does create an interesting logical paradox – Wes Craven was clearly filming a Scream sequel in that movie, so Jay and Silent Bob are real in Scream, but Scream is just a movie in Jay and Silent Bob.

Not a killer trilogy, unfortunately...

And then there’s the voice-changing thing. I appreciate the movie is trying to shake things up and keep them fresh, but the wonderful thing about Ghostface as a character (regardless of who was behind the mask) was the fact that he had a voice. Most slashers are stoic and silent or (like, say, Freddie) cheesy to the point of being indistinct. However, Ghostface’s voice was smooth and deep and calm (until it suddenly wasn’t). Robbing the character of his distinctive voice diminishes him a little bit, all for the addition of a very cheap gimmick – and one which is never played to its full advantage.

Ultimately, Scream 3 reminds me a bit of the later Shrek movies. What was once a well-made deconstruction has become virtually indistinguishable from the source material that it is seeking to pick apart. I won’t pretend that Scream didn’t raise the bar and spawn an entire generation of copycat films, but most of them were significantly weaker than the original. However, scream 3 is weak enough that it falls back to the pack, becoming virtually indistinguishable from those generic films its predecessor helped spawn.

In a way, like Ghostface, it lost its voice.

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

6 Responses

  1. I remember having to watch this a few weeks ago because of Patrick Dempsey’s involvement in the film.

  2. First off, I’ve really enjoyed reading all three of your SCREAM trilogy reviews. I thought I’d leave my feedback for all three here.

    The opening sequence to SCREAM is one of my all time favourite movie scenes. The perfect combination of dialogue and direction that is simultaneously original, self-aware, a little bit funny and absolutely terrifying, And the misdirection in the marketing a la Drew Barrymore, while not something you can necessarily appreciate watching the film fifteen years later, is something I really wish they did in movie advertising a lot more often (it’s similar to how James Cameron wanted to hide the fact that Schwarzenegger was the good guy in TERMINATOR 2).

    On to SCREAM 2, which like you I also really enjoy. Personally, aside from the opening scene of the first SCREAM, the opening of the film is probably my favourite scene in the series. Watching an audience of filmgoers unknowingly cheering for a real life killing (Jada Pinkett-Smith stumbling around helplessly bleeding) is incredibly unsettling – not to mention, it’s also a very savvy nod to the disturbing trends in the consumption of film violence (as is the “motivation” for Olyphant as the killer).

    I guess my biggest problem with the film is that the reveal as to who the killers are is REALLY obvious. I’d never heard of the alternate ending, and do think I like that one better. That said, I enjoy Cotton’s part in the finale (his moral dilemma) as well as the brutal killing of Sidney’s boyfriend (pretty heartbreaking stuff).

    Finally, no mention of the death of Randy? I know it’s big point of contention for a lot of fans of the film (you should definitely read Scott Mendelson’s analysis of the trilogy if you haven’t already, he goes into that aspect a great deal (and they’re just really interesting pieces overall)). Personally, although I love Randy, I also loved that they killed him. It’s death you just don’t see coming, and it’s really emotionally effective

    Finally, SCREAM 3. I’m in the definite minority in that I don’t hate this film. All the problems you point out are right on the money – the dialogue sucks, it’s completely derivative, the voice changing thing is a total cop out – but it’s got enough self awareness to enjoy (and even though it doesn’t quite work in the film, having the killer kill off the actors playing characters within a STAB film does feel like the next level of meta-ness after SCREAM 2. It also allows for the best scene in the film, in which Sidney is chased by the killer through the set resembling her own home from the first film – talk about déjà vu).

    The thing I really like about SCREAM 3 is the handling of Sidney as a character. She actually feels like someone who has suffered through two traumatic attempts on her life…she’s basically a sufferer of post traumatic stress disorder, and I think it’s really communicated well. For someone who didn’t want to be there, I think its Campbell’s best performance from any SCREAM film.

    Overall it’s not a patch on the first two films, but I can totally enjoy it.

    Once again, great reviews. Definitely some great analysis of the series’ gender commentary, and the contrast you draw between the original and SCREAM 3 is something I’d never really thought of before (and makes for a really strong critique of the latter).

    Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks Tom. I am now googling Scott Mendelson.

      I didn’t dig into the death of Randy because I kinda wanted to avoid spoiling the film I was talking about at the time (although I do spoil earlier films in the later reviews, and you can probably deduce the identity of the killers from some of the points I discuss), but I’m with you. Loved Randy. Loved that nobody was safe.

      And I do love that opening sequence to Scream 2, because it kinda calls you on the whole desensitised thing – it’s like a splash of cold water to the face. Powerful sequence. While the original opening is more iconic and probably better written, I think I might prefer the opening to the second film.

  3. Just read and responded to your Scream 4 review and went back and read the others — good stuff!

    I’ll step up to bat to defend Scream 3 on one thing, though: I never read the backstory for Maureen Prescott in this one as sexist or contradictory toward the first Scream. In fact, I think it was probably meant to help Maureen be a more sympathetic character: regardless of how progressive your stance on sexuality, cheating on your spouse is still a really shitty thing to do. Though it should have been handled with more finesse, the sexual assault backstory gives insight to her actions as an adult. She slept around because she had learned that’s what you had to do, what men expected of you.

    I think it probably would have been better if Maureen hadn’t been straight-up assaulted/raped and had simply ‘consented’ in order to further her career. I think this way it would have kept the theme of gender power dynamics while dropping while not making it look like rape victims are doomed to become damaged sluts.

    • Thanks Len. I think that’s a fair observation, and a great point. After all, one of the many clever things about Scream was that the killers were just as puritanical as most horror filsm seem to be, treating female sexuality as something to be punished – so, in contrast, affirming Maureen’s control of her own sexuality (and the insecure response to it by psychotics like Stu and Billy) would have been a nice touch.

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