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Entries in Scream 2 [1997] (1)

Friday
Apr152011

Scream 2 (1997) Home Video Review

A Stab at Greatness

The cool thing about Scream 2 is that it's a horror sequel about shitty horror sequels that itself manages to be pretty good.  Though it came out within a year of the smash-hit original, there's nothing about the movie that says "rushed cash-in".

The story picks up two years after the Woodsboro murders, in which teen Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and her friends were terrorized by two classmates posing as a single maniac called The Ghostface Killer.  Sidney's got a great new boyfriend named Derek (Jerry O'Connell); a fun, sorority-pledging roommate named Hallie (Elise Neal); and a new series of murders to deal with.  It seems someone has taken to slicing up co-eds whose names are similar to the Woodsboro victims, and as Sid's returning dimwitted hero/friend Dewey (David Arquette) says, the killer is probably someone she already knows.

Writer Kevin Williamson doesn't break new ground with his plot.  But in the same way he used a slasher movie to critique and transcend the genre with Scream, he uses Scream 2 to analyze and overcome the pitfalls of horror follow-ups.  He overstates his thesis early on in a Film Studies class scene where the students talk sequels, but for the most part he shows rather than tells.  Scream 2 has a bigger body count, main character deaths, and new information about the original film's mythology--all sequel staples laid out by film geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy).  But it doesn't get so wrapped up in its own cleverness that it forgets to be scary.

The opening scene is the best example:  A young couple attends a sneak preview of Stab, the big-screen adaptation of reporter Gale Weathers' (Courteney Cox) book about Woodsboro.  The theatre is overrun with idiots running up and down the aisles in Ghostface costumes, stabbing each other with fake knives and yelling, "Kill! Kill! Kill!" It's the perfect cover for a little mayhem, and when the real murderer breaks up the date, we're treated to a chilling spectacle of evisceration as performance art.

We get a few funny glimpses of Stab, the movie-within-a-movie, as Heather Graham, Luke Wilson and Tori Spelling recreate iconic scenes from Scream with the faux intensity of slick Hollywood product, but it's a credit to Williamson that he didn't let this cheekiness drive the main story (as his Scream 3 successor Ehren Kruger would a few years later).

Let's give some props to Wes Craven, shall we?  This is the last frightening thing he directed, and it's great to see him go out with a bang (sadly, he made seven movies after this one).  Aside from the theatre-massacre opening, there's a terrifically weird scene where Sidney, a drama major, must dodge Ghostface during a dress rehearsal for Cassandra.  The stage shakes with fake thunder and eerie lightning, and her entire supporting cast are dressed like ghoulish druids in distorted white masks and robes. Never for a second did I believe that Sidney was in danger of being killed, and it's to Craven's credit that I was still on the edge of my seat.

Nearly all of the stalk-and-slash scenes are gripping as hell, and a lot of that has to do with their unconventional locations.  From the stage, to a recording studio, to a crashed cop car, we're stuck with the characters in places that we ourselves wouldn't necessarily know how to escape.  These are, for the most part, alien environments with their own challenges that make evading a killer nearly impossible (or, in Dewey's case, fully impossible...sort of).  Craven and Williamson get the standard sorority-house-kill out of the way early and spend their suspense chips wisely on separating characters in soundproof rooms or trapping them in a squad car with the one way out blocked by an unconscious psychopath (This sorority-house-kill always bothered me, since the victim is played by Sarah Michelle Gellar--a.k.a. TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer--and I couldn't wrap my brain around her going out like such a punk).  Granted, it may be hard for newer audiences to appreciate these scenes because they've been done to death in the fourteen years since Scream 2's release; but even I, an old, jaded cynic, was caught up in many of these moments--and am not ashamed to admit it.

If you haven't seen this movie yet, you're probably wondering who the killer is this time.  Once again, there are two, and I won't spoil their identities.  I will say that one of them is not Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber); though I'm glad the filmmakers took the time to paint him as a suspect because it gave the actor a lot of room to play up his wrongly-accused man pathos--which alternates between sympathetically charming and anger-management-scary.  Scream 2's killers are inspired choices whose Big Reveal is slightly undone by acting that starts off credibly creepy but ends--in both cases--as a greasy, honey-ham special.

This brings me my one big problem with the film: The characterization of a few key players.  The killers' performances are not Jim-Carrey-Riddler over-the-top, but there's a theatricality that zooms right past believable pathos and into musical theatre territory.  Everything gets really Big for a few minutes, and I wondered what the actors had done with the solid characters they'd just spent an hour and forty-five minutes creating.

That's nothing compared to the young couple in the opening scene.  As played by Jada Pinkett Smith and Omar Epps, they are the most offensive black stereotypes I've seen since before the passing of the Civil Rights act.  Worse yet, I can't figure out if Williamson wrote the characters this way, or if the actors played up these parts to make them more authentic.  Whatever the case, I was embarrassed to watch these kids yelling at the movie and talking to each other in the most put-on, Will-Smith-jive.  I didn't want to see them die so much as get an education (ironic, 'cause they're college students).  I was reminded of the franchise parody Scary Movie, which re-creates Scream 2's opening; what's so great about The Wayans' Brothers take on the material is that they only had to tweak the source a little bit in order to show how offensive and silly it is.

There's also the matter of Gale Weathers' new cameraman, Joel (Duane Martin), another graduate of the Hell Naw School of Social Interaction.  Lest you think I'm piling on, I concede that there are white stereotypes in Scream 2, but the numeric inequality is staggering.  We have two dim-bulb sorority girls to about twenty major-to-medium players; whereas, of the movie's five black characters, three are cartoons; one comes off as an intelligent human being; and the other is a featured extra with one line of dialogue.  It's a horror movie cliche to kill off the black characters; but does an entire culture need to be assassinated before its representatives' on-screen deaths?

These are potholes in an otherwise smooth and entertaining ride.  Craven and Williamson have delivered a fine follow-up to their Movie That Changed All The Rules--indeed, a horror movie that future film students may discuss in a two-minute lecture about good sequels.

Note: I'd like to address a big Scream 2 controversy surrounding Randy's death.  Some--including me--decry his ridiculous decision to stand right in front of a news van while talking to the killer on his cell phone (he gets pulled into the vehicle and stabbed to death).  Watching the movie again, I noticed how focused Randy was on his conversation, which involved not only horror movies but also his unrequited affection for Sidney.  Anyone who's ever gotten caught up in a phone call while walking down the street or driving in a car (Shame on you!) knows that it's very easy to get distracted and lose sense of your surroundings.  I can thus proclaim Randy's death unfortunate, but not entirely stupid.