Wes Craven's Scream, which opened almost exactly a year ago, was the surprise hit of an overcrowded Christmas season. In part, the success was a triumph of counter-programming: In the midst of a glut of classy Oscar contenders, Scream was the only teen horror film. And it was helped by the relatively lackluster response to its closest competitor, Mars Attacks!
But Scream's success was also largely deserved: Kevin Williamson's script was ingenious and witty, Miramax's ad campaign couldn't have been better and director Craven (creator of the Nightmare on Elm Street series) found ways to breathe new life into one of Hollywood's most exhausted genres -- the teen slasher film.
It was inevitable that such a hit would produce a sequel. And I'm happy to report that Scream 2 is handily in a league with its predecessor ... as good a follow-up as one can imagine, given the built-in difficulties of sequels.
In fact, just as the first film blatantly discussed the rules and the stupidities of its genre, so does Scream 2 immediately address the pitfalls of sequels. In the second major sequence, Randy (Jamie Kennedy), the film geek who barely survived the first film, argues with the other students in his college film class: "Sequels suck," he says. "By definition, they're inferior." "Aliens," various voices pipe up, "The Godfather" -- and somewhat less seriously -- "House 2: The Second Story."
Later, Randy suggests three rules for sequels: "Higher body count. More elaborate murders. And, in order to continue the series, you can never kill off the ..." Presumably he's about to say "heroine," but another character interrupts him, so we'll never know.
Without giving away the farm, let's simply say that Scream 2 follows most of its own prescriptions: The first scene takes place on the opening night of Stab, a film based on the Woodboro murders from the first Scream. For Stab, Craven has almost exactly restaged scenes from Scream, with Heather Graham standing in for Drew Barrymore and, amusingly enough, Tori Spelling for Neve Campbell's Sidney.
In the movie's real world, Sidney and Randy are now students at Windsor College; both are trying to forget their traumatic pasts. But the opening of Stab is stirring up the press again: Sensationalist reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) is looking for material for a sequel to her bestseller about the murders of two years ago (time flies faster on screen); exonerated convict Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber) is trying to cash in on his 15 minutes of fame; and, alas, yet another psycho chooses the film's local premiere to begin a copycat reign of terror.
It's not giving away any big surprise to mention that the opening sequence, with Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps going to see Stab, is a reprise of Scream's opening scene -- only, as Randy's rules demand, more elaborate and with a higher body count.
Worried about Sidney, Deputy Dewey (David Arquette), the only other important survivor of the Woodboro killings, comes to the campus. Dewey, who had a crush on Weathers, is still bitter about her portrayal of him in her book as a latter-day Barney Fife.
Craven and Williamson surround Sidney, not only with all of her old (possibly traumatized-to-looniness) friends, but with analogs for most of the characters who didn't make it to the closing credits of Scream. She has a new meathead boyfriend (Jerry O'Connell) who has his own weird sidekick (Timothy Olyphant).
Craven is such a practiced old hand at suspense that the tension almost never lets up, despite a two-hour running time. Even more than in the original, the plot is so full of red herrings and plausible suspects that it's not only impossible to figure out who the killer is, it's utterly beside the point.
Along the way, Williamson and Craven make Scream 2 as much fun as it could be -- given that it is a sequel and all, filled with fast, throwaway jokes and broad satiric digs at brainless sororities and frats. "The Delta Lambdas are very sensitive to your plight," one bimbo type coos to Sidney, whose notoriety has made her the valuable pledge on campus.
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Scream 2 is both more blatantly comic and more blatantly gory than the original. If Deputy Dewey was a little eccentric the first time, Arquette -- in the movie's most memorable performance -- makes him positively goofy now.
Scream 3 is in the works, even as we speak, and 2 would have to really bomb to derail it. (It won't.) As impressively as Craven and Williamson have managed to revisit a story that was almost painfully self-conscious and self-referential the first time around, you have to hope that they don't push their luck beyond a third installment. The more convoluted and circular the relationship between film and film-within-film becomes, the likelier it is that the whole series will just collapse in on itself, reaching a level of silliness where even the patented thrills won't deliver anymore.
Directed by Wes Craven. With Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette and Jamie Kennedy.