26 July 2009

SUMMER OF BLOOD: NOW WITH EXTRA META

One of the dangers I have learned about with reviewing franchises, is that when you are too rough on the original it leaves very little room to maneuver if the sequel is worse, and God help you if there's a third film. Trying to apply the same rules when Ive already mixed up the first time is a sure way to seem like an incoherent boob, and now, boys and girls, you can maybe understand why I gave a 6/10 to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

Anyway, I managed to half-dodge that bullet with Scream 2, after having been rather - some might say unfairly - savage with Scream. For while I agree with the general consensus that Scream 2 is not as successful at its goals as Scream (both were directed by Wes Craven from a Kevin Williamson screenplay), I can't help but find it a great deal more interesting. That word, "interesting", how it does sneak about and imply things you don't want to come right out and say. Something's just not any damn good, and you know it, but it's so weirdly compelling and messy in its ambitions and full of crazed energy that you just can't get out of your mind. Slap that same "interesting" on it and see how it fits. Give my an "interesting" film over a "good" one any day - if an "interesting and good" film is too much to ask for. Which, I'm afraid, it typically is.

Here is the justification for this position: Scream, when all is said and done, has a fairly simple thesis. "Slasher films are quite stupid," it says, "and I (the movie) know that they are stupid, and yet I am myself a slasher film, doing the same stupid things I criticise slasher films for doing." Depending on who you listen to, this either makes it amusingly ironic, or (since you are listening to me), smugly hypocritical. Either way, it's pretty straightforward pop post-modernism. There are really just two levels of meta-narrative in it: a commonplace slasher movie is the first, "base" level, with the addition of characters who possess the awareness that they are in a commonplace slasher movie, and who therefore "watch" themselves going through the motions of being in a slasher movie (the film's very best scene adds a third layer, but only temporarily: a character in the movie is actually being watched on a security monitor, as he watches a slasher movie).

Let's put a tag right there, because to discuss what I want to about Scream 2, I'll first need to run through a plot synopsis, and quite a bit of it at that. Back when Scream Fever was everywhere, everyone already knew most of this, of course; even people who would never consider seeing a slasher movie of any thematic stripe were aware for a start that Scream 2 opened with the premiere of Stab, a movie-in-a-movie based on the events of Scream. But those days are gone by, more than a decade since. So yes, Scream 2 opens at a midnight sneak preview, focusing on a couple named Maureen (Jada Pinkett, pre-Smith) and Phil (Omar Epps). She can't begin to see the point of going to violent, misogynist movies full of white people, such as Stab; while Phil likes blood and boobs. Weirdly, while she makes a big deal about race in slasher films, I can't recall any reference being made to the fact that African-Americans are - invariably - the first to die on those rare occasions when they're in the cast at all. And indeed, Phil and Maureen, in that order, will be our first victims. The Stab screening is marked by free Ghostface costumes given out by the studio (which sounds like none of the dozen or so midnight premieres I've been to, but it was 1997...), and everyone in the audience - at least, every male - is dressed like Scream/Stab's killer, so when one particular Ghostface turns out to actually have a functioning knife that he uses to kill the couple, nobody takes much notice.

The next day, we arrive in a dorm room at Windsor College (if the location of Windsor college was mentioned, I must confess to missing it). Who should be in this room but Ms. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), our Final Girl from the last film. And with the premiere of a film based on some deeply unpleasant events in her recent past (two years ago, we're told, although only one year separates the first two Screams), she has come into some unwanted unpopularity. This is revealed in a scene that provides the only solid, laugh-out-loud gag in a series that is continuously, inexplicably praised for its humor: Sidney picks up the phone, to hear a raspy male voice ask what her favorite scary movie is. "Who is this?" she demands in measured tones. "You tell me", he replies, continuing the riff from Scream. Looking casually at her caller ID box, she answers, "Cory Gillis, 555-0176." "Shit!" yells Cory, as Sidney informs him of the criminal code pertaining to prank calls. As if this kind of thing weren't irritating enough, Sidney also catches a few minutes of Cotton Weaver (Liev Schreiber), the man she wrongly sent to prison for a year for the murder of her mom, on a talk show, reflecting on being wrongly imprisoned.

So anyway, that happens. Then we find ourselves in a film class which, conveniently, is attended by every single young person of the remotest importance for the remainder of the narrative: Sidney, her new boyfriend Derek (Jerry O'Connell), his best friend Mickey (Timothy Olyphant), Cici (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who I think is meant to be one of Sidney's sorority sisters, but I was not actually paying the closest attention possible, reflecting as I was upon how much Sarah Michelle Gellar is starting to run together in my mind between this, that atrocious Summer picture, and the fact that I've been working through Buffy these past couple of months. Last, and not least importantly, although least pleasantly, our other returning character: Randy (Jamie Kennedy), the video store geek who knows everything about everything moviewise, and gets the designated role as the one who points out how whatever particular situation is going on right then fits into X, Y, or Z paradigm for bad horror movies.

Quite a lot of time is spent on not that much plot; it's mostly character stuff that I'd just as soon not recap. Cut to the chase, and about half an hour into the movie, Cici gets pitched over a railing in the sorority house, apparently by random chance (the killer, we suspect, was hunting Sidney). It's only when the pushy reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox, also returning from Scream), the author of the book upon which the Stab screenplay was based, starts to really get her investigative juices flowing that we notice what's going on: the names of three victims - Maureen, Phil, and Cici - map onto the first three victims of the pair of killers from last time - Maureen Prescott, Steven Orth, and Casey Becker - once we learn that Phil's last name was Stevens, while "Cici" is a nickname for Casey Cooper. It's a bit tortured. But we are talking about a psychopath.

Back to that tag I marked up above. Scream has two layers: a movie, and characters with knowledge of the movie they're in. Scream 2, by comparison, has many layers, and I don't even know how to count them, since they're not all layered on top of one another. To start, let us consider the relationship between the two films and Stab: first, there is the narrative of the first film, then there is the book written by a character in both films about the narrative of the first film, then there is a movie in the second film based upon the narrative of the book, then there is narrative of the second film which is crafted by a killer to recreate the narrative of the movie within the second film. And everyone in Scream 2 is aware of every one of those narratives; arguably even the fact that the first time, when it happened to them two years ago, that it was a narrative (whether because they knew they were in a movie, or because they knew that the killers were attempting to re-create movie tropes. (By the way, the scenes we see in Stab are of generally amusing caliber, largely because of the actors brought on to recreate the original film).

Then there is the matter of Scream 2's status as a sequel; this is given the same heavy-handed treatment that the movie-as-movie theme was given in Scream in the early scene in the film class, which arbitrarily turns to a consideration of sequels, and whether or not sequels can be better than the original since they mostly only rehash the same elements, except do they always? Now, Scream 2 is a sequel to Scream, in that it follows later events than the first, and those events are materially different; at the same time, someone is trying to remake Scream (though probably not thinking of it in exactly those terms), and therefore causes Scream 2 itself to function as a remake of Scream as well as sequel. So Scream 2 is simultaneously a "good" sequel (it breaks new ground) and a "bad" sequel (it recapitulates the same actions), according to the very rules that it sets out through the designated Author's Mouthpiece, Randy. And just in case all this isn't fun enough, Williamson throws in some grace notes about the self-devouring nature of the media by giving Gale Weathers her very own reporter-stalker, Debbie Salt (Laurie Metcalf).

All in all, I don't think anyone can deny that there's a lot more going on here than in Scream, which, not to sound like a broken record, really was just coasting by on "slasher movies are stupid, which we will demonstrate by being a stupid slasher movie". So why isn't it a slam dunk? Because of the writing, which is just damn lousy in any number of ways. Kevin Williamson may be quite the post-modern pop culture theorist, but I'm sorry, he's just a fuck-awful screenwriter. In only respect do I find the screenplay for Scream 2 to significantly improve upon its predecessor: there are not so many obvious references to other movies, made by characters on the assumption that saying, "Boy, Halloween sure is a movie that exists, amiright?" is inherently clever, and given the number of people who unaccountably find all of the in-jokes in the first two Screams to be funny, this is a safe assumption to make, I guess. But anyway, there's a lot less of it in Scream 2, it's mostly about far more obscure movies than the huge targets in the first film (e.g. The Dorm That Dripped Blood instead of Jason Voorhees), and it's mostly confined to just two scenes.

Otherwise, it's just so much crappy characterisation and needless contrivance and stupidity that is all the worse for knowing that it's stupid, and sometimes just some flat-out Idiot Writing. For a man whose shtick is all about pop culture references, for example, you'd think that Williamson would have been able to do something better than the incredibly bad bit where the film class ponders what sequels were better than the predecessors: The Empire Strikes Back (as close to a consensus answer as that question has) is dismissed as proof of the speaker's poor taste, while the professor sagely ends the debate by reminding the students of The Godfather, Part II - personal preference aside, that's hardly the settled conventional wisdom.

As for the characters, there's barely anyone who's vaguely interesting enough to follow for more than a few seconds. Sidney's arc was completed by the end of Scream, leaving her with absolutely nothing interesting to do, say, or think for the entirety of the sequel; she just gets very broody and upset (at, to be fair, exceptionally upsetting things). None of her fellow students are even a smidgen interesting in any way, either because they are mere window dressing, or, in the case of her boyfriend, played by Jerry O'Connell and thus douchebaggy in ways that can hardly be expressed in written language. Really, the only character who is terribly interesting on any level is the character who least needs to be in the film, Officer Dewey Riley (David Arquette), back from Scream to protect Sidney and flirt with Gale, mostly because he was popular the first time around. He alone seems to have actually developed any because of his experience in the last movie, a more damaged and (literally) scarred figure than before.

All of this pales, however, before Scream 2's incredible failure as a psycho killer movie and murder mystery. That was one thing Scream had going for it; it was an unusually solid slasher, and whle the twist ending (two killers! ZOMG!) wasn't quite as twisty as you can tell the filmmakers wanted it to be, because it wasn't nearly as original as they thought it was, it was still fairly well executed. Oh, but none of that in Scream 2! Everything even halfway interesting or decent about the movie is over by the 60-minute mark, right before the mystery and the killing both begin in earnest, and the film becomes not just as stupid as any slasher movie; it becomes as stupid as a particularly stupid slasher movie (though still not as stupid as Williamson's I Know What You Did Last Summer), with characters who go out of their way to make sure they get attacked, and one of the most jaw-dropping examples of the Teleporting Killer ever put to film. As a mystery, it dies aborning; the fact that there are again two killers is not surprising because at this point it was expected, and their identities are tremendously easy to guess a solid 40 minutes away simply by playing the old, "who has no reason to be in this film except so that they can be revealed as the killer?" game that had been tripping up slasher films for a good 15 years by the time Scream 2 was produced.

Once again, I must register my disappointment with Wes Craven, whose work here might be marginally better than in the last film (the recording studio scene, though valueless to the narrative, is as well-staged as anything in the director's career), but not nearly enough to overcome the slack second half or awkwardly-written whole. This man, let us not forget, was still just three years past covering similar thematic ground in the self-penned minor masterpiece Wes Craven's New Nightmare (and, I must admit, only two past the soul-scraping Vampire in Brooklyn). But here he is, making a slack thriller that's much more talky than thrilling, a slasher movie with tastefully discreet gore scenes, and while you could never say it's badly made, nor is it especially imaginative and memorable in more than a few scattered moments. It's boringly competent and detached filmmaking that never does anything for Williamson's screenplay other than keep it in focus, which is not exactly the best thing for the screenplay or the movie, especially if we're meant to enjoy it as anything other than a media treatise. For a franchise that humps the phrase "scary movie" so enthusiastically, Scream 2 is curiously staid and unfrightening - it does not in fact, even clearly try to be frightening, any more than it clearly tries to be funny. On the other hand, if the reactions of the Stab audience are meant to be our guide, the Scream filmmakers apparently think that the mere sight of a man holding a knife is meant to be bone chilling all on its lonesome (sort of like in-jokes, by their nature, are meant to be hilarious. That's weak sauce for the man who made The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House on the Left, and it speaks to a certain contempt for the audience, if I do say so myself.

Body Count: 10, fulfilling Randy's rule that slasher sequels always up the body count. Incidentally, I didn't realise that Dewey survived Scream, and the body count figure for that movie was therefore off by one; I've changed it.

Reviews in this series
Scream (Craven, 1996)
Scream 2 (Craven, 1997)
Scream 3 (Craven, 2000)
Scream 4 (Craven, 2011)

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