Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1997)

17. Scream 2

“Scream” wasn’t just a huge hit, it was a bona fide pop culture phenomenon. After a success of that level, a sequel was inevitable. A sequel even makes sense. Aside from the senseless violence, pointless T&A, and clichéd scripts, slashers are famous for having multiple sequels. Usually, slasher sequels feature little returning cast and rarely involve the original creative team. However, “Scream” wasn’t your typical slasher flick. Kevin Williamson was probably eager to return, the cast was probably paid well, and, after turning down the sequel to his last culture-busting hit, I bet Wes wasn’t willing to let this one go. So, per tradition, “Scream 2” was marched out a year after the first.

Topping the opening of the original “Scream” was a tall order but “Scream 2” almost manages. The opening takes the first’s meta tendencies even further by introducing the concept of “Stab,” a fictional horror series-within-the-series based off the (fictional) events of the first film. From what we see of it, “Stab” self-reflectively recreates the first film, even using the same Nick Cave song. The opening is nearly identical but a little louder, a little dumber, and with a little more exploitation. (That Heather Graham is cast as a nudity-prone fake-Drew Berrymore might be a self-reflective move it and of itself.)

Ultimately, “Stab” is just set-dressing for another opening that lampshades the conventions of the genre and the fandom while working solidly as a horror set-piece by itself. First thing first, “Scream 2” comments on the first film’s lily-white cast but introducing black characters who, in keeping with the style, comment on the lack of black characters in horror films. Despite this, the movie seemingly employs the racial stereotype of black women talking loudly at the theater without irony. The film doesn’t take the best view on the fandom either, as the midnight horror crowd are shown grunting in ape-like excitement at the prospect of on-screen violence. Theaters are a rarely used but excellent setting for on-screen horror. The bathroom stall kill might be slightly implausible but it’s well executed. The second kill plays up the old “the audience thinks its just part of the show” bit excellently. As far as bloody slashery goes, it’s inventive and exciting. Is it as scary as the first film’s opening? No. But it is just as much fun.

The overall tone of “Scream 2” is more light-hearted then the first. The survivors from the original have evolved as characters. Sydney is used to prank calls and has invested in a Caller ID. (Which is very 1997.) She hasn’t changed much and still has some considerable trust issue. Her last minute transformation into an action hero isn’t anymore convincing then it was last time. She seems fine at the film’s end, which is odd, considering what happened. The main character continues to be the least interesting character in the series.

Randy still can’t get the girl though he’s considerably less abrasive then last time. Jamie Kennedy has learned to balance what was actually likable and amusing about the character with his more annoying attributes. Gale Weathers maybe gets the most character development. She starts out as still a massive bitch and rightfully earns another smack in the mouth. However, Courtney Cox continues to have strong chemistry with David Arquette. There’s a wonderful moment where he tears her down over what she wrote in her book. When he looks her in the eyes, he still melts. The two share a sweet love scene in an unlikely location. Eventually, Gale has a self-aware moment and, before the end, comes around completely. The development is natural, works with the character and the actress.

The new characters aren’t as endearing as the previous batch. This ends up being fine, since none of them make it out of the movie alive. Following along with the opening, the film doubles down on persons of color, with Sydney’s roommate and Gale’s new camera man. Sydney’s new batch of friends are nicer, if slightly bland. Elise Neal is fine, likable enough, if not particularly memorable. Sarah Michelle Gellar, around the same time “Buffy” was making her a cult figure, provides a lot of charm for a small part. She’s the best thing to come out of the under realized sorority subplot.

I’m not much of a Jerry O’Connell fan. His big moment involves singing a rendition of “I Think I Love You” to prove his love to Syd. It’s a cornball moment, not as charming as the screenwriter thinks it is, and O’Connell doesn’t have the built-in charisma to pull it off. The character mostly exists to be a red herring, as if the series would make the killer Sydney’s boyfriend the killer two films in a row. The Cotton Weary subplot is a red herring too but at least it pays off in a decent manner. Timothy Olyphant doesn’t hide his guilt very well, especially not with those crazy eyes. Like Lillard before him, he goes far over the top when revealing the motives of his plan. Laurie Metcalf does much better. She has an interesting nervous quality to her and pulls off crazy fairly convincingly.

By the second installment, “Scream” is a well-oiled thrill machine. Sarah Michelle’s big moment recalls the opening of the first. The leering camera returns, small noise escalating to a louder volume. Ghostface’s sudden appearance makes for a good jump-scare, even if Buffy totally kicks his ass. Her death, though low on gore, is unusually satisfying. Sydney’s chase through the same building just isn’t as good. An attempted attack during a stage show is dramatically directed and thrilling, in addition to featuring a David Warner cameo.

Phone conversations have a lower presence in this sequel, save for a moment on the college campus in broad daylight. Tension builds as one character distracts the caller and others run around, tackling everyone on a cell phone. Blood dripping out of a van is a visually appropriate conclusion to the sequence. The chase through the film department is probably the most intense moment in the film. Our heroine just barely misses being detected by the killer and sound-proof glass is used fantastically. Splitting the two storylines is a bit awkward, even if I don’t mind Syd being absent for a large portion of the film. She gets her own stand-out moment, involving an effective car crash and some Hitchcock-style “bomb under the table” tension. Disappointingly, that moment fizzles out with a gory slashing everyone (but the characters) sees coming.

While the first “Scream” used the discussion of real life violence's relation to fictional violence mostly for window dressing, “Scream 2” goes into a little more detail. A scene is actually devoted to the discussion. Well, that and sequels. Literally putting these thoughts into the characters’ mouths is a bit lazy, I suppose, but it’s nice that Williamson tried. O.J. Simpson appeared to have been on his mind at the time, since the killer’s ultimate goal is a media-circus trial, fame and fortune. Granted, once again, none of these themes pay off but “Scream 2” makes more of an effort to tie them into the movie’s action.

The script shows some signs of being a rushed-together sequel. For example: Ghostface routinely gets his ass handed to him by teenage women that weigh 90 pounds but manages to take down not one but two trained police officers with ease? And, man, that college theater department has got some crazy production values. All that set dressing becomes important at the end, in a very silly moment that squanders the good will the finale had built up to that point. By process of elimination, you can figure out the killer. Once again, “the killer coming back for one more scare” rule is overdone and overused. I don’t understand the series' obsession with that. If you watch many eighties slasher flicks, and I have, that’s not a cliché you see very often. Marco Beltrami’s score is slightly better this time but still too heavy for my taste.

A part of me wants to like “Scream 2” more then the first. The problems that were present in the first are present here, including a last act that doesn’t quite work and a flat protagonist. Being a sequel, it naturally lacks some freshness. Still, “Scream 2” is a little more fun and a little more innovative. And almost smarter. Almost. [Grade: B+]

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