4 out of 5
Director: Wes Craven
I was in middle school when the original Scream was released, and I remember watching it with my “I’m not into these popular movies” filter already in place on a rented VHS copy at a friend’s house. That was surely part of the reason it didn’t resonate much with me, but also perhaps because my appreciation / love for horror didn’t kick in until I was driving to the video store on my own and checking out all those flicks whose covers had long freaked me out when perusing the racks during parent-accompanied visits. So the references in Scream, though culturally understood, didn’t trigger any cool horror points for me.
Returning to the film in later years, though, that lack of impact is still in place, even acknowledging the massive resurgence of the genre Scream allowed, and the encouragement of waves of teen-geared horror – some of which I did enjoy – that persisted to varying degrees for a long while afterwards, perhaps until Saw kicked things over into more visceral stuff. Scream is, overall, a half-step; it’s kind of exactly what it is: an attempt to bridge a gap to open up horror to more general audiences. So in that sense, its self-aware stylings are incredibly surface level; its references to other horror limited to a top 5 or so of obvious hits. It’s a movie that dresses up its typicalness with these nods, making the tone a little uneven, and only really feeling “smart” in brief flashes. A competent horror / thriller, absolutely, but also pretty milquetoast, even then, and especially now.
Scream 2 doesn’t need to play around with this tippy-toeing. It’s much more comfortable with its layering, relaxing with a smile in its smirking atmosphere almost the whole way through, even going as far as to drop us right into meta territory from the start: the premiere of Stab, the movie based on the events depicted in Scream, with a riled-up, Ghostface-suited crowd yelling and screaming at scenes that are carbon copies of stuff we saw in the original film, only now starring Tori Spelling and Luke Wilson. This is a hat on a hat, but it’s a boldly silly way to open the flick, and also leads to a first kill which feels as visceral and mean (in a good way) as Drew Barrymore’s was, back in the day.
We double down: this murder opens up a conversation on the effect of movies on their audiences, discussed in a film studies class in the college Scream survivors Sid (Neve Campbell) and Randy (Jamie Kennedy) are now attending. Meanwhile, Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox) is in town to cover the story, as not only is the Stab movie based on the book she wrote on the events, but also the man accused of Sid’s mother’s murder, Cotton (Liev Schreiber), has since been released, and is being shepherded around by Weathers to get some publicity-worthy interview footage. Of course, Dewey (David Arquette) is also around, investigating matters. So the gang’s all here, along with a bevy of new, attractive (and recognizable!) faces, for an ongoing discussion of what rules dictate a sequel, and whether this new killer is following those rules, and what their motivation might be.
There’s no need for Scream’s relative filler: Scream 2 can just be a rollercoaster of ridiculousness and (sequel-demanding) ante-upped kills, Craven’s shot construction and the returning Kevin Williamson’s script’s pacing both packed with fun details and conceptual layering. I don’t want to pitch it as necessarily smart, it’s just allowed to be more free-wheeling than before, with the formula proven and the movie trying to have fun with it as opposed to cautiously straddling a line between a straight-up flick and a slightly more experimental one.
That said, just as the opening movie-within-a-movie gambit ends up being rather irrelevant overall, the ending is a clunk mess of trying to out-twist itself and justify those same swerves, lazily flailing into another attempt at meta commentary that goes nowhere. The movie had a leaked script and apparent rewrites-on-the-day syndrome, and that fast rehashing is definitely apparent here, though it’s still shot effectively, with our actors committing to whatever persona they’ve been cast.
Horror / thrillers can be broken by such endings, but that’s not the case here. Even at a full two hours, Scream 2 moves along with such entertaining swagger throughout that running full steam into its conclusion isn’t a deal breaker, as you’re still smiling from the lead-in, and you’ve got some kooky performances to tide you over while yet another twist jumps out from the shadows.