Director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson's 1996 Scream was something of a breath of fresh air -- a little of the slasher film's familiar old holy-shit! mixed in with self-aware glances and not-so-sly asides. It offered nothing new -- indeed, Scream often felt like a sequel to something -- but it was impudent and invigorating, which is enough to get by in slothful Hollywood. Turns out that if you give 'em enough grins and throw in enough hip pop-culture references, audiences and critics alike will insist the oldest junk in the world shines like brand-new.
But all fresh air turns stale after a while: Scream 2, released a year later, might well have been improvised during the shoot, its ending so from-nowhere and fetid (Thanks, it's Jason's mom -- we got it), there's no way Williamson could have actually written it down. Scream 2's sole remarkable feat was that it managed to respect its audience -- one raised on Top Gun; Beverly Hills, 90210; and Showgirls -- while condescending to it at the same time.
The third chapter in the trilogy, Scream 3, offers less of the same, retracing its steps as though screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road) were making fun of Williamson's...uh, making fun. (Williamson provided the treatment, but perhaps he, too, saw where this movie was headed -- backward.) That most of it takes place on a studio backlot -- one that features a re-creation of Sidney's bedroom from the first film -- only underscores its laziness, its crass cynicism, its lack of an original thought. Over and over again, Craven and Kruger go out of their way to keep reminding us this is only a movie about a movie. But the audience that gets the joke also sees through it; we're accomplices now, allowing the filmmakers to get away with entertainment murder.
Directed by Wes Craven
Written by Ehren Kruger, based on characters created by Kevin Williamson
Starring Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox Arquette, Parker Posey, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Foley, and Lance Henriksen
The plot is numbingly rote, right down to its opening murder(s); only this time, perhaps in the film's sole twist, the victim is someone who has appeared in both of Scream 3's predecessors. Turns out the Munch-masked killer is out to murder the entire cast of Stab 3 (again, the movie-within-a-movie gimmick is at work here) in the order in which they die in the script. (Stunt-casted Jenny McCarthy dies second, because, as she points out, "I'm Candy, the chick who dies second.") He also leaves behind old photos of Sidney's mother, the source of all this aggravation.
It doesn't take long for the long-suffering Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) to come out of isolation, leaving behind her palatial Northern California ranch house to come to Hollywood and lend a hand. Also on hand, of course, are tabloid reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox Arquette) and the bumbling but heroic Dewey Riley (David Arquette). Added this time around are Patrick Dempsey as a cop, Scott Foley as Stab 3's director, Lance Henriksen as a repellent movie producer, Emily Mortimer as the woman portraying Sidney in Stab 3, and Parker Posey as Stab 3's Gale Weathers. All of them, of course, could be the murderer. One probably is. Or isn't. Look, by the time you find out, it won't make a lick of sense anyway. That, perhaps, is the point.
Scream 3 is so jokey -- which is the opposite of funny -- it might as well come with a laugh track; it's about as terrifying as a sitcom drizzled with a little fake blood. Replete with references to Seinfeld (Patrick Warburton, better known as Puddy, appears as a celebrity bodyguard), the works of Kevin Smith (who actually appears as Silent Bob, alongside Jason Mewes' Jay), schlock insurgent Roger Corman (who appears briefly), the Star Wars trilogy (Carrie Fisher plays a studio burnout who only looks like Carrie Fisher), Seven, Silence of the Lambs, 60 Minutes II, Stab's Tori Spelling, and myriad other pop-culture touchstones, Scream 3 is the Puff Daddy of movies -- a pastiche without its own identity.
And it's no smarter for acknowledging its derivation. When Matt Keeslar (playing the actor playing Dewey -- yeesh, post-modernism is so wearying) says, "Pop culture is the politics of the 21st century," he's being sarcastic, tossing off the line as an insult. Like everything else in these films, he doesn't mean anything by it -- dude, it's just a joke. And it turns out this one's a lot like 1994's Wes Craven's New Nightmare, another (better) horror movie about the making of a horror movie.
To quote from Scream: "It's the millennium. Motives are incidental." Turns out that by the time you get around to the third chapter in the same old story, so are plots and characters and acting ability (the words cue cards keep popping to mind). Never trust a movie that hauls out a dead character -- Jamie Kennedy's Randy, via videotape -- to explain the damned thing to you. When he explains that the final film in any trilogy contains unexpected back-story and long stretches of exposition, it's time to run, screaming.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.