Saturday, October 31, 2009

Murder as Photo Op: Scream 2 starring Neve Campbell and Jada Pinkett (1997)

[Here's a time capsule review from one of my favorite horror franchises.]

I imagine Kevin Williamson had great fun writing screenplays for Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and now Scream 2. Instinctively aware of the fickle tastes of the young and media savvy, he can't or won't write down to his audience. While part of his job consists of imagining even more elaborate ways to have a death-reaper disguised villain leap from behind the unexpected door with a bloody knife in a large house, he also hit upon the winning method of constantly including knowing pop culture references, reflections, and commentary of the whole institution of horror films in his movies. In this way, he can create a pretty good but not great film like Scream 2 and neutralize all critical response in advance by including a scene where a film class debates the pros and cons of making sequels.

Williamson knows how to capitalize on the way all the different media outlets will exploit and cannibalize a murder story into hundreds of fictional or newsworthy or television talk show formats. The dissonance between the human horror of murder and the gleeful feeding frenzy of the press creates the ironic distance wherein these Scream movies can be made. Thus characters can scream, comment on their position within a horror convention, and light up at the possibility of appearing nationwide with Diane Sawyer simultaneously.

In the opening sequence, a young black couple enter a theater to watch the horror film Stab as they discuss how African Americans have traditionally been excluded from lily white horror films. As Jada Pinkett's character says, "I read my Entertainment Weekly. I know my shit!" Stab is a crude movie-within-a-movie recreation of the original Scream. The couple sit down to a parody of the now famous scene where Drew Barrymore gets attacked by an anonymous telephone caller, and guess who gets killed in the theater as every other audience member wears promotional reaper masks and slashes around with plastic green knives? When a murder victim stumbles up on stage to die during the movie, the audience members in the theater think it's a publicity stunt. Welcome to the postmodern hall of mirrors of Scream 2.

Does Scream 2 suffer from sequelitis? Yes. The original Scream included cries of "There's got to be a sequel!" Scream 2 takes place at the same small college where Sid (Neve Campbell) seeks to escape her memories of the former slashing. Now she's in drama class playing Cassandra, appropriately enough. After the opening murders, sensing a copycat sequence of killings coming up, the media descends on the campus in their electronic gewgaw-laden vans, among them Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), who has written a book about the original Scream slashings, and Dewey (David Arquette), the small town lovable deputy who shows up to warn Sid that she probably already knows the killers. Pretty soon we find Last Summer's Sarah Michelle Gellar alone in a large sorority house at night. Sid's erstwhile boyfriend keeps appearing at suspicious moments, but Randy (another friend) knowingly points out that since the other boyfriend in Scream turned out to be the killer, this one can't be him.

I wasn't as caught up in the mystery aspect of the movie this time, preferring the clever self-referential reflections built in the set-piece scenes. For instance, the murderer in this movie takes video footage of his victims before killing them, so we get to watch these versions of earlier scenes in a screening room just before the killer kicks in to attack the viewers. Tori Spelling plays a delightfully campy movie variation of Sid in the original Scream in a scene sampled on a talk show. While Sid remains a rather static epic heroine grimly determined to fight her way out of slasheedom, Courtney Cox and David Arquette actually develop as side characters with Courtney finding some unexpected compassion for her media victims.

During one of the last scenes in the movie, a survivor hands out his card to the press, telling them what he knows warrants a price, and saying the story will definitely make a good movie. I thought of Kevin Williamson at this point jacking up his fees for Scream 3 and I Know What You Did Last Summer 2 (already in production). In this age of big dumb studio blockbusters, knowing how not to condescend to your audience can pay very well indeed.

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