Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A look back at the Scream franchise part II. Scream 2: the second time's the charm.

It remains to be seen whether or Scream 4 can become the first breakout mega-smash of 2011, drawing in nostalgic 20-somethings and 30-somethings while bringing along the next generation who grew up watching the first three films on DVD over the last decade. I was invited to Tuesday night's press screening but had to decline due to not being allowed to bring guests (IE - my wife). But in the meantime, let us take a moment to both reflect on the original trilogy as well as discuss how well these films have held up over the years. Needless to say, if you have not seen the first three Scream films, there will be complete and total spoilage. Consider yourself warned...

Scream 2 (1997): Everyone got it right the second time around. Released less than a year after the first film, Scream 2 improves on the original in almost every way. The actors have matured, the victims are genuinely sympathetic, the killings are genuinely gruesome and painful, and the film has a stark sense of sorrow and foreboding throughout the entire two-hour running time. The plot is pretty simple: two years after the first killings, Sydney and Randy are at college and the killings start up again. Gale rushes to get the story while reuniting with Dewey, who is attempting to act as Sydney's guardian angel after losing his sister the first time around. There is a powerful undercurrent of post-traumatic stress disorder that permeates the whole picture.

Before we get into why the film works as well as it does, let's take a moment to acknowledge the astonishing number of rising stars on the fringes. Craven had the foresight to cast Portia De Rossi, Rebecca Greyheart Luke Wilson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Heather Graham, Jada Pinkett Smith, Omar Epps, and Timothy Olyphant (many of them before they were on anyone's radar) all play roles both major and minor. And Liv Schreiber takes a no-dialogue cameo from the first film (as the man wrongly convicted of killing Sydney's mother) and turns in a star-making performance as the genuinely entitled Cotton Weary, a twitchy, untrustworthy man whose desire for fame clashes with his token desire to be a decent person. In retrospect, the identity of the killers was pretty obvious (Quick, which characters are seemingly useless but have lots of screen time?), but it's still impressive how much sense it makes considering that the ending had to be rewritten after the script got leaked online. Trivia alert: In the original screenplay, there were FOUR killers, and the film ended with Cotton Weary killing Gale and then Sydney and Cotton killing each other.

What makes the film a bit of a cultural touchstone is its use of cell phones. In the first film, they were constantly referred to as 'cellular phones' in the manner befitting a new vocabulary word, and merely possessing one made you a suspect. Just a year later, every major character has a cell phone and they play a role in several major scenes. It wasn't a pioneering development per-se (Mulder and Scully depended on their cell phones even in the early years of The X-Files), but it was the first time I personally noticed a film where every major character had one. Also somewhat dating the picture is the joking reference to 'Star 69' and Entertainment Weekly still being a place for culturally-relevant entertainment news. Like the first film, victims don't necessarily die immediately, and there is a climactic use of handguns that is still jarring to the slasher genre in general. In a genre where the weapons of choice are sharp and pointy, no less than three major characters are done in by gunfire. But while the film has dated elements, and it relies more on a Scooby Doo-ish 'who's the killer?' mystery than the prior entry, it still works as a superior picture because it remembers to make itself matter.

Unlike the first film, where the tone was arch and the mood was satirical, Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson play for keeps this time around. And they don't play fair at all. Characters we love are brutally dispatched while those who we thought were merely cannon fodder emerge unscathed. Unlike the first film, where there was actually very little killing between the opening and the finale, the violence in Scream 2 is dished out at a more consistent pace. It's a bloodier, more violent picture overall, and because characters we care about are getting whacked, the violence matters that much more. The most perfect boyfriend in horror film history (Jerry O'Connell) is arbitrarily shot dead before he can prove his innocence to Sydney. And the flagship character of the whole franchise doesn't make it past the halfway point.

As the resident film nerd and unrequited romantic, Jamie Kennedy's Randy arguably stood for all of the movie geeks who grew up on a steady diet of Jason and Freddy, the ones who saw the first Scream before anyone else and told their less-hardcore film fans to check it out. Randy represented the audience, but that was not enough to save him. Fans never forgave Craven and Williamson for killing off Randy, and I'd argue that the fan backlash (and the post-Columbine environment) is a big reason why Scream 3 feels comparably toothless. But Randy cruel and almost offhand demise, followed by a heartbreaking moment where Sydney and Dewey argue about who gets to call Randy's mother, is just what makes Scream 2 transcend its pulpy roots and become a genuine tragedy. And the extended scene where Sydney and her roommate attempt to escape a locked police car with the unconscious killer sitting in the front seat is easily the most intense and suspenseful moment in the entire franchise.

In many ways, Scream 2 is The Empire Strikes Back of the series. It is so intense, moody, stridently serious, and openly artistic that it almost doesn't fit with the rest of the franchise. But it is arguably the finest pure slasher film ever made, and certainly the most epic. What stands out aside from the quality, the tone, and the seriousness of purpose is the obvious care that went into the picture. What could have been a slapdash cash-in sequel was an obvious labor of love. It's a horror sequel that finds time for two musical numbers, including one scored by Danny Elfman just for kicks. It has time for David Warner to sum up Sydney's entire arc in one lovely monologue and still cap it with a gentle joke. It borrows Hans Zimmer's main theme from Broken Arrow and actually puts it to better use here. The (fake-out, alas) stabbing death of Dewey plays out like opera. And the climactic revelation, that the mastermind was just Billy Loomis's heartbroken mother out for revenge, kept the series grounded in plausible reality. While the first Scream felt like a decent slasher movie with a dazzling prologue and a frighteningly ground-level reveal, Scream 2 feels like a great horror film. It is easily the best of the series and one of the better horror films of the last fifteen years.

Quit while you're ahead? Ha! Not when you can run your series into the ground while retroactively weakening the prior entries while you're at it! That would be Scream 3.

Scott Mendelson

6 comments:

Frankly, My Dear said...

I've got to disagree here. Scream II is pretty ridiculous. Some examples:

1. Jerry O'Connell's cafeteria song-and-dance number?

2. Sydney's ridiculous play (masked/cloaked men chase her with knives)?

3. Lines like "You fingered the wrong guy...again" and "You wish it was Ted!"

4. Ghostface's recreation system (Jada Pinket's first name is the same as Drew Barrymore's, Omar Epps' last name is similar to the first name of another victim from the first movie, Cici's real name is Casey..."). Mentioned once and then never again.

There just too much to suspend disbelief.

But I will agree that besides the opening of the first film, the scene from Scream II where Sydney and her friend (the only non-now-famous actor in the entire series) have to crawl over Ghostface is the most thrilling part of the trilogy.

Scott
FranklyMyDearPodcast.com

Film Intel said...

That is a sterling defence and made me reconsider a few elements but like the above commenter I'm not quite with you on a few points, most of them, admittedly, plot related.

The real key for me on why this is weaker than the first entry (and, for me, the third - I know I'm in the minority on that one) is that it just doesn't matter who the killer is. At the end, anyone could appear under that mask and the film wouldn't lose or gain anything. Whilst the first and third films had conclusions that startled and/or shocked in some way, the third is apathetic about the whole thing and provides the least remembered killer of the franchise. The only way it could get to that stage is if everything that proceeded it isn't quite up to snuff. It doesn't do enough to make you care who antagonist is, which is at least half the point of the films.

The pre-title sequence as well is grizzly and grim but nowhere near as scary as the other two films. Surely it should have been the Sarah Michelle Gellar scenes?

Chuck said...

With you 100% on this. Scream 2 is my hands-down favorite of the series.

ScottyP said...

Loved this post, Scott. Scream 2 is my fave of the trilogy, too.

Film Intel said...

That is a sterling defence and made me reconsider a few elements but like the above commenter I'm not quite with you on a few points, most of them, admittedly, plot related.

The real key for me on why this is weaker than the first entry (and, for me, the third - I know I'm in the minority on that one) is that it just doesn't matter who the killer is. At the end, anyone could appear under that mask and the film wouldn't lose or gain anything. Whilst the first and third films had conclusions that startled and/or shocked in some way, the third is apathetic about the whole thing and provides the least remembered killer of the franchise. The only way it could get to that stage is if everything that proceeded it isn't quite up to snuff. It doesn't do enough to make you care who antagonist is, which is at least half the point of the films.

The pre-title sequence as well is grizzly and grim but nowhere near as scary as the other two films. Surely it should have been the Sarah Michelle Gellar scenes?

ScottyP said...

Loved this post, Scott. Scream 2 is my fave of the trilogy, too.

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