Sunday, June 28, 2015

Review: Scream 2 (1997)

This Tuesday, MTV is premiering a Scream TV series that, believe it or not, I'm cautiously optimistic about. Yeah, how about that? So this week, I'm gonna watch the entire film series. Having already checked out the original, I'm gonna get this set of reviews started with the first sequel...

Scream 2 (1997)

Rated R for language and strong bloody violence

Scream 2 is a rare thing: a sequel to a knock-out classic horror film that manages to live up to and respect the original. Yeah, there have been horror franchises in the past that had great sequels, but Scream was less in the category of the original Friday the 13th and more in the category of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre in terms of films that have such stature on their own that making a sequel that's just as good would be a very tall order. And believe it or not, I've heard some critics and fans, including Richard Roeper, say that the second film is in fact superior to the original. While I do disagree with that high level of praise, I still feel this is a very good movie in its own right. It retains and builds on the original's chief strengths, its self-aware sense of humor, great characters, and impressive visual and sound design, and while its flaws definitely make it "second-best" versus the original, they're not nearly enough to derail it. Scream 2 is, to quote a poster-bait review that some no-name TV station might've run eighteen years ago, "hip, smart, and scary", even if it still lives in the shadow of the first film.

The plot picks up a couple of years after the first film, with Sidney Prescott and Randy Meeks now attending Windsor College in Ohio, far away from their hometown of Woodsboro and their memories of what had happened. Gale Weathers, meanwhile, has written The Woodsboro Murders, a true crime novel based on the events of the first film, which has just been adapted into a hugely-hyped slasher film called Stab. Unfortunately, at the premiere of Stab at a theater near Windsor College, two students are brutally murdered, and before long the bodies once again begin to pile up around Sidney, who's already struggling with the media's renewed focus on her life due to the film's release. It soon becomes clear that a copycat killer is on the loose... but who is it? Is it Sidney's new boyfriend Derek, a frat boy who's been acting suspiciously ever since the killings started? Is it Mickey, a film geek obsessed with violent movies? Could Gale be planning her next bestseller by engineering another killing spree to write about? Or is it Cotton Weary, the man who was falsely accused of the murder of Sidney's mother Maureen in the first film, and who has turned into a bitter, fame-whoring asshole as a result? In any case, Sidney, Gale, Dewey (who flew out to Ohio the moment he heard people were dying), and all the rest have to find out and stop this person before more people start dying.

Once again, the main thing that sets Scream apart from the rest of the late '90s teen horror pack is how it combines an often-serious genre and subject matter with a deep streak of cheekiness and meta humor. This becomes apparent right from the opening frame with the fake movie Stab, which is basically the Scream world's version of itself, only with way more cliches, luridness, and Tori Spelling. (I don't remember Drew Barrymore getting naked in the shower in the first film...) Our opening victims, Phil and Maureen (played by Omar Epps and Jada Pinkett), are a pair of black students who start off by discussing the treatment of black people in horror movies (usually dead by the second act), then get into the theater and start mocking all the cliches and stupid shit that this version of Casey Becker (Heather Graham in a cameo) indulges in, culminating in Maureen unknowingly narrating her own fate as she watches Ghostface close in on Casey in the movie and notes how little time she has to live. From there, we get arguments in film class over how sequels ruined the horror genre and whether movie violence causes real-life violence, Randy discussing the "rules" of a slasher sequel (it's gotta be way bloodier, basically), and of course, the question of whether making violent horror movies that purport to be "based on a true story" is in good taste. Again, they could've easily coasted on having the characters make lazy wisecracks about horror movies, but instead, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson found it more interesting to write characters who felt like real human beings rather than the horror movie archetypes they were making fun of, including having the self-aware commentary on the genre factor into the motivations of one of the killers.

That brings me to the second great thing that this film remembered from the original: the characters. The returning cast members have all grown since the first film, most notably Sidney, who's more than eager to move on with her life and starts cracking at the thought of having to go through the experience all over again. Neve Campbell does a great job at showing what the "final girl" from a slasher flick might look like after it's all over -- she's survived, but the experience has ruined her life and quite possibly given her PTSD, while she's constantly harassed by both the media and by prank callers posing as Ghostface. Even after moving far away from home, she'll never escape what had happened to her, which becomes readily apparent during the climax. Courteney Cox is also back as Gale and bitchier than ever, having rode the Woodsboro massacre to fame and fortune as a bestselling author, but once again, David Arquette as Dewey brings out her softer side, critiquing how she portrayed him as a bumbling Barney Fife figure in her book while sheepishly admitting that, yeah, he is kind of a doofus -- especially now that his ordeal in the first film has left him walking with a limp. The two of them made for a great couple, both as partners and, eventually, as lovers, with David's deadpan and Courteney's sass bouncing off of each other effortlessly. Of the returning characters, Jamie Kennedy's Randy is probably the least changed from the original, but he still serves as this film's heart and soul with his sense of humor, representing everything that the series stands for. In fact, a pivotal scene in this film involving him goes a long way towards explaining why, in my opinion, the third film was the worst in the series, though obviously I can't explain why without major spoilers for one of the best and worst scenes in this film. (Best in that it worked amazingly at what it set out to do, and worst in that it set out to piss me the fuck off.)

Of the new characters, the standout was Liev Schreiber as Cotton Weary, a dark mirror of Sidney whose own ordeal with the tabloid media has made him eager for public redemption, while also holding a grudge against Sidney for making him spend a year rotting in prison. While he's all smiles for the cameras, talking about how he wishes to put it all behind him, privately, he's turned into a major-league prick who cares more about fame and public image than anything. There was a moment late in the film that really exemplified his character for me: he finds Sidney in peril, and more than anything, he's annoyed that Sidney dying would mean that he won't get to do an interview with her and Diane Sawyer to help clear his name. Schreiber played a great slimeball in this flick, and I loved him for it. Jerry O'Connell and Timothy Olyphant also did good jobs as Sidney's boyfriend Derek and the film geek Mickey, making me care about them as more than just glorified scenery -- even on a rewatch knowing everything in advance, I always wondered whether or not either of them was the killer. (O'Connell even gets a brief musical number, and it's as awesomely bad as it sounds. I know a lot of fans think that scene is embarrassing, but I love it. It's goofy as hell, and it totally works.) Duane Martin was also hilarious as Gale's cameraman Joel, the guy who's smart enough to get the hell out once the bodies start hitting the floor, while Laurie Metcalf from Roseanne had a small, but memorable role as Debbie Salt, a local journalist who views Gale as something to aspire to, constantly getting on her nerves in the process. However, I can't say the same for Elise Neal as Hallie, Sidney's roommate who wants to join a sorority. Her performance was alright, but didn't stand out for me the same way that Rose McGowan did as Tatum in the first film. You knew the moment you saw her that Hallie was basically a copy of Tatum, serving as cannon fodder to pad the body count. Ditto for Sarah Michelle Gellar as the sorority sister CiCi, though that was more a function of her getting killed off in the first act; as legitimately intense as the scene was, if you're gonna cast Buffy the Vampire Slayer, at least give her a few good shots at Ghostface before she goes down rather than have her literally make the same fatal mistakes that Sidney mocked in the first film. (Remember: out the door, not up the stairs!)

And finally, we come back to Ghostface, the man in the mask once again voiced by Roger Jackson. The calls here are less playful than they were in the first film, an indication that this is a different killer than before. What hasn't changed, however, is the killer's tactics. Once again, he's stealthy and fast, showing us that this isn't some lumbering, superhuman monster like Jason, but an average Joe who went crazy. The kills are bloody and shocking, but the true standout horror moments are when he's stalking and pursuing his victims, with the chase scenes (especially one with Gale and Dewey in the college's film school) being some of the best in the series. The reveal of the killers was slightly less impressive than it was in the first film, though. Both of the actors in question tried to copy the insanity of the killers in the first film, and while the lead killer did a good job of it, the other felt just a bit too obvious. I'll grant that it was far better than the pure ham and cheese I saw in Urban Legend, but overall, it felt as though they were treading much the same territory, and here, many of the twists (there being two killers, one of them having personal beef with Sidney and the other being a deranged follower) weren't as shocking. Also, without spoiling anything, somebody should've recognized who one of the killers was and seen right through his/her fake identity; as it stood, the handwave about that killer getting a makeover to change their appearance kind of made sense, but still felt weak. Maybe Gale wouldn't have recognized that person due to her being a reporter from out of town, but Dewey or Randy certainly would have just as Sidney did during the reveal. It's odd how this person manages to avoid all three of those characters for the entire length of the film until the finale.

Still, the final piece of what makes this film work, Wes Craven's direction paired with Marco Beltrami's score, makes up for the somewhat shaky ending. This film's Midwestern college setting doesn't give us any sights as beautiful as California's Sonoma Valley, but he handles the frights with plenty of tension and flair, relying on long shots and excellent composition while keeping Ghostface in the shadows for most of the film outside the opening scene (which has more Ghostface than you can imagine -- a sly commentary on audiences going to see this movie and wanting to see him?). And once more, Beltrami's soundtrack adds punch to the film, making the most hard-hitting moments feel downright epic. As ill-suited as it was for something like, say, The Faculty, which should've been relying on creeping dread and paranoia, it works perfectly for a film as "big" as this, one that aims to be a thrill ride from start to finish.

Score: 4 out of 5

Despite my quabbles with a few of the characters and their stupid decisions, this still makes for a great "good times" slasher flick, one that gives us a standout story and lots of scares without ever taking itself too seriously. It's not as good as the original, but given how high a bar that was to clear, I can definitely settle for "really damn good".

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