Thursday, July 2, 2015

Review: Scream 3 (2000)

So, that Scream TV series that was on Tuesday night? Actually pretty good. Not the greatest thing to bear the Scream name, but certainly not the worst either.

No, that would be this film.

Scream 3 (2000)

Rated R for strong horror violence and language

After an instant classic first film and a remarkably solid follow-up, Scream 3 is where the wheels came off on the series. It still has enough good qualities to keep from being out-and-out bad, but they're not enough to hold up a film that wears its troubled production on its sleeve. Returning characters see their personalities completely change, most of the new characters are one-note stereotypes, the kills are sanitized and declawed, the plot turns into a bad daytime soap opera, pointless cameos abound, and the past films' satirical bite is gone in favor of becoming the very sort of dumb slasher flick that those films mocked. While it picks up in the third act once Sidney comes back into the picture full-time, it's still easily the least of the four Scream films, and worth watching only for series fans.

The first indication that this is not the Scream we know comes in the opening, when Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), now a successful "trash TV" talk show host in the vein of Jerry Springer or Maury Povich, is harassed and eventually murdered by Ghostface along with his wife. Having just watched the second film, which cheerfully parodied the stereotypical cheesy slasher movie with its opening scene, it was disheartening to see this film's first ten minutes unfold almost exactly like Scream 2's fake movie Stab. It's obvious immediately that Ghostface is targeting Cotton, there's no tension in the buildup or the reveal, both the deaths are tame and bloodless, and the new twist -- that Ghostface's voice changer can now perfectly replicate others' voices -- feels like a desperate ploy to be "shocking" without thinking about the fact that they've just introduced sci-fi technology to a world that's supposed to be set in the present day of 2000. (Seriously, we don't even have that technology now, in 2015. The reason Ghostface's voice changer didn't stretch logic in the first two films was because a) it only did one voice, and b) Roger Jackson made that voice sound creepy and vaguely distorted, like it was coming out of a voice box.) It even has the obligatory shower scene from Cotton's wife, the very thing that Maureen was making fun of when she saw Heather Graham get naked in Stab. It's all style and no substance, and it gets the film off on a very bad foot.

These problems continue on and off for the rest of the film. The series' sense of humor is mostly gone, for one replaced with much the same sort of shallow self-seriousness as the many teenybopper horror flicks that followed Scream in the late '90s. I expected plenty of digs at Hollywood with the new setting, especially at its (charitably) hit-or-miss efforts at horror, but much of the stuff here that specifically pertains to "the biz" concerns a dreary plot that plays everything straight. We do get an all-too-brief cameo by Jamie Kennedy's Randy, a discussion of the relationship between movie violence and real-life violence, and some funny bits of the in-universe actors discussing the characters they're playing, along with some outright weirdness (seriously, what the hell was up with the Jay and Silent Bob cameo?), but nearly all of this is front-loaded into the first half of the film. Many fans have attributed the problems with the script to the fact that this remains the only one in the series that Kevin Williamson did not write, with the writing duties instead being given to Ehren Kruger, whose credits since this film include the crappy werewolf movie Blood & Chocolate and all the Transformers films from the second one onward. To be fair, he also wrote the superb American remake of The Ring and the underappreciated horror flick The Skeleton Key, but even so, he was, by his own admission, an outsider to the series, a hired gun who lacked the understanding of the main characters and "style" of Scream that Williamson had. Kruger was only brought in to write Scream 3 because Williamson's commitments meant that the studio wouldn't meet their planned release date while waiting for him to write it. As a result, the returning cast feels... off, somehow, most notably Dewey and Gale. Dewey has gone from a lovable doofus to an action hero, while Gale has seemingly lost all her competence and edge; to paraphrase another online reviewer, Courteney Cox felt less like Gale here and more like her other famous character, Monica Gellar from Friends, impersonating Gale. I can't fault Cox or David Arquette here, as they both did what they could with the material they had, but they only had so much to work with.

The new characters are a mixed bag. As this film takes place in Hollywood, with the new Ghostface attacking the production of Stab 3, most of them are caricatures of the sort of people who work in Hollywood -- the asshole producer John Milton (played by Lance Henriksen), the high-maintenance actress Jennifer (Parker Posey), the cocksure bodyguard Stone (Patrick Warburton), the bimbo starlet Sarah (Jenny McCarthy), the egotistical director Roman (Scott Foley), and the naive ingenue Angelina (Emily Mortimer). Of the bunch, the best were easily Posey and Henriksen, and that was mainly through sheer force of personality on the part of their actors. Henriksen effortlessly sold the seedier side of glamorous Hollywood as a producer who exploits young actresses for sex on the casting couch, making for a slimy, borderline-villainous character who provided an invaluable anchor for this film's sprawling plot. Posey, meanwhile, was clearly having a blast playing the campy, catty diva Jennifer, especially in her interactions with Gale, who Jennifer is playing in Stab 3. (Awk-ward...) She stole the show in every scene she was in, and virtually redeemed the first half of the film with her lightning performance. The rest of the cast, though, did little to impress. The worst of the bunch was Angelina, with her characterization seemingly changing in every scene; honestly, I can hardly blame Emily Mortimer for her confused performance, given how much Angelina's actions and motivations constantly shift, the result of her character being hit with particularly heavy rewrites during production. The others, meanwhile, were all saddled with bad dialogue that nobody could make convincing, and most of them faded into the background. (I barely remembered Tom and Tyson.)

Fortunately, the most important character in the whole series, Sidney Prescott, gets out mostly unscathed. On a quality writing level, that is. As a person... well, if she was traumatized after the events of the first film, then now she's just about lost it. Sidney now lives in the mountains, alone, working from home as a crisis counselor under a fake name and frequently having nightmares about both Ghostface and her dead mother Maureen. As the second half of this film proves, she's still a very capable heroine, but somebody who's survived two killing sprees directed at her in as many years is bound to have a few screws loose. Needless to say, she's now a paranoid shut-in who's extremely reluctant to come near any situation that might expose her to harm... until she starts receiving those famous Ghostface calls again, forcing her to follow Dewey and Gale to Hollywood to help them investigate the new string of murders, which turn out to once again have her and her family at their center. Sidney's presence brings the movie to life, with one standout moment being when she steps onto the set of Stab 3, a recreation of her childhood home in Woodsboro for a flashback scene they were shooting. Watching Sidney symbolically return to the place where she suffered so much grief, breaking down as all those awful memories come flooding back, was a powerful moment that illustrates just how far this girl has come, due in no small part to Neve Campbell's once more amazing performance. And at the very end, when she tells the killer what everybody who's watched these films has dreamed of yelling out at the screen to the first two films' bad guys, dismantling all their self-centered excuses and pointing out that they just enjoy killing, I was cheering. In a film that's otherwise the worst in the series, it was both heartening and strange to see the lead character at the best she's been yet.

The only way Sidney could have been better, in fact, was if she wasn't so centrally tied to the main element that, above all, drags this film down into its biggest problems: the plot. I've held off on detailing this for a while now, but here's where I get into the nitty-gritty of why this film really doesn't work. Much of the film's plot concerns Sidney's mother Maureen, who we learn used to be an actress known as Rina Reynolds who did low-budget horror movies for John Milton back in the '70s. Let's ignore the question of how, in prior films, the horror movie buff Randy never knew that his classmate Sidney was the daughter of a B-movie scream queen, especially as this detail likely would've come out in the aftermath of Maureen's murder -- or in one of the two killing sprees involving Sidney that followed. The film handwaves this by stating that Maureen was very private about this phase of her life (and it was the '90s, before IMDb and modern film geek culture) -- and going by what we learn of it, she had good reason to be. Without spoiling anything, she was exposed first-hand to the darkest corners of Hollywood, the parts filled with casting couches and drug-fueled parties, an experienced that hung over her head her entire life even after she retired to start a family.

My earlier comparison to a bad daytime soap wasn't mere metaphor -- the twists here were exactly of the sort I'd expect from one of those shows, to the point where I was waiting for the film stock to look like it was shot on video and for Marco Beltrami's score to be replaced by a "Dun-dun-DUNNNNNN!" with each new revelation. This is especially the case with the reveal of the killer, as that character's infodump/rant to Sidney at the end is our source for everything on how this story ties into the killing spree. While the last two films operated in a similar way, it wasn't a problem there because sharp writing, combined with clues pointing to certain characters as the killers beforehand, made the twists genuinely work. Here, the killer is someone who's seemingly killed off two-thirds of the way into the movie and who, to the best of the viewer's knowledge, has zero connection to Sidney or any other motive to kill people, while the film gives over a large chunk of its running time to a subplot that again seems to have nothing to do with the murders until the reveal. In the first two films, the mystery was of the killer's identity, while here, the mystery is what Maureen was up to in Hollywood thirty years ago. A detective story could've -- and I stress could've -- made this work, but in a slasher film, it fails completely. It definitely doesn't help that Scream 4, despite being an imperfect film itself, had a very similar motivation for its killer but managed to handle it substantially better.

Finally, it must be said: the direction and scares have taken a big step down here. The Ghostface dialogue is only still creepy because of Roger Jackson's scary performance, and even then, he can't redeem some of the crap that comes out of the killer's mouth. (Seriously, in one scene he bellows "that makes me feel... angry!" before killing a man. That's just embarrassing.) The only kill that felt worthy of the Scream name was Sarah's, and that's not just because I really, really hate Jenny McCarthy. (I swear -- while the payoff wasn't the greatest, the buildup with the phone call was legitimately good.) This is also the driest Scream film, with some blood but none of the more graphic effects of the first two films. I attribute this less to creative decisions or studio meddling and more to the Columbine High School massacre creating a chilling effect in American horror, with the MPAA clamping down hard on violent movies (Wes Craven reportedly considered retiring from horror altogether due to his fights with the MPAA over this film) and the subject matter of slashers like this hitting much too close to home for the young people that usually flock to see them. It's no coincidence that the wave of teen horror that Scream pioneered pretty much came to a halt in the few years after Columbine. Still, even though it was beyond the filmmakers' control, it definitely had a negative effect, making most of the kills here feel bland and weak. Craven also felt like he was sleepwalking behind the camera; while this film is shot competently, it lacks the style and artistry that he gave the first two. Marco Beltrami likewise felt like he was on autopilot as composer, content to merely recycle his score from the first two movies.

Score: 2 out of 5

Its high points were high enough that I almost considered giving this a 3, but at the end of the day, the standard set by the last two films combined with how glaring the problems were here made my score an easy decision. This is undoubtedly the worst Scream film, and worth watching only to see how the story progresses.

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