Scream 2 (1997)

D: Wes Craven
S: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette

Though marginally better than its predecessor, Scream 2 cannot be viewed properly unless you've see the first one: otherwise its shifting frames of reference and constant self-reflexivity makes no sense. Part of the gag here is the elaborate double bluff which makes Scream itself the basis for Scream 2 in more than one sense, which is probably why both director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson are at the helm once again. They are also joined by the surviving cast of the first film, whose characters have undergone interesting though not unexpected changes since their first adventure in postmodern slasher movie land.

It's a couple of years on from the events in the first picture. Publicity hungry reporter Courtney Cox has published a book documenting them which has been turned into a movie (called "Stab"). This film opens with a sneak preview of the movie within the movie (starring Tori Spelling as Neve Campbell's character) at which hordes of idiotic devotees wearing ghost costumes and sporting glow in the dark knives are dumbstruck when a real killer surfaces among them and dispatches a young black couple (there were no blacks in Scream, and the film begins with this couple discussing the 'whiteness' of the slasher genre). And so it begins; again. Someone is using not just movies in general, but the movie of the events that were the movie first time round as their template for more gory mayhem. Following the rules of the sequel (as explained to us): the body count is bigger, the death scenes are more elaborate and there are twists to the identity of the killer (or is it killers again?). It's not just that we've seen it all before in various genre films, we have seen it first time round in Craven/Williamson form, and that's the gag.

Scream worked well enough within its own frames of reference as a parody of slashers with a knowing wink to the postmodern audience. Scream 2 is closer in spirit to Wes Craven's New Nightmare (though still not as genuinely disturbing), operating outside the frames of reference even of the film itself, this time to embrace its own predecessor and engage in a less than subtle debate about the representation of violence. It also again makes knowing reference to the mechanics of its own construction and of the parameters of the genre in general. But this time to underline the point we are also given a film school and a theatre as venues for the massacre, which otherwise takes place largely within the demense of a university (replete with sororities and cheerleaders ripe for death but generally left alone in yet another joke within the joke). Of course it's not reality, it's a self enclosed postmodern landscape of floating signifiers and reception theory which not only depends on foreknowledge but counts on it.

But while Scream 2 is no scarier than Scream was (which was not at all), it is perhaps more enjoyable. It moves a lot faster and its sheer playful glee is more affecting than the necessary dog work visible in its predecessor. Scream had to exist for Scream 2 to work at all. It had to be done more or less straight before it could be done to excess. Scream 2 is Scream apotheosized, and the latter is as integral to the former as The Godfather was to The Godfather Part II (agreed by the film students in the movie to be the greatest sequel ever made...). It is more baroque, more outrageous, more technically dazzling and yet more of the same, another case of bluff and counter bluff to infinity that dares you to make sense of it (like Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry).

However that said I'm not sure Scream 3 would be a good idea. This storyline has been taken as far as it will go before actually becoming stupid. Obvious it may have been, but Scream was not really dumb, and Scream 2 is smarter, but a third will inevitably happen and take the plunge predicted by the characters in this one into mediocrity (though I must say I agree with the guy who said House 2: The Second Story was better than House). Scream 3 and its spinoffs will make Scream and Scream 2 seem like great masterpieces of postmodern horror. As the tongue in cheek genre again begins to ruin the horror film as an effective meditation on issues which affect society (and this did not begin with Scream, or even Horror High), things will become intolerable. This hasn't happened yet, but while both Scream and Scream 2 are interesting movies, and this one is the better (but only because the first one is part of the gag), neither is quite as effective a postmodern horror film as Wes Craven's New Nightmare, which did all this before in a much more interesting form.

Of course most people won't care about such comparisons and the bottom line is is this one worth seeing? Yes. It's a well made comic horror with elaborate death scenes and a higher body count and a twist in the identity of the killer...and...and...and...stop me if you've heard this one... But don't watch it unless you've seen the first, and unless you're prepared to embrace the postmodern condition.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.