For someone who misspent his youth in film societies and revival houses, where mushrooms develop more readily than social skills, a job as a movie reviewer wonderfully eases the burden of small talk. "What have you liked recently?" people ask, as their follow-up to "Hi." The truly incorrigible filmoid will then kill the conversation anyway, by replying, "The trailer for Mission: Impossible 2."
Have you seen it? John Woo directed the movie, and I suspect he may also have cut the trailer, which Wooishly makes so much--and so little--happen at once. Essentially, you see only the Paramount logo, the words "Mission: Impossible 2" and views of Tom Cruise putting on sunglasses. But boy, does he put them on! He puts them on slowly; he puts them on fast; he puts them on while you're looking straight at him, while you're inside his eyeballs and while the camera crew is about to topple off a sheer rock cliff, which seems to be the Paramount Pictures mountain as seen upside down and backwards. Here are danger, sublimity, lyricism, speed, technological mastery and hero worship, mixed with (and for) a whole lot of money. I laughed with the freedom that comes from getting what you paid for, even before the feature rolls.
The feature, by the way, was Scream 3. Like Mission: Impossible 2, it's a sequel, made by a cult director (Wes Craven) who so loves to gratify the public that his joy overflows in commerce: He keeps selling you the film you're already watching. Among the people who bought with me that night were college-age women in twos and threes, date-night couples from Harlem and a minyan's worth of twentysomething Jewish men wearing leather yarmulkes. All of us knew, with perfect confidence, that Scream 3 would give us what we wanted. Hadn't the first two films?
Confronted by genre filmmaking at this level of accomplishment, a critic may either rise to modesty or else have it crammed down his throat. I will therefore yield a portion of this column to the fans who post comments on the website imdb.com. These are the "users" of film (or, more often, DVD and video) whose opinions really matter.
No one could better explain the appeal of the Scream series than this correspondent from Sweden, whose posting begins with a disarming apology for his or her misspellings: "The thing that makes Scream so different from the rest is that we find out about all details, compairs, and rules of scary movie, who we all know existed but never thought about. And if that wasn't enough it is funny!"
I will do no more violence to this statement than may be required by a brief unpacking: The young characters in Scream and its sequels have watched slasher movies (as young people tend to do), and so they understand how to behave when a slasher comes after them. Contrary to the posting, these characters are not the first to have thought before about the "details, compairs, and rules" of this genre. A perverse and misshapen erudition, of the kind encountered most often behind the counters of video stores and in cultural studies departments, has devoted itself to precisely these issues. Still, as our Swedish user says, Scream distinguished itself by making an onscreen discussion about genre into a generator of laughs and bloodshed.
How meritorious is such self-reference? A useful comment on the first film's strengths comes from someone in Pennsylvania: "It was completely original although some traits through the movie were taken from older classic movies." Exactly so. And this pathbreaking imitativeness was executed at a high level of skill, observes a New York user, who regrets he can give Scream no more than ten points out of ten. He must withhold his dreamed-of rating of 10.5: "It's almost impossible to sustain such excellence for the length of a film."
Finally, here are two comments by which to gauge Scream's impact, for worse and for better. From Illinois: "I really loved this movie. It made me become a teen slasher fan." And from Tallinn, Estonia, to remove the chill of that "made me": "This movie really rocks, kicks ass, rulzzz!!!!"
Might Scream 3 rate as many exclamation points? Let us consider:
After making his name and fortune with A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven directed (and in some cases wrote) a number of thrillers that were unusual for their formal and intellectual ambitions. In The People Under the Stairs, the monsters were white landlords; the embattled hero, a black kid in the ghetto. The Serpent and the Rainbow had something to say, in genre-coded terms, about US relations with Haiti in the years of Baby Doc Duvalier; and Shocker turned the serial-killer movie into a delirious scene of Oedipal struggle, in which the evil father was television. The way to break his power? Turn off the set.
As it happened, none of these pictures became wildly popular; and so I couldn't blame Craven when he tried less hard and made a runaway hit. I thought Scream was more than competently directed; but it looked to me like a contract job, with Craven doing his best for a script by Kevin Williamson.
In place of politics (strictly construed), Williamson offered wise-ass knowingness about the news business, as embodied by a relentlessly self-promoting reporter (Courteney Cox). As for sexual politics--always a key subject in teen-slasher movies--Scream was impressive less for Williamson's script than for Neve Campbell's performance as Sidney Prescott. In keeping with the ambiguous gender of her character's name, the dark and plain-pretty Campbell gave a blunt muscularity to the central role of suffering daughter and uneasy girlfriend. In her monograph Men, Women and Chainsaws, Carol Clover gives such characters the designation of "Final Girl," meaning the one who survives. This tag may prove useful to people who are interested in the rules of the genre. But there are others, both on screen in Scream and its sequels and also behind the camera, who care too much about these rules and so cut off all escape from the fiction. You can no longer look away, as you once could in Shocker, because now the world is the movies.
To be fair to Kevin Williamson, this inward spiral had already begun in Wes Craven's New Nightmare, in which the making of a sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street kicks off further Nightmare on Elm Street horrors. Scream 3, with a screenplay by Ehren Kruger, now gives the screw another turn into the same notch. The conceit: A movie studio is in production on Stab 3, the next film in a series based on the "real" events narrated in Scream. Members of the movie cast start to die, amid much ripping of flesh, and in the same order in which they die in the script. The "real" people may also be targeted. Will Sidney Prescott be among the victims? As a Final Girl, she's supposed to be indestructible. But then, as the most movie-obsessed character explains in mid-narrative, Scream 3 might not be a sequel. It might be the concluding film in a trilogy, in which case even Sidney can die. For most of its audience, which is already huge, Scream 3 will be satisfying precisely because its unpredictability is so reliable. The buxom blonde gets murdered right on schedule, immediately after remarking on the cliché of killing off the buxom blonde. And there's a particularly sadistic element to the death this time: As she prepares to meet the fate of Sarah Michelle Gellar in Scream 2 and Rose McGowan in Scream, former porn star and never-quite-starlet Jenny McCarthy is made to complain, "Jesus, I gotta get a new agent."
Does anything truly unpredictable happen? The film's theme of familial guilt--must Sidney suffer because of her mother's misdeeds?--is surely as formulaic as the killings. So, too, is the snatch of dialogue about movie violence and its influence on the world. But when we get to the specifics--what kind of movie violence?--Scream 3 takes an unexpected turn into truly dark territory.
It's the territory of a Hollywood legend: the myth of the seventies as a wild, creative, sex-and-drug-crazed period that set loose new talents in the movie business. Scream 3 knows better. You might say it's a story about the younger filmmakers (and film watchers) who came of age believing in that myth and so turned into its victims. I don't pretend that the average imdb.com user will read any such meaning intoScream 3; but for those who know how to spell, the letters are there.
And so, too, are some young people who have escaped the Curse of the Seventies. Wes Craven gives them cameo roles: Heather Matarazzo, the brilliant young actress from Welcome to the Dollhouse, who shows up to give Neve Campbell a hug, and filmmaker Kevin Smith (of Dogma), who goes wandering by with his constant onscreen partner Jason Mewes. By putting these people into Scream 3, the old genre-master pays respect, affectionately and perhaps wistfully, to those young filmmakers who live outside genre.
One of them even gets a bigger-than-cameo role: Parker Posey, queen of the indies, whose rampaging performance is the most untamed element of Scream 3. Posey plays the actress in Stab 3 who impersonates "real life" reporter Gail Weathers. As Gail, Courteney Cox is already a caricature, all bones and hair, caffeine and adrenaline. Posey puts herself shoulder-to-shoulder with Cox and italicizes everything her counterpart does. This is bad acting elevated to good modern dance. For as long as it goes on, the month's most popular movie really is a scream.