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.