Scream 2 has cleverer ideas than Scream did. It's just a shame that as a film, it's less accomplished. Scream was theoretically about the relationship between fiction and reality, but chickened out when it came to actually saying anything about it. "Movies don't make psychos, they just make psychos more creative," was about the limit of its profundity. Scream was just a well-made little potboiler with a fun cast and decent scares. Scream 2 is saying a little more.
We open with a brilliant scene, the film-within-a-film premiere of Stab. As a deliberately bad hack version of Scream, it's hilarious. Note the melodramatic thunder and lightning, gratuitous nudity and a shower that's part of the kitchen set and can thus be spied on by anyone passing the window. The non-Drew Barrymore does a pretty good job. But what's more, that Stab movie premiere is one of the cleverest ideas I've seen for an opening info-dump to get us up to speed on the (Scream 2) plot. All the background we need is palmed across with a magician's dexterity, but we're too busy laughing at some great jokes to notice. Oh, and the script's correct to note that black people haven't generally done too well in horror movies (though in fairness it's not the only genre to be guilty of this).
The death at the end of this opening sequence is even quite affecting. All in all, that cinema scene left me feeling good about Scream 2.
However there's also more to it than that. Here, at the beginning of the film, we already have an uncomfortable juxtaposition of reality and fiction. The movie Stab is based on the book by Gale Weathers. Real murders are taking place at the same time as fictional ones. It's a little unsettling, to be honest. To my surprise, Scream 2 takes this theme and runs with it.
You've got the acquitted non-murderer from Scream, who's one of the creepiest people I've ever seen. This is a mirror man, who defines himself by his image in the media. He's one bad day away from those crazy stalkers who spend their lives obsessing over some third-rate celebrity. You've got explicit copycat murders. You've also got the killer's scheme at the end, which is completely insane but actually quite interesting. Well, until the second revelation, anyway. Scream 2 appears to be saying that it's not movies but the media in general that are damaging our psyches. It's the celebrity culture. Don't blame Wes Craven, blame Jerry Springer. I can actually go along with this and it's possible that Scream 2 is one of the most sophisticated contributions we'll ever see to the debate on cinematic violence versus real life. You can stop sobbing now.
You see, Scream 2 has problems. The problem with sequels is that they're making a meal out of leftovers. This doesn't preclude a satisfying moviegoing experience, but Scream 2 is so interested in its leftovers that it forgets to add much else that you'd notice. The only good characters are those introduced in Scream. Jamie Kennedy is awesome, even more of a scene-stealer than he was last time. His scene with David Arquette in which they discuss suspects, but obviously not themselves, is a scream. He also gets some great lines, for which I give more credit to his performance than to the script. "I'll wait for the video." "Fuuuuck you."
However the original characters are pretty anonymous. There's no Matthew Lillard here, just a bunch of faceless non-entities who exist in a world apart from the returning cast. Neve Campbell gets a boyfriend and a room-mate while Courteney Cox gets a hero-worshipping journalist fan, but basically the guest cast are identikit teens. When the killer is unmasked, your first reaction is "WHO??" You're pretty sure he's been in the movie somewhere, but God knows where. Mind you, the vacuous sorority girls from Delta Lambda Zeta were funny, albeit blatant comic relief rather than actual characters you could suspect or anything.
When the guest cast starts getting knocked off, you don't care. Even the script doesn't seem that interested, sidelining the killings as distractions from the more important business of reuniting its returning characters. Kevin Williamson's script tries to give Neve's boyfriend a personality, making him serenade her in the dining hall, but it's just embarrassing. And why are the other diners applauding this revolting display? Maybe it's an American thing. In the UK, we'd throw food at him.
The whodunnit aspect falls flat. In Scream, the killer might have been anyone. However here we know it's not the returning characters, despite some lame red herrings - and since there's no one else of interest on view, there's no whodunnit. It can't be anyone we cared about, or even noticed. Sure enough, it ain't. Though having said that, surely the idea of a slasher whodunnit is innately screwed? A serial killer's motives are insane ones, so anyone could be guilty and there's no real detective work you can do.
Scream 2 also has credibility issues. Why is Gale Weathers in on the police investigation? She comes up with a clever insight in that scene, yes, but that's no excuse for the script not finding a plausible way to put those lines in her mouth. Why is Neve Campbell such a psycho magnet? Serial killers don't just grow on trees; believe it or not, very few people have a burning desire to murder total strangers. Why does Ghostface wear his ghostface in a public place? Surely someone would notice? Why does Dewey chase off alone after Ghostface... WITHOUT A GUN???? Though the soundproof glass isn't a goof, since (a) this is a sound studio, and (b) when we can hear Ghostface banging on the glass a few moments later, the door is ajar so it's no longer soundproof.
Most absurd is the scene where our heroines are trapped in a crashed car with an unconscious Ghostface. It provides the movie's most effective tension, yes, but why don't they just beat him to death while he's at their mercy? Take away his knife and cut his throat with it? Remove his mask and poke his eyes out? He's merely a guy with a kitchen implement - not good news, okay, but not exactly the Terminator. Put him up against a man with a three-foot iron bar and I know where I'd put my money.
Oh, oh! I nearly forgot the most annoying thing - Gale Weathers's romance with Dwight Dewey! Courteney Cox nearly pulls it off, occasionally managing to be human and touching, but these effective moments are squeezed in only when Kevin Williamson's looking the other way. More often his script clumps all over her performance with hobnailed boots, landing her with material that's frankly embarrassing. Perhaps a better actress might have been able to rise above this tripe, but I wouldn't bet on it.
So we've got a whodunnit that isn't, interspersed with slasher stuff that mostly isn't scary. The build-up to the final big scares is lacklustre, feeling like Act Two rather than Act Three. The killer's identity is a non-relevation, but I liked his mad plan for evil... until the second (non-)revelation. Boy, was that a mistake. It's funny, in a bad way. Soon I was begging for the villain to stop talking and start killing, but without a mask they're no more frightening as a slasher (even when slashing) than plausible in the first place. There's a neat twist at the end which feeds back into the theme of reality versus media, but I think we can say with confidence that Wes Craven films generally aren't trying to be remembered for their intellectual content.
However despite these problems I enjoyed Scream 2. It's watchable, except for Courteney Cox's romantic scenes and the dining hall serenade. The characters are patchy, but when they're good (David Arquette, Jamie Kennedy) they're very, very good. There are cool lines and moments, such as "I have some oozing to do" or what you do with a dead killer. I liked the thematic stuff. About 25% of Scream 2 is cleverer than its predecessor while being just as lively and funny, but unfortunately the remaining 75% is a bit bog-standard. I had fun watching it, but Scream 2 is pretty much a textbook example of why sequels will almost always lack the spark of their originals. The best sequels find a new spark. Scream 2 isn't even looking for one.