The Scream series has always been about movies. But unlike most movies, the Scream movies have always been smarter than commentaries about it, and in particular, smarter than the commentaries about its commentaries on movies.
Scream 3 is more of the same, only the movie references and analyses are made literal. The location is Hollywood, introduced under the opening credits as the famous hillside sign beset by chopper lights while a radio newscaster reports a “multi-injury freeway accident.” In other words, this is la-la-land in the year 2000, a place that’s not about gala premiere searchlights and red carpets, but daily havoc and anxious surveillance. And it’s appropriate that this is where the Scream crew has ended up, in the idea-of-a-city that discovered them, loved them, ate them up and spit them out.
The scene cuts, again appropriately, to the Scream character who has aside from relentlessly self-promoting girl reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) been the most overtly invested in making a killing off the Woodsboro murders, Cotton Weary himself (Liev Schreiber). He’s driving that freeway, in his SUV with his cell phone. The phone rings. And of course, the audience knows who it is before Cotton does. He’s feeling swank and self-assured, ready to be flattered by a fan’s gushing. For, you see, as the freeway billboards he’s passing and the caller’s fannish adulation reveal, Cotton’s a star at last, the “controversial” host of a talk show called 100% Cotton. But before you can say, “Yay for him,” Cotton’s on that dizzying journey traveled by most all the First Characters in slasher films, trying to beat the killer to his expensive LA home, where his girlfriend Christine (Kelly Rutherford) is, what else?, taking a shower. Poor Cotton. And he’s wearing a smooth off-white sweater and slacks outfit, perfect for oozing dark red. It’s not giving anything away to say that he hasn’t got a chance.
Meanwhile, the audience is revving up, the Scream tradition is carrying on, and the bucks are rolling in.
Let’s back up a minute. Consider the beginning, way back in 1996, when Scream was lauded for resuscitating the slasher genre, and specifically, for turning the genre postmodern and self-conscious (two terms that are often used interchangeably, but are not really interchangeable). Certainly, Scream was a fun and clever movie: seasoned slasher director Wes Craven (Last House on the Left, Nightmare on Elm Street, and the refreshingly ambitious People Under the Stairs) and new guy writer Kevin Williamson concocted a phenomenon, aided by the considerable charisma of TV stars Neve Campbell (Party of Five) and Cox Arquette (of Friends, and at the time, just Cox, as she was meeting now-husband David on the first Scream: is there anyone who doesn’t know this backstory?). It was a smart film especially as it highlighted the familial and homosocial anxieties that slasher movies tend to use and repress and it assumed that its audience knew the rules and made jokes of such knowing. That is, it respected its audience in a way that many other films (generic and hybrid) do not. Here’s the thing: it was not unusual for a slasher film to respect its audience in this way (the Freddy Krueger movies are all over this concept, as is most of Craven’s slasher work). But suddenly, critics and other less experienced viewers were seeing it, and exalting it as if it was something new.
So, the built-in problem for the series is making this “something new” two more times. That is, to double the newness in the fact of its oldness. This seems impossible by definition, but in fact, it’s what all series do, or more accurately, what they aspire to do and achieve by varying degrees. It can be argued and has been that the second Scream failed to look new again (the college stage production of “Cassandra” was plain tired, but it played by the very rules that it incorporated into its narrative, or rather, the rules that Randy (Jamie Kennedy) so scrupulously enumerated (to the delight of his many real life disciples). It had more bodies, more blood, more general excess.
The third Scream, written by Ehren Kruger (who wrote the creative thriller Arlington Road and the upcoming John Frankenheimer film, Reindeer Games), doesn’t do anything surprising with the formula, but it does immerse it in its original Hollywoodian mud and up the popular po-mo ante, by setting it on the set of Stab 3. The film is being produced by a cynical, longtime horror-flickmaker John Milton (Lance Henricksen) and directed by first-timer Roman (Scott Foley, looking only slightly less mushy than he does in Felicity), full of ambition and music-video-making experience. They’re both less concerned with their murdered castmembers than the LAPD’s decision to shut down production, because it seems that the script is providing the order of murders for the latest Ghostface incarnation. However, as was this actual case with Scream 3, the studio has circulated several scripts, and no one is sure which version the killer is reading.
Such doubleness angle is even more obvious in the characters, because the Woodsboro originals now have actors playing them. So, you have chaste Sid (Campbell) and sexy ingenue Angelina (Emily Mortimer), David Arquette’s gimpy goodheart Deputy Dewey serving as technical advisor on the film and the young star Tom (Matt Keeslar) playing him (and there’s another cop on hand, doing double duty as romantic interest for Sid, Patrick Dempsey’s Detective Kincaid). There’s even a little joke about doubleness, in that Carrie Fisher cameos as Bianca Brunette (her fabulous screen name), a Carrie Fisher look-alike and studio archivist who remains bitter that Fisher got the Princess Leia part because “she slept with Lucas.”
And there’s two Gales, Cox Arquette’s (who is now hosting her own tabloid news show, Total Entertainment) and method actor Jennifer (Parker Posey), who has played Gale in all three Stabs and tells Gale that she sympathizes with her “ruthless ambition and the lost and lonely little girl inside” (this information courtesy of Dewey, who, despite his relationship with Jennifer as “Gale,” remains smitten with the real Gale). This last pairing gets the most play, as Jennifer decides that if Gale is potentially the next victim (and it’s not clear whether it will be Gale or “Gale”), she’ll be safest going everywhere with Gale, as the killer, if offered a choice, might be more inclined to do the real deal than her imitation.
At first, the women are at each other’s throats, as Gale is understandably jealous that Jennifer is comforted by two men, her boyfriend and “rock,” Dewey and her bodyguard Steven Stone (Patrick Wharburton), way too cocky for his own good, and former security guy for Julia Roberts, Salman Rushdie, and Posh Spice. Once on their own, however, the girls are a good match, with Jennifer egging Gale on (”My Gale would be more aggressive! My Gale would be suspicious of everybody!”), and turn up evidence towards the stalker’s identity. Then, Scream 3 dishes up some choice double-Gale images: the two of them run down ooky hallways in Milton’s old-style-Hollywood mansion holding hands, they scream in tandem when they see sliced-up corpses, and they even come up with imperfect escape strategies together.
The movie turns dumb near the end, when the formula kicks in big time, as all the characters are marauding around Milton’s house. It’s here that the movie spends entirely too much time with its star, Sid. She actually comes late to the action, for since Scream 2 and college, she’s been hiding out in the hills, working as a women’s crisis counselor, over the phone, and working hard to remain removed from anyone she’s ever known (except her perennially ineffectual dad, who comes by to tell her she’s too isolated). By the time Sid does show up, several people are dead, and of course she’s been found by the caller, who now has a new gizmo where he can imitate everyone’s voice, sounding like Sid, Gale, whoever. This means that every phone call is a potential deceit: in a film so invested performances and lies, this device is overkill.
Until this descent into its own (maybe inevitable) plot-fatigue, however, Scream 3 does offer some intriguing, if not exactly original, assessments of slasher films’ effects on and responses to the culture at large. If it doesn’t celebrate its audience’s savvy so enthusiastically as the first film, it does accept and acknowledge that veteran slasher-watchers know how the game is played and doesn’t try to fool anyone too much (except, perhaps, in its “Sid’s psychodrama” sequence, where she’s on the set of her high school-Woodsboro home, hearing Billy’s voice again: way corny). This acknowledgment is most joyfully made when Randy reappears via a videotape he made before he died in Scream 2, delivered by his sister Martha (the great Heather Matarazzo, on screen for two minutes) to warn everyone that being in the third film of a trilogy means that everything you thought you knew about the past is potentially untrue.
And yes, this is true: movies that come in series are notorious for rewriting past plots and characters to make things work out differently than what you might imagine. But the more potent point here concerns movies’ disrespect for coherence and apparent knowledge, their willingness to enact all kinds of insanity to provide closure, climaxes, and something resembling justice. At the same time, however, Scream 3 mediates this harsh judgment by blaming it not on audiences (who were the brunt of the bashing in Scream 2, if you recall the Stab viewers who cheered on Jada Pinkett Smith’s awful death in the first scene), but on people in the industry. Thus, you have Cotton’s arrogance (which makes him take that first noxious phone call), Roman’s selfishness, and Milton’s ignorance, not to mention Jennifer’s silliness. Stab 3‘s filmmakers and actors are all jaded, not very nice, and/or proudly unintelligent (Jenny McCarthy’s too-old-to-be-a-starlet Sarah Darling is the surprising near-exception, but she’s struggling in a business that deems her a bimbo).
Unfortunately (because it makes everything predictable), Scream 3 holds out that outsiders to the industry Sid and Dewey have “real” lives and “real” emotions but insiders are always the same, fake and conniving. Amiable outsider Dewey has enough “realness” to win over insider Gale’s sensationalist heart (which he does in every installment of the trilogy). And B-movie producer Milton is the predominant emblem of an industry that has always been tawdry, vain, and exploitative. While on the one hand, Milton’s existence makes the case that today’s movies are no worse than they’ve been in the past, and so, Scream 3 implies, lay off blaming Hollywood for contemporary society’s many ills. But at the same time, the film turns around and uses the same kinds of tricks and deceptions that it’s blaming on Hollywood, to get to its finale, grand and silly as it is. This is the most disappointing aspect of Scream 3, that it deprecates the stereotypically “unreal” characters and endorses stereotypically “real” characters. All this morality starts to feel claustrophobic. And worse, as any slasher fan who knows anything will tell you, it’s untrue.