It would seem that many critics have missed the point with Scream 3, the latest and (supposedly) last in the phenomenally popular series of slasher spoofs. Admittedly, the film does tread a fine line between satirizing and becoming the type of film it mocks, but that’s been the case since long before Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the director’s deft prototype for the Scream series. The point is to draw attention to generic conventions the thin plot, underwritten characters to celebrate the very formulaic elements that high-brow films try to avoid. Soon the audience is so busy laughing at the cliches, they’re left vulnerable to being startled. Like the masked killer, these films sneak up on you.
It’s not that the plot outline is surprising. Scream 3 begins, like the previous installments, with two gruesome and fast-paced murders of minor characters, by way of introducing the killer’s real target, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). Campbell isn’t the only star back for the final encounter, though; so are David Arquette as dopey Dewey Riley, and Courteney Cox (now) Arquette as TV reporter Gale Weathers. This time, the three gather on the set of the film-within-a-film, Stab 3, to stalk and be stalked by a new murderer (wearing the same costume as before) who has a device that allows him to imitate voices. And, as we are reminded by the late Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) who appears in an inventive video cameo it seems that killers tend to be invincible in the third films of trilogies. You can’t just throw him out a window or shoot him a few times. Apparently, nothing short of incineration will stop the tenacious bugger. In other words, the film’s set-up is virtually the same as its predecessors, serving up a wealth of self-conscious references to other films, articulating the terms of the genre, and then going on to fulfill them.
Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox Arquette, David Arquette, Parker Posey, Scott Foley, Lance Henricksen, Jenny McCarthy
What ensues is conventional but diverting territory. Reality and fiction are scrambled, as the killer appears to be taking victims in the same order that they bite it in one of several versions of the Stab 3 script (though which one is not clear). Gale and Jennifer (Parker Posey), the actress playing her in Stab 3, argue over the character’s motivation. And the film cleverly fudges on the question of whether or not Sidney is hallucinating that her mother has come back from the dead, by mixing point of view shots and shots that may be objective. Scream 3 has a lot of fun with generic conventions, while still satisfying its audience’s desire to see them played out. After all, they’re conventions for a very good reason: they work.
Unfortunately, there are a few elements of Scream 3 which make it less successful than the first two installments. With the notable exception of Posey in a deliciously daffy performance, the new supporting characters in Scream 3 aren’t very memorable. Maybe they’re simply not alive long enough to grow on us, but each member of the ensemble cast in the original Scream was as smart and sassy as the audience even the short-lived gonners. In Scream 3, Craven misses a good opportunity in Jenny McCarthy’s Sarah Darling, a Stab 3 actress who complains that her part is underwritten, and why, by the way, does she have to die in the nude? Sadly, McCarthy barely delivers one zinger before… well, you know.
Similarly, the ending of Scream 3, though just as convoluted as the one in the second film, lacks its deliberately over-the-top lunacy. Instead, Craven seems to be going for pathos in this one, as Sidney shows an unearned glimmer of sympathy for her attacker’s psychological trauma. And the resolution, though clever, still feels a bit flat, more appropriate for a drama than a campy thriller. Maybe Craven’s recent cornball project, the Meryl Streep tearjerker Music of the Heart, and his infatuation with the Arquettes’ recent nuptials (as reported by Entertainment Weekly) have dampened his affection for straight schlock.
No matter what its weaknesses may be, however, Scream 3 is easily as much fun as parts one and two, and just as suspenseful (though nothing in it is scarier than Courteney Cox Arquette’s bangs). How, then, can we explain the sour reviews from critics like Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, Roger Ebert, and Desson Howe of the Washington Post? I propose that Scream 3 suffers from the Return of the Jedi syndrome: it’s not a particularly bad sequel, but the previous films have set such a high standard that even critics who previously marveled at the innovative series are salivating to trash it. In short, for them the formula has played itself out. Just as the eighties saw a relative dearth of horror films after a decade of slaughtering, the trend may be again coming to a temporary end.
In fact, a combination of disappointment in its comparative quality, and resentment that the series is ending may even ruin Scream 3 for viewers, if audience grumblings after a recent screening are any indication of the film’s success. But compare Scream 3 to any of the recent teen-horror offerings I Know What You Did Last Summer, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, The Rage: Carrie 2, Idle Hands and it’s well nigh a masterpiece of the genre.
Besides, who goes to films in the horror-comedy genre for plot plausibility and character development? Part of the fun is yelling at the screen’s buxom blonde, wet from her recent shower, who absently hums to herself while the killer lurks in the next room. Sure, we know that the studio’s wardrobe closet full of black capes and death masks doesn’t make the best hiding place, but nonetheless, we can’t wait for someone to stumble into that very room and so, bring on the killing. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if we’re laughing with or at Scream 3. The point is that we’re laughing and screaming in equal measure The formula itself is the pleasure, as any fan of sequels will tell you.