The same way Scream (1996) toyed with the conventions of the slasher genre and Scream 2 (1997) with those of the sequel, Scream 3 claims to deconstruct the clichés found in horror trilogies. There’s only one problem: the latter don’t exist. In fact, when a beloved character shows up unexpectedly to explain the new Ghostface’s modus operandi, even he struggles to find good examples, settling for The Godfather and Star Wars despite their being as far removed from the scary movie tradition as conceivable. The man does, however, comes up with three rules regarding the final chapter of a trilogy.
Number one: “You’ve got a killer who’s superhuman.” I’m not sure how that applies to The Godfather Part III (1990) or Return of the Jedi (1983), but fair enough. This, after all, constitutes an extension of the first two rules in Scream 2: “The body count is always bigger,” and, “The death scenes are always much more elaborate.” In Scream 3, the escalation is such that Ghostface can now withstand gunshots and change his voice to match those of the other cast members, stretching our suspension of disbelief far beyond its breaking point.
Number two: “Anyone including the main character can die.” This strikes me as the sort of perfunctory line one writes with the trailer in mind rather than the movie itself. I mean, the very notion of suspense is predicated on our belief that the heroes are in genuine peril, something that, ironically, Scream 3 never manages to convey. Incoming screenwriter Ehren Krueger has a very good handle on the returning survivors created by Kevin Williamson, but his additions to the cast come off as such flat, underdeveloped caricatures he might as well have called them Cannon Fodder One through Eight.
Number three: “The past will come back to bite you in the ass.” The difference between a horror trilogy and a slasher flick with two perfunctory sequels, our mysterious cameo argues, lies in the sense of closure it provides regarding its internal mythology. As such, Scream 3 goes through tremendous lengths to redefine past events and turn them into convoluted mush devoid of social or thematic pertinence. The idea of the original Ghostface going on a killing spree just for kicks proved both chilling and compelling in its satire. The revelation that he and the other villains in the series were all manipulated by an evil mastermind with a specific grudge against Sidney (Neve Campbell) strikes me as six kinds of stupid.
More to the point, this phantom menace’s ultimate scheme fails to impress. It involves killing actors on the set of Stab 3, the latest entry in our franchise within the franchise, in an effort to flush out Sidney, who’s gone into hiding after the events of Scream 2. Astute readers may wonder why our heroine would particularly care about the cast members of a movie to which she has no affiliation, but I suppose the point is to get her, Gail (Courteney Cox), and Dewey (David Arquette) to Hollywood, where they can take the series’ trademark self-reference to its perceived logical end.
For my money, the Tinseltown angle reflects a severe misunderstanding of the Scream franchise, which derives its cultural relevance from addressing the audience, not the filmmakers. Simply put, Hollywood in-jokes are only funny to Hollywood insiders, leaving out the vast majority of viewers. The one exception to this is Jennifer Jolie, the character actress bent on out-Gailing Gail, but then she’s played by Parker Posey, who improvised most of her lines and steals every scene in which she appears.
In fairness, perhaps the central joke needed to change in light of such tragedies as the Columbine High School shooting. Somehow, boasting the absurdity of a murderously desensitised youth might not have seemed as humourous to returning director Wes Craven. Mind you, that doesn’t excuse all the gunfire and explosions in Scream 3. It’s as if the Scream franchise had forfeited its long-standing argument against public policy groups, resigning itself to the ridiculous notion that action movie brutality is somehow more tasteful than violence properly labeled as horrifying.
I find it unfortunate because the best moments in Scream 3 are those that embrace the cat-and-mouse mechanics of a proper thriller. Consider the scene in which Sidney, driven half mad by the prospect of running from one killer after the next, hides from Ghostface on a film set replica of her home in the original Scream. Not only does the sequence bring the self-referential elements of the series full circle; it also explores the emotional toll of the violence constantly inflicted on our heroine. In other words, this one brilliant set piece culminates everything the franchise has ever stood for, so of course Krueger shoves it in the middle of the second act, leaving little for the actual climax to offer except contrived speeches and generic locations. What a mess.
Incidentally, Detective Kincaid (Patric Dempsey) comes up with a rule of his own about horror trilogies: “All bets are off!” Now that doesn’t even mean anything.