Wednesday, April 13, 2011

As If Life Isn't Tragic Enough

“It’s the Millennium. Motives are incidental,” went the line spoken by Jamie Kennedy’s Randy in the original 1996 SCREAM and I suppose I always looked at the entire SCREAM series directed by Wes Craven as a piece of pop culture-infused, pre-millennial hysteria, exploring some of those feelings that were in the air at the time with as much blood flowing as possible. In those post-OJ years of the second half of that decade it seemed like things were going to a pretty dark, extreme sort of place though while, of course, we had no idea how dark and extreme things would become later on but back then all that nihilism just seemed to kind of go with the times. Falling in that relatively laid back (in retrospect) stretch between the millennium and 9/11, SCREAM 3 was released in February 2000 and what with the air from the Y2K panic still clearing at the time the film seemed to basically say, “It’s over. We’re fine. Chill out.” Come to think of it, 2000 was actually a pretty good year, at least up until early November anyway. The first appearance of Courtney Cox Arquette’s Gail Weathers here as she lectures to a crowd of students who look upon her hard-edged tactics with disdain seems to confirm the optimistic feeling of those days and while all this may seem kind of a reach as far as SCREAM 3 goes, well, that’s probably ok considering how each of the SCREAM films seem to dispense with their overall thesis by a certain point, ultimately just focusing on providing the scares. I like the SCREAM films and even have a certain amount of sentimental affection for them but I suppose that to me they made their lasting mark more in the pop culture realm than in providing any real long term benefits to the horror genre. Likewise, although the third in the series has become the most derided over the years for various reasons (absence of screenwriter Kevin Williamson, less extreme gore) maybe because I don’t think the first two films are necessarily beyond reproach I also don’t think the third is all that much of a comedown. True, it does seem to be a deliberate pulling back from the most extreme darkness of the second chapter into something, well, more “funny” which sets it apart in its own way and while the film isn’t without its own problems I still think it’s a pretty good ride. Up to a point, anyway. Kind of like the other SCREAM films.

Several years after the events of SCREAM 2, now-released and now-famous talk show host Cotton Weary (Live Schreiber) is murdered along with his girlfriend Christine (Kelly Rutherford) by a Ghostface Killer demanding to know the secret whereabouts of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). As they begin their investigation the police, headed by Det. Mark Kincaid (Patrick Dempsey) quickly believe that the killings may have something to do with the brand new STAB 3: RETURN TO WOODSBORO (is that sort of what the plot of SCREAM 4 is? At this writing, I haven’t seen it) which Cotton was making a cameo in and which has just begun shooting in Hollywood. Kincaid enlists reporter Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox Arquette) to aid in the investigation but as it turns out, former Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) is already in Hollywood himself working on the film (being made by ‘Sunrise Studios’ shot at CBS Radford which also served as the movie studio in S.O.B. and JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK) as a consultant, reuniting the former couple as they bicker their way through whatever is going on with the actress now playing Gail, the excitable Jennifer Jolie (Parker Posey), also joining them as they track the killer. When the murders continue, it becomes clear how there must be a connection between the film and the decades-old photos of Sidney’s late Maureen Prescott found with the bodies leading everyone to believe that the killer’s real target is none other than Sidney herself, living in solitude as a woman’s crisis counselor. But when the killer seems to learn where she is, Sidney finally realizes that she may have to emerge from hiding to confront the new killer so she can end this chapter of her life once and for all.

Considering how much the script of SCREAM 3 (credited to Ehren Kruger, with Kevin Williamson getting a prominent “Based on Characters created by” credit) feels like it was sort of slapped together and how much of the production seems to be arranged around various cast member’s schedules, it’s kind of amazing how well some of the final film actually does work. The basic plot holds together more or less as a follow-up to the previous entries tying in nicely with what came before (Even if everyone's seen this by now, I'm going to avoid spoilers related to the killer) and director Craven expertly lays down the various necessary beats as he lays out his buildups to the killer striking (I particularly like the low tracking shot behind the barefoot Rutherford as she walks through her apartment). The movie is also extremely well-photographed by Peter Deming with some terrific use of the anamorphic frame along with Steadicam work that always adds to the queasy effectiveness of the growing suspense. Some of the plotting is definitely kind of lopsided with Neve Campbell’s Sidney absent from things much of the time, probably off shooting whatever other movie she had going then, that it almost feels like a film without a real lead character—having her hiding off in the mountains somewhere actually plays more interesting now considering how much the actress herself has disappeared from the Hollywood scene in recent years but even when Sidney arrives in Los Angeles to join the other characters she’s still offscreen for a long stretch. To compensate we get a lot of screen time for Gale, Dewey and Jennifer Jolie as played by Posey (who, unless I’m mistaken, doesn’t even have any scenes with Campbell) which is fine but it still makes the structure seem kind of scattershot.

Like the other SCREAM films there’s a fair amount of wheel-spinning to make it seem like there’s more of a intricately structured plot than there really is (worrying about people getting killed in the order they die in STAB 3 doesn’t amount to much) and a few too many elements never amount to very much, like how some of the side characters make almost no impression as if their parts were lost in whatever multiple rewrites that went on. The whole talk of trilogies sounds nice but doesn’t really have all that much to do with any actual ones that may have ever existed, even including JEDI and GODFATHER which actually get name-checked and overall, the more meta (dialogue about ‘keeping the ending off the internet’) and at times in-jokey feel (Jay and Silent Bob’s cameo, the overly cute concept of combining actual star’s names for characters) makes things maybe a touch too light amidst all the mayhem even if some of the tone seems right in theory for what the film wants to be. The first two entries in the series weren’t perfect but there was at times a genuine sense of danger mixed with the laughs and those edges feel maybe a little too shaved down here in favor of an approach that is almost a little too humorous, with some of the dialogue going for being broadly funny in a way the first two films never did--supposedly the recent matter of Columbine resulted in both story changes and a reduction in the gore which in some cases feels very apparent and in this context it does diminish the effectiveness.

Some of the darker elements that are there don’t work either--Sidney’s mom briefly appearing to her as a ghost in a dream feels like it’s out of another movie and Sidney exploring her own psyche with Patrick Dempsey’s detective who has his own demons just feels half-baked with any sort of romance/connection/whatever between the two just seeming unnecessary. Still, it’s clear throughout how good Craven can sometimes be at putting these sequences together and looking at it again now for the most part the film has a fun, fast-moving pop flavor that at times works extremely well. Compared to some of what followed in the wake of the original SCREAM it almost plays as a classic, a comparison that could also be made to certain other Wes Craven movies. Hey, I’ve got a fondness for the guy like anyone my age but by now it’s pretty clear how he’s not always the ‘master of horror’ the ad campaigns like to sell him as. DEADLY FRIEND? VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN? CURSED? Last year’s MY SOUL TO TAKE? Like the SCREAM films the climax for that last one goes on about forty-five minutes in the same location as well only never scary or compelling or anything for a second so, seriously, you should take what works when you get it. Even the endless climax of SCREAM 3 (every SCREAM film has an endless climax that seems to take up most of the second half) has its share of effective moments. Maybe it doesn’t all work but in its best moments, like the bending of reality when Sidney finds herself wandering around a movie set depicting what happened to her two movies ago, it’s a genuine reminder of why people responded to these films so strongly. The film has some odd touches of dark humor as well that do work just right, particularly the disarming cut from a moment of peak tension involving Ghostface to a punch of cops in the police station having pizza and it’s moments like this that I really do love. Maybe it makes sense that SCREAM 3 is the least dark, least nasty film of the series. After all, one of them had to be and that they made it this way due to happenstance or design it seemed to represent something about coming out of the darkness that was there during the turn of the millennium. Well, it was a nice thought while it lasted.

The three returning leads all fall right back into their roles as if they hadn’t taken a few years off. David Arquette emits his endearingly Elvis-wannabee charm, Courtney Cox races through her dialogue like her life depends on sucking all the air out of the room and Neve Campbell adds the right amount of earnestness, as if all this meta nonsense means absolutely nothing to either her or the character of Sidney Prescott. Parker Posey dives in to things from her first scene as if she’s determined to make this the ultimate Parker Posey performance of all time, acting up a storm even if she’s in the corner of the frame but maybe because of the way the plot goes it never feels like there’s any sort of payoff to all her hard work. In just a few scenes Jenny McCarthy displays some sharp comic timing that I don’t think she ever got another chance to do (both she and Kelly Rutherford look particularly good as photographed here), Scott Foley is STAB 3 director Roman (ha ha) Bridger, Patrick Warburton is security expert Steven Stone (maybe he’s doing your basic Patrick Warburton performance, but is that really such a bad thing?), Patrick Dempsey, building his career back up again at this point, give some nice harsh glares as Police Detective Mark Kincaid to keep suspicion on his character building and the always welcome Lance Henriksen is STAB 3 producer John Milton. Emily Mortimer, Matt Keeeslar and Deon Richmond are the other STAB 3 cast members, Carrie Fisher has a maybe too-jokey cameo (although I like her line about having “respect for the unknown actor”) and probably the one non-major cast member who gets to make any impression is Josh Pais, who offers some slyly funny line deliveries as Dempsey’s partner. Live Schreiber is a welcome presence even for just a few minutes as Cotton Weary, Jamie Kennedy makes his Special Appearance via videotape as the deceased Randy Meeks explaining the rules of trilogies while Heather Matarazzo appears briefly as his sister. Roger Corman appears briefly as a studio exec commenting how “violence is a big deal in cinema now” though strangely he doesn’t have any dialogue where he complains that the film is going over budget or something.

SCREAM 3, containing references to such then-prominent pop culture items like 60 MINUTES II and Posh Spice, maybe seemed more at home when it was released than it does now but that up to date feel is certainly appropriate for each of the three films. Regardless, the way the series always attempted to explore the clash between the real world and what Hollywood does to that real world remains potent even now, even if this particular entry feels like it has a few less teeth than the others. Overall, it still plays pretty well for me anyway. Honestly, I always liked the final beat here involving Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott and how it seems to willingly do without a final scare, insisting that everything’s going to be all right, even if I suppose now it’s been rendered moot with the release of a fourth part of the franchise. But looking all around at everything that’s happened since this film was released, it’s maybe more clear than ever how the scares in this world continue even as we’re a decade past the millennium. Whether the movies have anything to do with them or not.


Blake said...

Nice cultural analysis there, Mr. Peel. I sure do miss 2000 (the first ten and-a-half months, anyway).

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks very much! And I saw SCREAM 4 on opening day. It was...ok, I guess. Don't think I really have much to say about it right now and it really doesn't affect my opinion of part 3 at all.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Wonderful piece Peel and easily the best thing I have ever read on this much maligned film. It's funny, I hated it upon release (I love the first 2 films) but rewatched it recently gearing up for Part 4 (which I am seeing in a day or so) and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I still think it is the weakest of the three but it was a lot better than I remember. I actually found that last shot of Neve turning that corner quite moving. Anyway, awesome piece...these films will always help represent my twenties to me. Also, I noted the other day that Neve was born just a few months after me in 1973. I'm not sure why I am mentioning that but it kind of hit me strangely and reminded me of how much I liked these films and her.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Many thanks to you, Jeremy, very glad that you liked it that much. Those films don't represent everything about my twenties and that decade for me but in my memory they're certainly a part of a certain time in my life.