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The Originals: The “Scream” Trilogy Sustains Reflexive, Soapy Horror Brilliance Over Three Films

The Originals: The "Scream" Trilogy Sustains Reflexive, Soapy Horror Brilliance Over Three Films

Satire is tricky, especially in a genre as well defined as the slasher flick. A filmmaker can take the “Scary Movie” approach, and just fill up 90 minutes with as many bad gags as possible, trying to overload the audience with references and blatant spoofing. That rarely ends well. However if you maintain a balance, a fine line between self-conscious lampooning and some genuinely good genre filmmaking, you can end up with a classic. “Scream” and “Scream 2” are exactly this kind of tongue-in-cheek parody — movies that not only keep a funny tone full of meta jokes and self-referential dialog but also master the tropes of the genre and keep you at the edge of your seat.

Somehow I missed the original trilogy until this week. In my defense I was 7 when the original “Scream” came out, though admittedly I’ve had about 15 years to catch up. Anyway, I’ve just this week marathoned through all three, and I’m certainly happy I did. “Scream” and “Scream 2” are a ton of fun, and “Scream 3” does have a handful of genuinely witty moments that tie it into the spirit of its predecessors. And now that I’ve seen them I think it’s worth taking some time to talk about what made them so wonderful in anticipation of “Scream 4.”

Perhaps the most immediately memorable thing about the original trilogy is the strategy of opening each film with an extended set-piece murder, of characters perhaps entirely incidental to the rest of the plot. “Scream” just jumps right in, wasting no time before plunging the audience right into twelve minutes of terror and excitement. Drew Barrymore, introduced as a major character (she’s even on the original poster), answers the phone and is immediately trapped in a conversation that will lead to the end of her life. Wes Craven takes no prisoners, refusing to even feign interest in the often dull establishing sequence of “normal life” before the killer arrives so common in these movies. Before we know it poor Drew is hanging from a tree, covered in blood, and we’re off.

And that’s hardly the only fantastic set piece in the films. The murder at the opening of “Scream 2” is also great, not to mention the Rose McGowan garage scene in “Scream” and Jenny McCarthy’s run in with a whole closet of Ghostface costumes in “Scream 3.” Wes Craven seems to have a unique ability to take any location and any character and turn out a compelling and exhilarating kill sequence, no matter how long or elaborate the scene.

Beyond that, however, it’s in the overall tone that these films really shine. They are both slasher flicks and about slasher flicks in precisely the same moment, and for the most part that fluid combination is an asset. The movies completely embrace the ridiculousness of the genre; the characters end up in dangerous situations through occasionally silly error, and the circumstances of their deaths are often one step beyond logical or rational. Yet there’s a total consciousness of these clichés and tropes, which allows for a really unique and delightful sense of humor. At one point in “Scream,” Randy (Jamie Kennedy) is even shouting at the television, telling Jamie Lee Curtis to look behind her, while Ghostface creeps up behind him and we start yelling for him to turn around.

That sense of humor is what makes these movies work, even as we find ourselves more and more jumpy in response to the heightened violent tension. There are even discussions of the genre within the film itself, as Randy lays out his “rules” of horror films throughout the series. Virgins always make it to the end, drugs and alcohol will get you killed, and of course never say “I’ll be right back.” This self-referential style gets even more pronounced in “Scream 2,” which opens in a theater showing “Stab,” the movie-within-a-movie based on the events of “Scream” (and starring Tori Spelling). It’s what makes these films unique and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, “Scream 3” gives me some cause for worry about how the franchise will continue. Part “3” a flawed film and is actually a great test case of what would derail the newest installment in the series. That balance so well structured in the first two movies is lost somewhat in the third, as the self-referential stuff goes one step too far. It takes place in Hollywood, while the cast of “Stab 3” is gradually being killed off by yet another Ghostface. It’s really just too involved in its own consciousness to maintain any of the edge that held the other installments to their eccentric tone, which is a shame. Moreover, and a bit paradoxically, “Scream 3” also puts a bit too much time into exploration of the melodramatic back story that apparently caused all of these murders in the first place. It begins to take itself too seriously as a slasher flick, while also trying too hard to up the ante in its satire. While the first two films contain a few rare moments of soap opera-esque plotting, the third is riddled with this unnecessarily complex screenwriting, and it weakens both the comedy and the suspense.

In a way though, the basic story itself was almost not sustainable over three films. The trilogy, despite the way the plot fools you throughout the meandering middle sections, is really just a single long story extended across three features. By the time “Scream 3” comes around, the sensational narrative of Sidney’s loose mom and the people she alienated has almost become uninteresting. For “Scream 4” to work, it not only has to replicate the original tone, comic timing and well-structured scares of the originals, but it really does need a new and unrelated villain. A real copycat killer, and not just the appearance of a new narrative to trip us up and disguise the larger Prescott story, is exactly what I want to see this weekend.

Thankfully, the trailer looks promising. There’s humor and hints at fear, and a fidelity to what made those first two films so fantastic and fun. Are you excited about this new installment in the franchise? Worried? What do you think “Scream 4” needs to succeed?

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