A little more than three years after Scream and a little more than two years after Scream 2, director Wes Craven is back with Scream 3, this time without the participation of star screenwriter Kevin Williamson. From the very start, we have been told that Williamson planned for the series to be a trilogy, but the credits don't suggest that Scream 3 uses any of the ideas he had for the final chapter.
I loved the first two installments, but in my review of Scream 2, I cautioned: "As impressively as Craven and Williamson have managed to revisit a story that was almost painfully self-conscious and self-referential the first time around, you have to hope that they don't push their luck beyond a third installment. The more convoluted and circular the relationship between film and film-within-film becomes, the likelier it is that the whole series will just collapse in on itself, reaching a level of silliness where even the patented thrills won't deliver anymore."
It didn't take psychic powers to predict the inherent problems in the series, and Scream 3 bears out such misgivings. It's an efficient shocker with some very clever moments, but it's not as good as the first two: It already shows signs of the inevitable postmodern fatigue.
For those who don't recall, in the first film, Sidney (Neve Campbell), a teen traumatized by her mother's murder, is terrorized by a masked killer. In the second, the release of Stab, a movie based on Sidney's experiences, leads to the appearance of yet another masked killer out to get Sidney. This time around, the setup gets even more self-referential.
Scream 2 was effectively about Scream (thinly veiled as Stab), but Scream 3 is about the making of Stab 3. It's a behind-the-scenes look at itself -- which is about as self-referential as you can get. (Craven already examined this idea in his 1995 Wes Craven's New Nightmare, a far superior film.)
The film breaks precedent by dispatching one of the ongoing characters in the opening sequence. This, of course, puts a scare into Officer Dewey (David Arquette), who is working as a consultant on Stab 3, and Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox Arquette), who is working as a consultant for homicide detective Mark Kincaid (Patrick Dempsey). Sidney, the only other surviving regular, is living in a remote house under an assumed name and eventually joins them at Sunrise Studios, where Stab 3 is shooting. The new killer starts threatening Dewey, Gale and Sidney, as well as the actors playing them (Matt Keeslar, Parker Posey and Emily Mortimer, respectively).
Who is the killer? Detective Kincaid? Producer John Milton (Lance Henriksen)? Director Roman Bridger (Scott Foley)? The ghost of Sidney's long-dead mom (Lynn McRee)?
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Why do all the old photographs of Sidney's mom make her look like one of the killers (Matthew Lillard) from the first film in drag? And why does Parker Posey look six inches taller than she ever has before?
Craven and screenwriter Ehren Kruger throw in so many hints and red herrings that, as in Scream 2, it's hard to really care. (The very notion of Nightmare on Elm St. creator Craven finding himself working with someone named Kruger is in itself amusing.) And the whole thing involves the revelation of so much back story that it's eventually irrelevant. However, let's give the filmmakers points for at least explaining each new element and justifying all the seeming coincidences.
Of course, the mystery elements have never been that important in these films, which are about two things -- thrills and laughs. And it pains me to report that Scream 3 is less dense with genuinely clever jokes. The cleverest bit is a necessary continuation of the earlier films' best running gag: In Scream, film-geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy) tried to help the gang by outlining the rules of horror films; and in Scream 2, he explained the rules for sequels. In Scream 3, the late Randy, knowing that he might not make it to the end, is revealed to have thrown together an instructional videotape for his friends, in which he tells them that the rules don't apply if the sequel is the last episode of a series -- as Scream 3 and Stab 3 are supposed to be.
It's an amusing contrivance, but enough is enough. Scream 3 is fun, but the series really does seem to have run its course. Even if the film is a huge hit, Miramax and Craven would be smart to stick to the original plan (if it was real in the first place) and let the few remaining characters live in peace in our memories.