Ranting & Slashing: How Wes Craven And Kevin Williamson Successfully Delivered A Second Scream
What a difference a year makes. Opening less than 365 days after its predecessor, Scream 2 was perfectly poised to rake in the big bucks. For starters opening night at the local theater was no longer a "fans only" event. Instead of screening in the corner auditorium (the one with the damaged screen and crackling speakers) like the original, GhostFace’s return had carved out a spot on the biggest screen with the most deafening sound.
Curiously, my acquaintances who’d initially balked at Wes Craven’s slasher outing were expressing their interest in coming to see the next go ‘round. And they weren’t the only ones. It was an event, walking into that auditorium to catch the eagerly-awaited sequel to 1996’s biggest sleeper hit.
The theater played into the hype and anticipation perfectly, with poster giveaways, scary music and patrons in full-on GhostFace regalia all contributing to a truly memorable opening night. And this wasn’t a big city, rather a small town in the center of Massachusetts. Imagine how great the hype had been if it’d spread this far? Admittedly, excitement and curiosity was palpable. The packed house openly wondered who the killer(s) would be this time around, while speculating which returning cast members couldn’t possibly survive again.
Scream 2’s opening night was a transcendent experience; Its opening movie theater set piece felt gloriously meta when measured against the equally rowdy audience viewing it. Fans in the theater watching fans on the screen, GhostFace masks everywhere you looked – on screen and off. Saying it helped heighten the tension was an understatement. The opening scene didn’t shatter conventions with the same tenacity delivered by butchering Drew Barrymore unexpectedly, but it’s a worthy slasher setpiece in its own right. One that successfully sets the stage for the entire sequel with its grandiose approach (a murdered Jada Pinkett stumbling on stage before hundreds of cheering horror fans) to the carnage. Everything about Scream 2 is trumped up, and here’s Craven and co. letting you know it.
It’s bigger. But is it better, or even as good? There’s no way of arguing that Kevin Williamson’s script is smarter or more satisfying than the original. It’s a sequel, meaning that by design it’s going to struggle with its own confines. We’re all familiar with John Carpenter’s now-famous comment on Halloween II and how upon sitting down to write it he instantly realized there was no more story to tell. Williamson was certainly down to try, though, infusing Scream 2 with the same wry self-awareness that made the original such a standout. Instead of his characters waxing philosophic about horror films, they debate the merits of film sequels – the majority of them struggling to find one that successfully matches its predecessor.
Scream 2 is acutely aware of its cynical existence, and Williamson found himself in the unenviable position of attempting a fresh follow-up to such a limited premise. Smartly, he plays to the strengths of his characters, returning and re-establishing everyone that survived the Woodsboro bloodbath two years (movie time) prior. It’s rare for films of this ilk to revisit such a large group of people and rarer still to offer them any type of arc; this is a slasher film, after all. Sidney’s story feels a bit familiar, considering she once again makes the journey from victim to survivor (something already accomplished at the end of number 1), but Williamson isn’t content to grant her a normal life. Her collegiate “fresh start” is short-lived as she becomes the target of another killer, and every facet of her existence is spun upside down. Sidney is sympathetic as GhostFace’s presence looms large in her life, from constant prank calls to her inability to trust her newest boyfriend (understandably so, after what happened last time). Meanwhile, Dewey and Gale are on hand continuing their relationship as they search for the killer, and it’s amusing to see Dewey a bit more standoffish this time around. Williamson has the most fun with Gale Weathers, however, morphing her from frosty ice princess to reluctant hero. Her opportunistic sheen stripped permanently away as she sees the impact of the murders on those around her.
This sequel was never going to recapture the magic of the first, but it benefits from a cast and crew giving it their all. None more so than Wes Craven, either. He directed the hell out of Scream 2, successfully one-upping the original’s setpieces with four of the very best moments in slasher history. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s ill-fated sober sorority sister is a pitch-perfect marriage of tension and suspense: We know Gellar is a goner, but Craven toys with expectations in a such a way that we’re left wondering how it’s going to happen. Next up is Sidney’s dance rehearsal, in which a brazen GhostFace takes to the stage, stalking her amongst a group of background dancers. The moment leaves Sidney questioning her sanity while making audiences wonder whether or not she’s lost her grip on reality. Then there’s the pursuit of Gale through the campus’ television laboratory: lean, mean and suspenseful – every slasher should aspire to have a chase this perfectly orchestrated. Finally, we find an unconscious GhostFace behind the wheel of a crashed police car, forcing Sidney to crawl over his lap to escape. This franchise’s formula might’ve been settling like cement at this point, but Craven and Williamson smartly circumvented the familiarity by playing to their strengths: putting these engaging characters through as much funhouse-style carnage as they could take. And to that end, Scream 2 succeeds perfectly.
Audiences and critics once again ate it up. Opening on nearly double the amount of screens that hosted the original on December 12, 1997, the sequel took in nearly $33 million in its first three days, capping off at $101 million domestically. Nobody needed any more proof that horror was back with a vengeance, but Scream 2 (hot off the heels of another successful Williamson-penned slasher, I Know What You Did Last Summer) showed the industry this wasn’t simply a fluke.
1998 was ready, willing and able to coast off the blood work successfully laid down by GhostFace, offering an incredible tally of theatrical horror throughout the year. Halloween H20 was a noticeably Scream-ish sequel that restored some former glory to the franchise with solid reviews and a $55 million domestic haul (quite a step up from part 6’s minimal $15 million gross). In the Fall, Urban Legend scared up nearly $40 million in box office while the same can be said for the Williamson scripted pod person wannabe The Faculty. The appalling I Still Know What You Did Last Summer also took home $40 million, although lukewarm reception and awful reviews rendered it much less of a success (thankfully).
There was a renewed interest in all things horror, which was synonymous with the box office. McFarlane’s Movie Maniacs were on store shelves, offering fans an opportunity to own top-tier action figure versions of their favorite screen psychos, while the GhostFace mask was available at every five-and-dime (just like in the movie!) across the land. Coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, t-shirts, plush dolls … GhostFace and other horror icons were all the rage, and retailers knew it.
All of this being proof of an industry in revival. Maybe it’s not accurate to pinpoint Scream as a basis for it, but most probably it’s true. It’s odd to recall a time when horror was withering, when you couldn’t find a Freddy Krueger action figure on store shelves (now you can get one in Chef attire!), and in the wake of Scream 2 things were just warming up. How ironic then that the franchise most responsible for this rejuvenation would signify the death knell of teen horror with its third installment a little more than two years later? But that is a story for next week’s column, as well as a lead-in to Scream 4’s long-awaited release. It’s almost time, kids.
Read our review of the recently released Scream trilogy on Blu-ray here.
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