Ranting & Slashing: Mediocrity Welcomes Us to the ‘Final’ Act
While there was no shortage of successful horror films in 1999 (Sleepy Hollow, The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, Stigmata), teen-based films were on the wane. 1998 represented the financial peak of this subgenre, with only two miserable offerings crawling into theaters the following year. Neither Idle Hands nor The Rage: Carrie 2 managed to scare up much business, indicating that target audiences might’ve had their fill of teen-specific horror and were now looking elsewhere for their shocks. The horror landscape was shifting rapidly and it was in this transition period that Dimension Films sought to deliver what was then being touted as the final installment in their hugely profitable Scream franchise.
Articulating Scream 3’s problems isn’t exactly rocket science, although it is perhaps best summed up by a memorable opening night experience. Once again the house was packed, only this time audience enthusiasm diminished steadily (and audibly) before the pre-credits sequence could conclude. Once Cotton Weary is hacked into an early grave via a setpiece completely devoid of the innovation and mastery that defined the previous installments, someone yelled out, ”That’s it?” And it never got any better. During the climactic GhostFace unmasking, someone else exclaimed, “Who the fuck is that guy?” A line that generated far more laughter and fun than anything in the film.
The thing is, it’s a fair question. Scream 3’s villain isn’t a memorable character no matter how you look at him (although an Internet acquaintance of mine claims to have seen this one no less than fifty times theatrically simply because our resident slasher struck a chord with him). The killer is only in a handful of scenes prior to the big reveal and each of them play out in exactly the same way. Here’s a spoiler: He’s the stressed-out director worried about the fate of his movie. Nothing endears us to the persona of Roman Bridger; He’s not interesting or memorable, rather he exists in one dimension. Worst of all, the movie doesn’t bother to try getting us to care.
That’s the general sense flowing throughout Scream 3: nobody seemed to care much about it. Franchise fatigue is understandable considering this was the third film in three years. Neve Campbell was notoriously hesitant to commit to another go ‘round for fear of being typecast as a scream queen. The end result being a contract stipulation stating she wouldn’t work on Scream 3 for more than 20 days. The problem being that Scream remains Sidney’s story and this time an entire mystery is established around the missing years of her mother – something that should’ve propelled Ms. Prescott to the forefront of the narrative. And yet Sidney is essentially a supporting character until the climax shoehorns her into the action.
Neve isn’t the only one traipsing through the motions, however. It’s been said that Wes Craven only agreed to come back to part 3 if the Weinsteins allowed him to make Fiddlefest (a much better title, although it was released as Music of the Heart) first. The tradeoff produced one tired-looking sequel that offers zero suspense and even fewer surprises. GhostFace’s murders are handled without the flare that made the first two films slasher essentials, and the climactic abandoned mansion setting falls entirely flat thanks to confusing geography and a barrage of tired jump scares.
Dimension‘s then golden boy, Ehren Kruger (hot off Reindeer Games!), was responsible for script duties, reportedly fleshing out Kevin Williamson’s initial treatment. He fails to populate his story with likeable or interesting characters, and never seems to understand what made the previous films work so well. Scream’s thrust was that slasher movie victims were finally aware of the genre’s rules, while part 2’s cast recognized the strong sense of déjà vu and rightly debated the merits of it. These worked because Kevin Williamson provided examples of the conventions he was deconstructing. Scream 2’s film class offered examples of sequels that had rivaled their predecessors (in some circles) while also namedropping the college slasher sub-sub genre. Kruger’s script features characters making bizarre ‘truisms’ about movie trilogies without ever substantiating the claims:
”True trilogies are all about going back to the beginning and discovering something that wasn’t true from the get-go.” It’s a bold statement, one I’m hard-pressed to find a validating example of. What wasn’t true in the Star Wars universe that was uncovered in Return of the Jedi? One could argue the revelation that Luke and Leia are siblings, but that’s hardly a shattering development (it’s revealed almost in passing after the fact). And didn’t the past already come back to bite Luke Skywalker in the ass at the end of Empire (not in the third movie, as Randy claims)? Kruger’s script is contemptuous of audience sensibilities in how it attempts to pass this nonsense off as cinematic fact.
What’s worse is that the rest of the ‘rules’ can’t even be bothered to adhere to this film. Randy warns of a superhuman killer (it’s just some guy in a bullet-proof vest), suggests that a main character might die (no one does) while someone else nonchalantly states that all bets are off in the third part of a trilogy (ironic considering this is the most predictable installment). Worst of all, when is this applicable to the third part of any trilogy? What bets are off in Back to the Future part III? Narrowing the scope down to the genre, Romero’s then-Dead trilogy hardly offered any 11th hour revelations, while Slumber Party Massacre III didn’t feature any kind of superhuman slasher (but part II did). This nonsense certainly hinders Scream 3’s credibility, but it commits a deeper sin by making an idiot out of resident know-it-all Randy in his parting words.
All this aside, Scream 3 had a massive opening weekend when released on February 4, 2000, raking in $34 million in three days and carving out the top spot at the box office for two consecutive weeks. In the end, however, its legs just weren’t as impressive as its successors, failing to reach $100 million domestically (a first for this series). Audience and critical reception was largely ambivalent, and with good reason. There’s nothing fresh about this sequel, making it as tired and clichéd as anything dissected in the original. Worst of all, Scream 3 plays it perfectly safe, rendering it a predictable bore while failing to break even the slightest mold.
1999 might’ve signified the beginning of the end for this type of genre film, and Scream 3’s lackluster quality was intrinsic of changing times. The horror landscape, reinvigorated by Craven and Williamson just a few years prior, was shifting toward a decade of creatively bankrupt ideas and unfortunate trends. There just wasn’t much left to say about the genre by the time the creative minds behind the franchise conceived part 3, and that’s ultimately why Scream 3 doesn’t work.
But that’s exactly why GhostFace’s return is a welcome one. In the last ten years Hollywood has tactlessly remade most of horror’s Holy Grails, unleashed a seemingly endless wave of dreadful J-horror remakes and reveled in the torture porn pool while flirting with spooky cinéma vérité. In other words, there’s no time like the present to force the genre to take a long, hard look at itself in the mirror. Only one question remains to be seen, and that’s whether or not Scream 4 heralds the end of the era it created, or if it breathes new life into a stagnating genre.
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Read our review of Scream 4.
Don’t miss the previous Scream-related Ranting & Slashings:
Read our review of the recently released Scream trilogy on Blu-ray here.
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