Feel-Good Slasher Film

Scream 2
area theaters

A FEMINIST SNUFF film seems unimaginable, really. But if it's possible to detach oneself enough to consider torture, mutilation, and death as metaphor, a move Scream 2's writer and director make with ease, then what more wicked feminist maneuver could there be than killing Barbie--or, in the case of Scream 2, her TV counterparts? And why not crucify Ken for good measure? Alas, the sequel to Scream can't sustain this kind of reading for long, because even though it pretends to subvert all the rules of its genre, it's still too invested in that good ol' Barbie thing. About all the film can do is give a gun to its Barbie to go along with her Princess phone--equipped for the deregulated '90s with caller I.D. and call-waiting.

And so it appears mainstream appeal has domesticated Wes Craven. Before hitting it big with the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises, this horror-film auteur used to deliver haunting (if ultimately appalling) visions of family dysfunction and class warfare. In The Last House on the Left (1972), a profoundly disturbing rape-revenge movie made famous by its ad tag ("Keep telling yourself it's only a movie"), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), in which an in-bred cracker clan terrorizes white-bread vacationers in the desert, Craven saw the nasty flip side of "family values" as the return of the repressed. Although he arguably took a conservative tack in these older movies, manipulating viewers into siding with the "American Dream" before offering "the family" as a safe haven (sort of) in a heartless world of poor people and sexual "deviants," Craven did aspire to some unnerving social commentary. In particular, Last House confronted viewers with their own sadistic stake in on-screen brutality, leaving no room for complacent closure.

But that was then. While Craven's early work laid bare social ills and evoked a kind of horror that words couldn't begin to express, Scream and its sequel are mostly talk--another of Miramax's demographic excursions into hip banter and pop-culture self-referentiality. "Suspense" is not only in quotations here, but secondary to the "irony." Scream 2's characters offer endless commentary about "teenie-kill" sequels and their roles within, reminding us that it's only a movie. These roles include potential victim, potential suspect, and, um, film critic. Jada Pinkett's moviegoing Maureen levels the most scathing appraisal of the genre, dismissing horror films as just "a bunch of dumb-ass white girls getting they white asses cut the fuck up." A classroom of film-theory students, played by Jamie Kennedy, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Timothy Olyphant ("the freaky Tarantino film student"), weigh in on the merits of sequels and the effects of cinema violence on real life. This clever preemptive strike, intended to disarm those of us who play critics in "real life," divides skeptics who dare question Craven's virtuosity into two similar camps: the "moral majority" or the decidedly unhip.

And hipness, apparently, boils down to TV savvy, movie trivia, and the friction that results from mixing the two. With 10 of Scream 2's 15 leads having earned their fame as series and soap-opera regulars, the sequel trades slasher-film parody for something like "Fun With TV Guide." The characters matter less than the stars who play them: Courteney Cox's "tabloid tease" wins laughs by claiming that nude Internet pictures featured her head atop Jennifer Aniston's body; and what's funniest about Neve Campbell's teary-eyed turn as the genre's "Final Girl" is that Tori Spelling plays her in Stab, Scream 2's film-within-the-film. Academics might label this "intertextuality"; others would call it free advertising. Tellingly, despite the wealth of multimedia riffing (including an action-movie destruction of a classical set), Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson allow a tidy, TV-style resolution to cut their sophistication down to size.

Call Scream 2 a feel-good splatter film, one that proffers glossy gore and a lighthearted take on murderous boyfriends and incest. ("We like to keep it in the family!" twitters a sorority sister.) Maybe it sounds ungrateful to pine for a time when movie carnage appeared more awkward and more "real." But Scream 2's method of making violence go down so smoothly--eliciting neither passion, shock, nor outrage, but merely a smirk--seems even scarier.

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