There are certain tacit rules that need to be followed in the making of a sequel, notes a character in “Scream 2.” He cites only a couple of the more banal truisms, but there’s no question that the filmmakers here — all veterans of the phenomenally successful original — have not only thought long and hard about stepping back into familiar territory but have been ultra-diligent about keeping the second outing on course. Visceral, witty and appropriately redundant, the sequel has a winning commercial recipe that’s certain to cook up excellent returns in all areas.
A handful of the original cast continue the story, relocated from Northern California to Windsor College in small-town Ohio. Sidney (Neve Campbell) and Randy (Jamie Kennedy) are students attempting to escape the notoriety created by last year’s tabloid-sensation murder and mayhem. A book on the incident by reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) was a bestseller and has been adapted for the screen.
The film-within-a-film provides a neat intro for the new chapter, deftly seguing into the continuing story. A young couple (Jada Pinkett, Omar Epps) attending the premiere of the movie become the first victims of a copycat killer inspired by what befell the “Scream” kids. Sidney is thrown back into the limelight, Gale is assigned to the news story, and former deputy Dewey (David Arquette) flies cross country to protect the imperiled young woman. The rest is an intrigue of finger-pointing and terror as the elusive masked killer is tracked.
On the most mundane level, “Scream 2” is a flat-out chiller with a seemingly unstoppable knife-wielding murderer. In that respect it is little different from “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” “Nightmare on Elm Street” — another Wes Craven franchise — and their countless spawn.
But the picture aspires to a lot more than slasher fare. In scripter Kevin Williamson, director Craven has found his writing muse, someone who can structure his fascination with the blurred lines between reality and the movies. In returning to the “Nightmare” franchise in 1994, Craven adopted the premise that villain Freddy Krueger was real, and populated the screen story with real people playing themselves.
“Scream 2” is even more insidious, beginning with the fictionalized movie based on a “real” incident that in fact exists only on celluloid. Sometimes the device takes the form of a humorous comment, as when Tori Spelling is seen interviewed on TV about playing Sidney onscreen, or when Derek (Jerry O’Connel) mimics Tom Cruise’s romantic public singing outburst from “Top Gun” to woo the pic’s heroine.
But generally, the house-of-mirrors structure has a more chilling underlying message about the consequences of confusing artifice with the real thing. The audience caught up in “Rocky Horror”-style ritual at the scary movie assume the gasping, blood-soaked woman in their midst is a publicity stunt. And when the identity of the killer is revealed, he tells his intended victims his defense will be that he was corrupted by violent images from the movies and other popular media.
At once both a new chapter of a chiller franchise and a commentary on itself and the genre, “Scream 2” skillfully keeps viewers guessing. Is the man the courts convicted initially and then released actually guilty? Or are we seeing a repeat of the first episode, with the boyfriend in cahoots with a buddy? In the course of two hours, the shadow of guilt falls on virtually every major character before the truth comes out.
Handsomely shot by Peter Deming, with an eerily unsettling score from Marco Beltrami, the film is a smooth piece of goods. Cast is top-notch. Campbell and Kennedy settle nicely into their continuing roles, while Arquette and Cox are given a lot more to chew on — embodying, respectively, forces that want to bring the mayhem to closure and those who wish to exploit it for personal gain. Also standout are Laurie Metcalf as a reporter with an indelicate manner and Liev Schreiber as the unctuous, if wrongly accused, guy from the original.
During one of Randy’s film classes, the students ponder whether any sequel ever topped the original. “Scream 2” is certainly worthy of being part of that debate.