Hyped as the “final chapter” in a spoofy-spooky trilogy, “Scream 3” is a crafty and well-crafted wrap-up that really does bring a satisfying sense of closure to the franchise. Of course, it should be noted that director Wes Craven found a way to extend another franchise by making one more “New Nightmare” (1994) after the deceptively titled “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” (1991). It should also be noted that, in the extremely likely event that “Scream 3” scores as well at the box office as its two phenomenally successful predecessors, audiences might not have seen the last of the knife-wielding bogeyman in the Edvard Munch–style Halloween mask.
Much like “Scream” and “Scream 2,” the third installment slices and dices slasher-movie cliches with a serrated edge of self-reflexive satire. Most of the action revolves around the filming of — wink-wink, nudge-nudge — “Stab 3,” the second sequel to a pic based on the “real-life” events of the first “Scream.” A running gag involves repeated warnings to expect the unexpected because the last chapter in a trilogy always breaks the rules. To underscore that point, “Scream 3” begins by disposing of a prominent survivor from the first two pics. It’s a cheeky touch, easily the most audacious thing in the scenario.
Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the franchise’s amazingly resourceful heroine, is reintroduced as a veritable hermit, living in an isolated rural area far from her hometown of Woodsboro. Understandably paranoid after her past experiences with masked murderers, she remains out of the loop throughout the first hour or so as pic focuses on the killings of “Stab 3” cast members.
Telejournalist Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox Arquette), reduced to doing a tabloid show after bombing as a “60 Minutes II” correspondent, sees another chance to elevate her profile when real murders interrupt the fake mayhem of “Stab 3.” Arriving on the Hollywood set, she’s uneasy about reuniting with ex-sweetheart Dewey Riley (David Arquette), the former Woodsboro police deputy. And she’s annoyed by the strident Method mannerisms of Jennifer Jolie (indie staple Parker Posey), who has been signed to play the Gale Weathers character — and who has hired Dewey as technical adviser and, ahem, bodyguard.
Director Roman Bridger (Scott Foley) doesn’t take it well when publicity-conscious studio chiefs halt production on “Stab 3” in the wake of what appear to be copycat killings. (Roger Corman makes a fleeting appearance as a producer who warns, “Violence in cinema is a big deal right now!”) The photogenic young actors cast as “Stab 3” leads (Jenny McCarthy, Deon Richmond, Emily Mortimer, Matt Keeslar) are only slightly less disappointed, even though it quickly becomes clear that yet another masked murderer is on the prowl — and, worse, that the actors may be killed in the same order that their characters die in the film.
Detective Kincaid (Patrick Dempsey), an LAPD homicide investigator with a pronounced interest in movies, agrees to share info with Gale Weathers in order to figure out why all the victims are found with photos of Sidney Prescott’s long-dead mother. But Kincaid would really prefer to speak with Sidney herself. Eventually, the plucky “Scream” queen comes out of hiding to take a more active role in the proceedings, arousing the bloodlust of a killer whose identity is a genuine surprise.
While sticking scrupulously close to the tone and style of Kevin Williamson’s “Scream” and “Scream 2” screenplays, writer Ehren Kruger (“Arlington Road,” “Reindeer Games”) adds just enough new wrinkles to keep things interesting. A few characters are disappointingly underdeveloped — much more could have been done with Mortimer’s tremulous starlet, for instance — but the in-jokey humor is up to series standards, while the thrills, cheap and otherwise, are abundant.
Kruger even finds a way to bring video-store geek Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) back from the grave, via videotape, to once again remind one and all about horror movie conventions. In the third installment of “a true trilogy,” he notes , one should be on the lookout for “an unexpected backstory” that will upend a few long-held assumptions and resolve all dangling plot threads. Think of this as the screenwriting equivalent of an elbow in the ribs.
Other clever touches include a brief walk-on by Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes as the slackers they portrayed in “Clerks” and “Dogma,” and a cameo appearance by Carrie Fisher as an ex-starlet who’s still bitter about not being cast in “Star Wars.” Lance Henriksen doesn’t have nearly enough to do as the schlockmeister “Stab 3” producer who may know something about the checkered past of Sidney’s mother. But many details of the film-within-a-film production — including Richmond’s edgy complaints about career opportunities for African-American actors — are amusing and dead-on.
As usual, Craven generates serious suspense even while his characters comment on the plot mechanics employed to achieve that suspense. By now, Campbell, Arquette and Cox Arquette are perfectly attuned to Craven’s wavelength and offer performances enhanced by self-mockery. Posey, a newcomer to the “Scream” series, easily slips into the spirit of things as her character insists that she’s a better Gale Weathers than Gale Weathers.
In terms of production values, “Scream 3” is a slick package of surefire elements. Unlike “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” which could be enjoyed on its own terms without knowing much about its predecessors, this “final chapter” requires at least a passing familiarity with the series’ first two films. Aficionados will be the best able to appreciate how wittily Craven has brought down the curtain on his much-imitated, genre-reviving series.