"SEQUELS SUCK," announces a film student at fictional Windsor College early in "Scream 2." "By definition, they're inferior films." Even if this thesis is not entirely refuted by Wes Craven's latest work -- inevitably a little patchier and less startlingly original than its predecessor -- "S2" is an ingenious, often hilarious, movie that does nothing to diminish the well-deserved cult reputation of its director. If I were teaching that student's film class, I'd put this question on the final exam: What area of contemporary commercial filmmaking treats its audience with respect, adheres to old-fashioned notions of cinematic craft and story structure even as it delights in formal experimentation and consistently delivers a satisfying bang for your entertainment buck?
While "horror movies" is an acceptable answer, a better one is simply "Wes Craven," since there's no way to talk about post-1970 horror without talking about him. He has reinvigorated the genre not once or twice but three times (with his '70s classics "The Last House on the Left" and "The Hills Have Eyes"; by inaugurating the "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise in 1984; and again with "Scream" in 1996), and while he's made his share of stinkers, his batting average is no worse than, say, Martin Scorsese's. Craven may never be anywhere near the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oscar night, but he's one of the most important popular filmmakers of this era; his best movies will be giving new generations of teenagers bad dreams when copies of "Forrest Gump" and "Braveheart" are decomposing in landfills by the thousands.
There's no real mystery to Craven's success -- for all his outrageous pop-culture self-referentiality and media in-jokes, he never neglects the conventions on which genre filmmaking depends. He's a veritable Zen master of the horror craft, building suspense through the most obvious, yet somehow irresistible elements: the lone woman, the empty house, the eerie music, the unexplained point-of-view traveling shot, the sudden false alarm, the unnaturally shrill ringing telephone. And no matter how much he calls our attention to the phoniness of these devices, he has us on the edge of our seats. Even the intentionally ludicrous film-within-a-film in "Scream 2" is scary. (Titled "Stab" and starring Tori Spelling, it boasts the slogan, "This is gonna hurt!")
We open, in fact, at a preview screening of "Stab," where legions of howling fans show up in the black cloak and cartoony Edvard Munch mask of the "Scream" villain. As bored African-American coed Maureen (Jada Pinkett) protests to her boyfriend: "It's a dumb white movie about a lot of dumb white girls getting their asses cut the fuck up." But when one of the costumed enthusiasts decides to emulate the on-screen action, Maureen discovers that black girls can suffer the same fate.
"Stab," it turns out, is based on a bestseller by the bitchy newshound Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), who helped unmask and defeat the film-buff serial killer who terrorized Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and her pals back at Woodsboro High two years earlier. Now the resilient, if damaged, Sidney is being stalked by an apparent copycat, and an ensemble of characters old and new -- each a potential suspect -- must overcome their mutual mistrust and untangle the mystery, all while delivering a broad spoof of campus life in the '90s and a few tips on film criticism. "What's your favorite scary movie?" hisses the unknown killer during a cell-phone call to Randy (Jamie Kennedy), the Tarantino-esque movie-geek with an unrequited crush on Sidney. "'Showgirls,'" says Randy, not missing a beat. "Absolutely terrifying."
As Randy explains to the goofy ex-cop Dewey (David Arquette), who has also trailed Sidney to her college town, sequels are supposed to have a higher body count and more elaborate violence than the originals. In fact, despite a couple of genuinely terrifying set pieces (the best of which has Sidney trapped with the killer inside a locked police car), this film is considerably less intense and claustrophobic than "Scream." Campbell, in particular, is not well served by Kevin Williamson's script, which gives her little to do beyond brood and suffer before her climactic confrontation with the killer. Having her play Cassandra in the school play, a cheesily produced pseudo-Greek tragedy, is an overwrought joke even for this kind of movie.
Still, no Craven appreciator will want to see this less than twice. As always, he sees through the genre's devices to its archetypal underpinnings -- feminine pluck plays on our sympathies, masculine desire on our fears, and we want the ordered universe of the horror film to restore temporary equilibrium between the two. Every man in "Scream 2" gets more than a little creepy and clingy when Sidney (a girl with a boy's name) tries to declare her independence: her pre-med boyfriend (Jerry O'Connell); Cotton, the wrongfully convicted suspect from "Scream" (Liev Schreiber, giving this film's most memorable performance); even the seemingly selfless Dewey. At the level of narrative, one of them may be the killer this time (don't worry, I'm not telling). At the level of dream and fantasy -- which is after all the level of the movies -- the story is far more fluid and confusing: We all want to be both killer and victim, ravisher and ravished, the indomitable girl and the desperately needy boy.