There's a moment in 2000's Scream 3 that exemplifies the whole damned picture to me: one character, a movie director, is bitching about the fact that he's making a tawdry, cash-in horror sequel, and among his complaints is the observation that he didn't want to do a horror film, anyway: it was just a contractual thing, a bit of tit-for-tat so the studio would let him make a romantic drama. On one level, this is yet another of the seemingly hundreds of coy in-jokes that make up nearly the entirety of the Scream 3 screenplay: Wes Craven, returning to the Scream franchise for the third time, did indeed agree to do so only on the condition that Harvey Weinstein, ruling honcho at Miramax, would permit him to make a sensitive, award-baiting inspirational teacher flick. The biggest difference in this matter between Craven and his on-screen counterpart is that Music of the Heart (Craven's first non-horror/thriller project, and his last unless we count his befuddling Paris, je t'aime short) beat Scream 3 to theaters by a year, perhaps because Craven didn't want his premature, violent death to get in the way of him getting his side of the bargain fulfilled.

Why does this moment encapsulate the whole of the feature in which it resides? Because of the unmixed fury that the on-screen director clearly feels over being relegated a damn, pointless slasher film with no pretensions to artistic validity. He is palpably resentful of the film that he's making. And in this, too, I'd argue, he stands in for Craven; for the man directing Scream 3, like his alter-ego, is self-evidently not a tremendously happy individual, whose contributions to the final chapter in the monumentally trend-setting series that he did so much to help shepherd over the years can largely be described as, "put up the camera, and record shit", with little or nor effort to impart any kind of energy to the actions. I haven't tried to hide my general lack of enthusiasm for Scream or Scream 2, but at the same time I can certainly see why other people do like them very much, and find them effectively thrilling and smart and amusing. But Scream 3 is completely flaccid; if someone tried to tell me they liked it on the same level as the first two, I'd assume they were a liar, or more likely that they had enough invested in the series that they just plain wanted to like it, and convinced themselves that they did. We've all been there. I saw Revenge of the Sith in theaters three times. Which does not change the fact that Scream 3 is a bad slasher movie, made by a talented man who brought hardly a one of his talents to bear.

I can think of no better proof of that than the film's first sequence, which once again brings in a Very Special Guest Star to die shockingly and kick-start the plot. In this case, it's none other than Liev Schreiber, come for the third time to play Cotton Weaver, the man whose unwarranted imprisonment did so much to drive the narrative of the trilogy; and his girlfriend, Christine, played by Kelly Rutherford, who frankly was not famous on nearly the same level that Drew Barrymore and Jada Pinkett were, unless Melrose Place was a much bigger deal in the late '90s than I can now remember. The situation is actually a bit complex to describe in a few words, but basically, Cotton has gotten a threatening call on his house line, indicating that Christine's life is in danger, while our latest killer - naturally, dressed as Ghostface - is stalking around the house, taunting Christine by speaking in Cotton's voice. Here, then, is the telling moment: Cotton arrives, Christine wallops him with a poker, he has no idea why, and he's imploring her to listen to him as she backs out of the room, weapon brandished. Here I had a thought flash across my mind, clear as day: "Ghostface is going to appear behind her, and Cotton is going to freak out and tell her to turn around, and she won't listen, and she's going to back right into Ghostface, and it will be a wonderfully suspenseful few seconds (by slasher standards, at least)."

Ghostface appears - Cotton tells Christine to turn around - she does not, but backs right into Ghostface. And it sucks. This is not some kind of tricky thing, here. It doesn't take a horror film master to know the right way to shoot this sequence; it takes someone he's seen at least one Hitchcock film. Or Halloween, which we know Craven has. This is what you do with that moment: Ghostface appears in deep focus, way in the back of the set. Cut to Cotton, who is briefly shocked into silence. He starts babbling variations on "stop" and "turn around". Cross cut a few times as Christine slooowly backs into Ghostface, who isn't even moving. He just stands waiting, and Cotton, still smarting from the poker attack, can't do anything but scream, on the edge of tears. That's how you or I or any film student plucked off the street would shoot that scene, because it is obviously the right way to do it. But we are not Wes Craven. Wes Craven makes that whole scene take about four seconds stretched across three shots. Wes Craven, in this instant, makes it plain that Wes Craven doesn't give two shits about making Scream 3 at all scary or suspenseful or moody. Wes Craven just wants to get the fucker over with.

I guess I can't blame him very much. Scream 3 doesn't really offer much to get very excited about, perhaps because it's the only one of the trilogy not written by Kevin Williamson. Now, Williamson is an easy bastard to hate, I've found, but he knows how to write a snappy pop-culture laden screenplay, with layers of gooey '90s-style hip irony. Busy, I suppose with putting the final touches on his Wasteland pitch, he was replaced as writer by a gentleman named Ehren Kruger. "Ehren Kruger..." why does that name seem familiar, I pondered, during the credits. It turns out that his most recent film, separated from Scream 3 by a handful of horror movies of varying quality, is a co-writer credit on a certain Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. So we know what kind of ballpark we're playing in, now.

Of course, Scream 3 isn't nearly that bad; most of its writing flaws, save one big thing, can be traced back to the crazed manner of the time-frame in which the film's production took place; production was begun without a finished screenplay, and frequent re-writes were a constant source of anguish for all involved. Not everything thus made can be a Casablanca.

Taking up, probably, three years after the events of Scream 2, the third film moves from its flashy opening death sequence to a secluded mountain cabin, where Sidney Prescott (still Neve Campbell, in a much reduced role, thanks to an exceedingly generous contract) is hiding out from the world with her dad, working as a woman's crisis line counsellor. Other than indicating that she's still a nervous little person who has pervasive mommy issues, this scene is boring, which is why we quickly jump to a film studio; it seems that Cotton Weaver was playing himself in Stab 3, and it's on this movie's soundstage representation of Woodsboro, CA that we now find ourselves. And oh, but there are quite a few people to keep track of. We've already met Gale Weathers (a newly married and re-named Courtney Cox Arquette, looking terrifyingly thin), who has been called in by the cops because her years of reporting on the Woodsboro killings has made her something of an expert in such matters (I don't know if it makes perfect sense for the cops to gallop to the assumption that Cotton's death was Stab related, but without it there's no first act, so...); we also know Dewey Riley (David Arquette Cox), retired from the police force and serving as advisor to the new movie. The rest of the faces are brand new, and smack of Expendable Meat in all but a couple cases: Roman Bridger (Scott Foley) is the director - the one who doesn't want to be making a horror film, you remember - while old-school horror maven John Milton (Lance Henriksen) is the producer; a first-timer named Angelina Tyler (Emily Mortimer) is playing a newly re-cast Sidney, Jennifer Jolie (Parker Posey) is playing Gale Weathers - in a nifty bit of precognition, one of Gale's frequent verbal assaults on the fake version of herself is to point out that she was dumped by Brad Pitt, making the character name literally twice as metaphorically laden - and a chunk of people including Matt Keeslar, Deon Richmond and Very Special Guest Star Jenny McCarthy play characters who are so plainly Expendable that I largely didn't bother keeping track of their names.

With all our ducks in a row, the film turns into an unsually procedural slasher film; most examples of the genre, let us remember, aren't really mysteries at all (it's one of the primary differences between a slasher and a giallo), and even when they are, like in the first two Screams, there's not usually anything like the same stress on nuts 'n bolts detective work like we see in Scream 3. Gale and Dewey become the chief characters here, spending most of their time trying to help LAPD detective Mark Kincaid (Patrick Dempsey) figure out what's going on, until Sidney finally drifts down from God knows where to offer her insights. The mystery is about as successful as any mystery cobbled together on set as this one was, but that's not the movie's biggest problem.

The biggest writing problem speaks to the very themes of the Scream franchise. Again, I don't like Scream, but I get the point it was making. I like Scream 2 a little bit more, because I found it more conceptually audacious, though it bungles the execution somewhat. In both cases, I see what the filmmakers were trying to "do". I don't see what the filmmakers were trying to "do" with Scream 3, something that I would like to demonstrate, if you don't mind, with a rhetorical flourish.

Whatever is the plot of Stab 3?

Stab, of course, was an adaptation of the events in Scream; presumably the unseen Stab 2 was based on Scream 2. But nothing else has happened to Sidney or Gale or anybody else in the intervening three years. This could take us one of two directions:

-Scream 3 is trying to demonstrate the ways that art based on reality oversteps the bounds that real-life sets for it, how commerce trumps honesty, etc. This theme would also continue the program begun in Scream 2 of exploring what "the real story" even means in the context of an invented universe. I think this is probably what Kevin Williamson would have done with the same hook.

-Nobody making Scream 3 gave a particular damn about Stab 3; it was a convenient place to set a slasher movie. I think this is probably what happened.

On the one hand: two films that have ideas, but aren't terribly effective. On the other, a film that has no ideas and still isn't terribly effective. Yes, I think I am happy to call Scream 3 the low point for the series. Perhaps to compensate, or perhaps because it's all Ehren Kruger knew how to do, the last film is by far the jokiest, something that doesn't sit terribly well with me. For one thing, a huge number of those jokes are about Scream 3 itself, especially inside jokes about the film's troubled production history, which is somewhat interesting - it is unimaginable that such a film could have been made even four or five years earlier than 2000 - but feels rather like a snake devouring its own tale. We're a long way from the first Scream mistaking simple references to Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street as gags in their own right. As for the rest of the jokes, they're typically out-of-place Hollywood quips, like Entertainment Weekly got shuffled in with the script pages during one of the re-writes. At any rate, watching Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) cameo in a slasher movie must rank as among the stupidest bits of Miramaxing that I've ever seen.

And of course, there are the usual stabs (ha ha) at commentary on the structural commentary on horror movies; the late Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) recorded a videotape before his death in Scream 2 - sure, fine, whatever - explaining how trilogies work, and lo and behold if Scream 3 doesn't fit exactly everything that he says about the final entry in a trilogy, which seems a bit silly in light of the impending Scream 4. But who knows what that film is going to look like, when it finally comes out? At any rate, the "let me tell you how movies work, including the movie you're standing in" bits of Scream 3 are forced, while in the first two they are more naturally part of the film's identity. But that's pretty much par for the course. Scream 3 meets one other rule for a third film that Randy didn't mention: it is a blatant, barrel-scraping attempt to cash in on something popular.

And a final note, before I wash my hands of this inexplicably popular series: Maureen Prescott. Sidney's mother, and the source of all the problems over three movies. I didn't realise it until this film, but my Lord, this trilogy is invested in vilifying her as a sexually-active woman. No, it's not a nice thing to have affairs. Nor is it the case that Maureen deserves what's given to her, and it faintly disgusts me that Sidney's whole entire arc consists of coming to terms with the fact that her mom was a vicious trollop, but still a nice mother. Misogyny is no stranger to horror films, of course, but at the same time, I cannot think of many other horror series quite this eager to lay this much blame at the foot of a single married woman and her sex drive.

Body Count: 10, matching the last film. It's not nearly as bloody as the others, mind you, nor does it seem to be quite as "deathy", given how many of those ten are sort of bunched-up.

Reviews in this series
Scream (Craven, 1996)
Scream 2 (Craven, 1997)
Scream 3 (Craven, 2000)
Scream 4 (Craven, 2011)