Meat For the Death Machine: Wes Craven's SCREAM 2
The existence of Scream 2 (1997) is inherently exploitative. Sure, wunderkind screenwriter Kevin Williamson briefly outlined a pair of sequels when writing his Scary Movie script, but those films could never actually happen without the Weinsteins’ desire to exploit the success of their huge horror hit. It’s just how these things (usually) work: many long-running series might feel like sacred texts nowadays, their places firmly etched into the canon of video store brats' collections, but they’ve also always been entries in a studio’s ledger, bolstering the bottom line with butchery and bloodshed.
Long-running franchises occupy a fascinating space in the exploitation realm as self-perpetuating motion machines of shock and schlock, serving up both cheap and familiar thrills to audiences who typically aren’t asked to question the feedback loop. Wes Craven was the rare filmmaker who interrogated these elements, particularly his own role in the commodification of violence. Craven's upbringing in a fundamentalist household has been well documented over the years. Movies were a forbidden fruit, so much so that he didn’t begin regularly consuming them until he was a college professor. His unconventional youth left an impression, as the director often discussed how those lingering rituals haunted him, recounting horrific ordeals such as attending funerals that sent him fleeing to the parking lot, hysterically sobbing.
That Craven became one of his generation’s definitive genre voices almost seems inexplicable in hindsight. Less inexplicable, however, is that he was the participant with the most pronounced conscience, wrestling with the transgressive nature of cinema that flew in the face of his religious rearing. The faintest seeds of this are evident in Deadly Blessing (1981), centered around, among gnarlier events, a young man (Jeff East) struggling with the hyper-conservative trappings of his Hittite community.
Outsiders and city life are distrusted, and a brief glimpse at the nearby town features a theater marquee adorned by Craven’s Summer of Fear (1978), perhaps an admission on the director’s part that his own work is a corrupting presence. The influence of Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) on Deadly Friend might be more homage than overtly meta, yet the implication that one tragic story can beget another feels significant in Craven's filmography. Meanwhile, even something as silly as Shocker (1989) finds a terrifying boogeyman reduced to an overexposed, cartoonish buffoon who spits one-liners when TV repairman Horace Pinker terrorizes the airwaves
Could Shocker be Craven’s early attempt at grappling with both media violence and the legacy of his greatest boogeyman creation, Freddy Krueger? Sure. Of course, Craven would do that more directly (not to mention successfully) with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), the film that ushered in a renaissance of sorts for the director’s career, as he’d spend most of the '90s wrestling with cinematic demons it contained.
The conventional narrative has often insisted that New Nightmare is the primordial meta-sludge from which the more fully-formed Scream (1996) sprang. On the contrary, it’s more accurate to consider it an overture in a long-running symphony, with various movements that speak to and echo other. That symphony reaches a crescendo with Scream 2 (1997), a movie that plunges headlong into the murky depths of violence, exploitation, and various media mediums.
Williamson’s script weaves exploitation into the very fabric of Scream 2, a meta-sequel that can’t resist drawing attention to its status as a second installment. “Sequels suck,” returning nerd and fanboy surrogate Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) says during a film class rant that ends with him insisting “by definition alone, sequels are inferior films!” It’s a sly admission by the filmmakers that they know they’re cashing in on their previous success and, while the script has some fun with sequel conventions (Randy is afforded a new set of rules, for example), it’s this self-implication in the entire enterprise that’s crucial in allowing Craven and Williamson to explore just how many fingerprints are smudged throughout the process.
Exploitation actually drives the film’s narrative: someone is out to make a dollar off the previous Woodsboro Murders by staging an eerily similar spree. Hollywood has already exploited the tragedy with the creation of Stab, the fictional movie-within-a-movie that recreates the events of Scream. Stab itself is merely a B-Movie xerox, having been adapted from The Woodsboro Murders, tabloid reporter Gale Weathers’ (Courteney Cox) best-selling first-hand account of the ordeal. When more bodies begin to pop up at Sidney Prescott’s (Neve Campbell) college, Gale is quick to the scene, hoping to milk this ongoing cash cow for all it's worth. Wrongfully-accused ex-con Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber) also appears, desperately desiring to get his fifteen minutes of fame instead of mere infamy.
Implicated in this maelstrom of both real and imaginary chicanery are two types of media: the film itself and broadcast, both of which had quite the contentious relationship following various bygone moral panics. The evergreen question of fictional violence and its influence on actual tragedies is raised and, while Scream playfully skewered the discourse (“Don’t you blame the movies. Movies don't create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!”) Scream 2 tackles it head-on.
The sequel's opening scene depicts a raucous Stab sneak preview (remember those?), where a throng of fans hoot and holler, reveling in the on-screen nudity and violence like the degenerates they’re supposed to be. Upon being unable to distinguish between a real murder unfolding in the auditorium from the brutality occurring on-screen, another implication lingers: what if everything that's been said is true and we, the audience, are a bunch of degenerates? What if our rabid consumption is the most critical cog in this exploitation machine?
Scream 2 continues to explore fiction’s role in perpetuating violence by pointedly staging more scenes in venues of artistic creation. Gale and Dewey’s attempt to scour footage in the college’s film school A/V room goes haywire when the killer appears, blade in hand during one of the sequel’s signature sequences. Separated by a soundproof booth, the duo endures violence in a room capable of producing on-screen violence. The film later concludes in the school’s theater department, its climax unfolding on a stage that will host a production of Aeschylus' Agamemnon: a work often credited as being one of the cornerstones of savage Greek tragedy.
In short, violence is not just an element of fiction, but also elemental protein in human DNA. Scream 2 starts in one kind of theater and climaxes in another, both shrines to artistic expression becoming stained in blood. It would seem that Craven and Williamson at least want the audience to consider how routinely we experience fictionalized violence on the stage or the screen, even if they stop short of fully indicting it.
The other media - journalistic outlets that routinely ask these same questions and are quick to hand out indictments - also aren’t left off the hook. Scream 2 once again depicts Gale as an unrepentant opportunist whose newfound notoriety and success aren't enough. Her attempts to bring Sidney and Cotton together on-screen have been thwarted, so she’s quick to seize on the new rash of murders, even if it means she’s likely to become a target. Mrs. Loomis (Laurie Metcalf), one of the film’s two killers, poses as local reporter Debbie Salt, whose catty relationship with Gale underscores a different sort of cut-throat, bloodthirsty ecosystem this breed of media creates.
It must also be noted that Randy - the ultimate Blockbuster employee the media might mock - is literally killed in a news van. The sight of this kid’s blood leaking from the van stains this media, too, forcing us to reckon with its role in perpetuating violence via, reckless sensationalist indulgence. We’re confronted with an odd symbiotic relationship that emerges between both types of media and violence. Scream 2 suggests that our fiction will always require violence, while our journalism will likely thrive on it, exposing the hypocrisy of the latter when it attempts to demonize the former. In one breath, the news media will question the impact of fictional violence; in another, they’ll peddle us an array of real, ghastly horrors on our nightly news because they know it garners attention. It’s just exploitation operating under the guise of journalism, but it’s exploitation all the same.
This hand in glove partnership reaches a boiling point in Scream 2 during that stage-bound climax, where the other killer, “freaky Tarantino film student” Mickey (Timothy Olyphant), reveals he is going to blame the movies and create a media circus that will make him infamous. In Mickey, Craven and Williamson craft a perfect dyad for the era’s discourse: a psycho who’s taken his love of scary movies one step too far but is also exploiting them as a scapegoat.
On its face, Mickey's motivation seems to contradict Billy Loomis’s insistence that we shouldn’t blame the movies; however, the phoniness of it all unwittingly underscores the lunacy in blaming fictional violence for real violence - which might be why his accomplice unceremoniously guns him down at the height of his“triumph”. Here’s Scream at arguably its most meta, co-opting the language of its genre’s critics, revealing it to be the hollow fear-mongering of charlatans who thrive on real violence.
While Craven doesn’t want us to completely dismiss the harmful effects of fictional sadism, Mrs. Loomis’s acerbic dismissal of Mickey’s nonsense that she’s exploited for “good old fashioned” revenge does speak to the director’s preoccupation with the sort of elemental cruelty that’s enmeshed in the human experience. For all of Scream 2’s grandstanding and meta playfulness, it once again returns to our most basic, primal urges: vengeance and survival. You know, the stuff of the same Greek tragedy that’s supposed to be unfolding on this very stage. This modern drama is simply dressed in borrowed robes, much like Freddy Krueger was merely a modern face for an ancient evil in New Nightmare.
Scream 2 feels like even more of a direct response to that film than Scream itself, echoing its stylistic flourishes - Craven shoots the opening theater sequence and Sid’s on-stage rehearsal freak-out with the same otherworldly, Bacchanalian style as Freddy’s TV talk show appearance in Nightmare - in addition to sharing nigh identical thematic concerns. But it’s mostly that movement from the modern to the timeless that marks these two as companion pieces. New Nightmare begins on a film set and ends in a nightmarish rendition of “Hansel and Gretel,” while Scream 2 opens at a film premiere before closing on the stage. Film, fairy tales, plays: it’s not the medium that matters. What’s important is that there is a medium, some outlet for violence to be unleashed.
Much like New Nightmare, Scream 2 doesn’t just refuse to pin society’s ills on horror movies - it argues that they’re a vital part of the human experience that allows us to revel in our worst urges. There’s no on-screen audience in the auditorium at the end of Scream 2, leaving only us, the film’s audience, rapturously applauding when Sidney and Gale snuff out Mickey’s brief resurrection with a hail of gunfire. Maybe we’re not much different than the maniacs howling at Stab at the beginning of the movie - and that’s okay not because our cravings grease the wheels of the exploitation grist mill, but because it’s cathartic. By the end, Scream 2 hasn’t just argued for its own necessity - it’s argued for the necessity of horror movies in the face of outlandish pearl-clutching.
Violence is a part of the human experience, and, if the denouement here - which sees Sid ceding the media spotlight to Cotton, now the hero of his own story - is any indication, there’s always going to be someone thirsty to tastelessly exploit it. This feels like Craven’s parting shot to the discourse: this violence should be bottled up by artistic endeavors rather than crassly seized upon by bad-faith actors who wag their fingers, while simultaneously allowing those same fingers to leave prints smeared all over the scene of the crime.
Not that it was in question by 1997, but Scream 2 left little doubt about the singular genius of Wes Craven. Even a mercenary endeavor like this, a sequel that was released less than a year after its predecessor, reveals a formal and thematic sophistication that could only be the work of a master who always injected his work with a unique personality and thoughtfulness. Scream 4 (2011) updated this sequel’s musings on violence and fame for the social media age. In-between, the discourse about media violence won out in the wake of Columbine, forcing production on Scream 3 (2000) to take a hard left turn when it was obvious nobody wanted to watch a movie about high school kids committing murder.
Craven leaned into the curve and turned his sharp satire inside-out, pushing it right to the edge of self-parody as it exposes Hollywood’s seedy underbelly in a manner that would feel prescient over a decade later when one of its executive producers became arguably the most high-profile predator of the #MeToo movement (and this is not to mention how Sidney’s arc anticipates the“grief and trauma” wave that’s defined the recent era of "elevated horror"). In an ironic twist, the horror movie demonized for its corrupting influence sounded an alarm that went largely unheard by its knives-out detractors by taking its predecessor’s messages a step further: it’s not the movies - it’s the movie industry and its various ghouls that are dangerous. All of it is as much loopy, savage fun as you would expect from a director who once resorted to dog flashbacks in another compromised Part 2. The exploitation factory might not suffer disruption, but it will accept deviation, and Craven was exactly the filmmaker you wanted at the helm when that happened.