Today on Killtoberfest, Scream 3. The third in the series continues the trend of keeping up the meta aspects just fine while the meat and potatoes murder mysteries descend in quality. Here the whole mystery is almost pointless, which is a shame given how much time and energy they put into it. I tried guessing who the killer was, but it’s essentially impossible–you just don’t get enough information. The mystery also suffers from a more police procedural style of suspect elimination, where instead of offering several possibilities at once, the film brings up and dismisses a series of red herrings, which is never a great strategy for a story like this.
The chief joy of this one–other than an utterly fantastic sequence where Sidney is chased through a film set built to look like her house from the first movie–are the character payoffs. My earlier reviews talked exclusively about Sidney’s arcs, and she has a nice one here about learning that she can’t run from her past but she can face and defeat it. It ends with a neat little screenwriterly scene from Ehren Kruger (who has written some terrible movies but also The Ring, so I don’t know what’s going on there) that ties into my last discussion of genre as identity and gives the trilogy a warm little grace note. Which I guess is ruined by there being a Scream 4. Oh well.
But there’s been a parallel arc to the three movies that I haven’t discussed because it doesn’t really pay off until this one. Given that this would spoil who lives and dies in previous movies, I’m tagging the rest of this review.
Obviously I’m talking about the romance between reporter Gale Weathers and ex-small town deputy Dwight Riley. In each movie it’s kind of shocking that they don’t die–her because she’s easily the worst person in any of the movies (other than the killers, of course), and him because he’s easily the best person in any of the movies. But in yet another instance of the Scream films showing us that standard horror movie logic does not always apply, they manage to make it through, and even kindle an on-again, off-again romance. In both 2 and 3, the pair is thrown back together by the new set of killings after a between-film failed attempt to make their relationship work. In this third one, it’s made clear that their pairing isn’t just character continuity porn (or any other kind for that matter), it’s the series’ way of working through its central dichotomy between the meta/fictional/constructed and the actual/real/authentic.
Gale, of course, is a superficial, egotistical celebrity who’s more interested in a story than in the actual lives being lost; meanwhile, Dwight is noble, emotionally open, and real. In the first Scream, for instance, he tries to give himself a boost in masculinity and authority by becoming a deputy, but everyone else’s contempt for that authority shows us that his true nature can’t be changed just by putting on a uniform. He only steps into the role after honestly becoming a hero and helping to stop the killers. Meanwhile, Gale is headed in the other direction, learning to see her subjects as people instead of characters in her story. In the first film she goes from victimizing Sidney to saving her life, as the immediacy of the killings become more important than her reporting. In the second, she’s confronted with a mirroring character to show her how obnoxious her constant career focus can be.
The third film directly concerns itself with their relationship, which they believe didn’t work because they’re too different. She can’t handle small town life, he doesn’t want to be in the public eye, never the twain shall meet. But when they find each other again due to the new murders, Gale discovers that Dwight has rebounded with a woman who is not only an actress (celebrity, constructed identity) but an actress who is playing Gale in the new Stab. (This leads to a nice romantic moment where Dwight is forced to choose whom to save when both women scream at the same time.) Ultimately the pair decide to give their relationship another shot.
But can this ever work? Can the authentic and the constructed co-exist without one of them dominating? I think Scream 3 argues that they can–certainly the last scene puts the series firmly on the side of self-determination. But I’m not so sure the series does work. There are moments of frisson throughout where the formula creates something truly wonderful through the combination, and I’ve mentioned a few in my reviews. In the first Scream, it’s Matthew Lilliard whining piteously after being stabbed too deep, as he realizes the “movie” has gotten a little too real for him. In the last Scream, it’s that house set and its nightmare chase sequence with Sidney circling around and around the same space, searching for a way to get away from her demons.
But a handful of moments aside, I think the films all suffer to one extent or another from the uneasy partnering of horror and meta-comedy. The elaborate constructions turning horror movie tropes back on themselves are ultimately too distancing for us to get as heavily invested in the characters and in their survival as we’d like. They encourage us to observe at a higher level, but at the cost of our engagement at the more fundamental level of story and emotion. They’re fascinating movies; certainly I’ve written a lot about them, and could easily write a lot more (I’ve purposely avoided discussing the meta, for instance, choosing instead to stick to the less-discussed aspects of the mysteries and character arcs). But that thematic complexity is, I think, ultimately a trade-off resulting in less power for the more conventional film elements Craven and his collaborators have laid out. Or maybe it’s just too hard to laugh and scream at the same time.