Can a sequel ever be better than the original? It's a self-referential question that's posed early on in Scream 2, and could easily have been a flat joke but for the fact that the film manages, in a further twist on itself, to answer the question. Yes it can be, because yes, it is - Scream 2 is scarier, funnier, better written and much more exciting than the first outing.
It's taken a second film to live up to the hype of the original. Scream promised the absolute flipside to teen-slasher movies - - to expose and ridicule the formula while at the same time slyly sticking to it. Scream 2 delivers on that promise. Sensibly, writer Kevin Williamson gives himself more leg room by gleefully casting his self-referential net far, far wider. Hence a discussion about sequels, the media's obsession with sensationalising crime and the whole teenage trash-culture thing.
The result is a faster-paced wham-bang delivery of in-jokes: pals quote action movie lines to each other; Sarah Michelle Gellar's character explains the plot of Party Of Five (Neve Campbell's TV series) to her friend on the phone and - - yes - - as prophesied in the first film, Tori Spelling ends up playing Sidney Prescott in film-within-the-film Stab.
Having more to feed off (the OJ Simpson trial, the original movie, college frat-house films) doesn't automatically guarantee Scream 2's success. It could so very easily have been, like most sequels, a bland re-run of the first outing. After all, there's still a knife-killer in a mask, scary phone calls to Sidney - - and every character could just as easily be the hunter or the victim.
But we're looking at a slasher flick where all the characters arecine-literate slasher fans being terrorised by a copycat, whose reign of terror is based on the movie-within-a-movie remake of the original Scream. Like its predecessor, it's a film that knows it's a film, but unlike the first, it makes the jump of realising that the audience also know it's a film.
The upshot of all this is that Scream 2 constantly and pleasingly confounds your genre expectations. It's toying with you, playing games with your head, and it's all the more jumpy-scary or scary-funny for it. Nothing happens as it's supposed to: annoying cannon-fodder characters survive, principal players ingloriously die, killings happen in broad daylight and even the murderer screws up occasionally. You're left breathlessly wondering, "Whatever next?"
The pace is maintained surprisingly well, considering its hefty two-hour running time. Admittedly, it takes a long time to introduce everyone after the initial pre-credits murder (which is as unsettling and disturbing as Drew Barrymore's slaying in Scream), but after that there's only one halt in an otherwise dizzying, blood-sluiced slide down to the inevitable showdown and unmasking of the killer. The lull is a high-camp episode where Sidney's drama teacher convinces the poor girl that it's a good idea to star in a Greek tragedy - and then has her rehearse an ill-advised scene where extras in scary masks poke at her with stage-prop knives. The buffoon.
Wisely, the film keeps the humour and the carnage well away from each other, resulting in some deeply unpleasant killings as well as some great nervous-giggle moments. And the deaths are really, really horrible, in a shock-slash-dead sort of way, rather than in the early '80s tradition of showing everything in grim medical text-book detail. Even hiding your head in your hands won't save you, as the knife-through-cabbage stabbing sounds are cranked up to a horrifying and hard-to-ignore level.
There may be no new ground covered in Scream 2, but the set-pieces are tense simply because, for the first time in years, you've no real idea what will happen next. Parents and moral minority bore-mongers will hate it, but teen boys will flock to it so their girlfriends will cling to them in terror. Rejoice! The audience participation scream-party is back in session.