It gives nothing away to report that the first 10 minutes of Scream 2 (Dimension) form a perfect little haiku of a prologue that encapsulates everything tenderly dorky about teen-horror-movie sequels and everything witty about the wildly successful formula established by Scream director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. The setup: It’s some time after the events in Scream, when a couple of madmen in ghost masks carved up a sizable percentage of young, photogenic citizens of Woodsboro, USA. (Those still standing at the end, remember, included Neve Campbell as Ms. Nice Girl, Jamie Kennedy as her movie-nerd buddy, and David Arquette as the town’s feckless sheriff’s deputy.) The killings themselves, chronicled in an opportunistic true-crime book by zirconium-hard local TV reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), have inevitably been turned into a hit movie called Stab. And as college students waiting in line for tickets, Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps discuss the cheesy pleasures of scaring oneself silly, the role of African Americans within the splatter genre (which is to say, there ain’t none), and the limited appeal of ultra-white girl Sandra Bullock, with the kind of frighteningly thorough intellectual familiarity available only to young people excessively devoted to Beavis and Butt-head, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.

Once in the theater, hepped-up viewers, partying like hardcore celebrants at a Rocky Horror midnight show, don cheap copies of the mask the on-screen killer wears in imitation of the real maniacs. On the screen within the screen, Boogie Nights‘ Heather Graham, impersonating the naive blondie played in Scream by Drew Barrymore, clutches her totemic cordless phone. ”Star-69 his ass!” Pinkett shouts to the heedless bubblehead. The audience slashes the air with fake knives. And somewhere in the theater, a real killer lurks.

To say any more is to risk spilling beans (I can, however, add that it is nerve-rackingly impossible to guess which masked slasher doing his business at a movie-house urinal is goofing and which is lethal). And for such fizzy, hiply devised moments of clever choreography alone, Scream 2 is de-lish, an exercise in post-modern pleasure as sophisticated about the mechanics of movie sequels as the original was savvy about horror flicks.

Which is a relief, since — as the matriculating kids in this fantasia are quick to point out (in the film-studies class they all take at quintessential Windsor College) — sequels suck. And thus Scream 2 faces the trick of affectionately counting the many ways available to sequels to suck, without actually sucking itself.

That this baby manages to avoid sucking while following the Sequels’ Rule Book (the death scenes gorier and more elaborate, the body count higher, etc.) is a particular credit to Williamson. After a while, the scariness of bodies bloodily dispatched tops out, but the jokes keep on coming, as do the ain’t-it-cool pop-cultural references and inside-showbiz details. (Just the casting of Tori Spelling, Laurie Metcalf, and David Warner scores points right there.) I’m particularly fond of an on-campus Acid Rain mixer; of the ”Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” way one coed relates to another; of the challenge put to Dewey the deputy: ”What’s with that limp? You were stabbed in the back!” And I am devoted to Cox’s self-aware portrayal of Gale Weathers as a brittle career babe in a Melrose Place suit who, when ribbed about nude pictures of her on the Internet, has the presence of mind to snap, ”It’s just my head on Jennifer Aniston’s body.” Among a cast of twentysomethings, the 33-year-old Cox is, like, old. And age turns out to be her best friend as an actress.

As the killing spree reaches its climax, Scream 2 comes perilously close to toppling over, exhausted by its own Gen-X showmanship. The denouement is strained, noisy: How many ways can Neve Campbell cringe, in how many cute suede jackets? Still, Dimension plans a third Scream project. And at least one line of attack is suggested, by someone in need of a defense: ”I’m gonna blame the movies. These days it’s all about the trial.” The idea of the Scream team invading John Grisham’s turf may be the best thing to happen to courtroom drama since Marisa Tomei played an expert witness in My Cousin Vinny. A-

Scream 2
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