“It’s good to be scared,” Omar Epps says in the prologue of Scream 2. “It’s primal.” He’s talking to his girlfriend (Jada Pinkett Smith) and they’re about to see “Stab,” a new movie based on the events featured in the original Scream. If his words reflect a sentiment of Wes Craven himself, his remark is immediately shut down by Smith, who makes fun of the horror genre. “It’s a dumbass white movie about some dumbass white girls.” The beauty of this exchange is that they’re both right and Craven knows it. The film’s clever meta-commentary doesn’t end with the prologue either. It’s what continues to set Scream 2 apart from any standard slasher or teen comedy that came before or after. While Kevin Williamson’s script lays out the film’s intertextuality, it was Craven’s experiences in pornography, pulp horror and academic philosophy that prepared him to make Scream 2 one of the most postmodern films of the ‘90s.

Epps’ and Pinkett Smith’s characters have names, of course, but Scream 2 is filled with so many beloved, offbeat actors, one can’t help but use their real ones. It feels especially appropriate because Scream 2 isn’t a “real” movie. It’s too self-aware. A college girl references “Party of Five,” the TV show starring Neve Campbell, and Courteney Cox’s character claims the nude photos of her online are “Jennifer Aniston’s body.” These cheeky jokes remind us that everyone in Scream 2 knows they’re in a movie, a surreal touch that complements the film’s equally playful “whodunit” plot structure.

Campbell stars as the independent, strong-female focal point of a random killing spree. She’s a freshman at the Windsor College, where the lawns are green, the dorms are luxurious and the students are hot. The arrival of a murderer in such an idyllic place reads like a deliberate disruption of privilege. It’s no coincidence that the “dumb, white girls” who die in Scream and Scream 2 are killed inside million-dollar homes. Nor is it a coincidence that the least trustworthy characters are the ones motivated by money. That includes Liev Schreiber, who seeks fame and fortune for having been wrongly accused of a murder, and Jerry O’Connell, Campbell’s preppy, pre-med boyfriend.

Following the double-murder at the “Stab” screening, the Windsor campus is further disrupted by the descent of the news media. They’re a rabid bunch led by Cox’s Gale Weathers, the reporter who banked off the original Scream killings, and Laurie Metcalf, an overeager, local journalist. The media’s constant coverage adds yet another layer to Scream 2 by reminding us of the manifold ways a single story can be told.

While the newshounds stir up the quad, Joshua Jackson, Timothy Olyphant and Jamie Kennedy sit in film theory class and argue about whether a sequel can ever surpass an original. It’s a cute exchange, but the more important point is raised when the professor suggests the deaths in the movie theater were a direct result of the movie itself. Sarah Michelle Gellar (with characteristic “Buffy” spunk) wisely disagrees. “You can’t blame real-life violence on entertainment….Movies are not responsible for our actions.” She sounds like a mouthpiece for Craven, and it’s a relief to hear the “white girl” prove that she’s not as dumb as she looks.

When the masked killer reemerges, he follows the familiar, slasher formula. Someone is alone, they get a call from a deep voice and, suddenly, they’re running for their life. But the pleasure of the slasher film lies in watching people make mistakes. The genre is not unlike Greek tragedy in that it relies on the unforgiving laws of fate. The outcome has been decided, but we watch it anyway because the formula works. The connection between the slasher genre and Greek tragedy is made explicitly clear because Campbell turns out to be starring in Windsor’s production of Agamemnon. She is the center of a deadly revenge plot in two stories at once.

Gradually, the Windsor undergrads get picked off, the suspect list doubles and the police are, of course, incompetent idiots. Scream 2 can be trite, but it holds up as a precious moment in meta-horror and a standout success in Craven’s career. James Cameron’s Titanic was supposed to be released on the same day, but its producers were so worried about Scream 2 that they moved the release date back one week. They made a good choice because the sequel was a hit ($172mm), making it an apt reflection of its era. It’s also got a good score by Marco Beltrami, a solid cast (including appearances by Heather Graham, Portia de Rossi and Luke Wilson) and the classic, ‘90s charm of Guess jeans, middle parts and flannel.

Wes Craven’s particular brilliance lies in his direct, unshowy style, his tonal blend of humor and horror and his deft coordination of a damn good death scene. Whether it’s Epps getting stabbed through a bathroom stall or David Arquette shouting for help from behind soundproof glass, Craven is at his best when he’s choreographing a murder. Unlike the torture-porn that would later dominate, Scream’s thrills are quick, clever and notably asexual. In hindsight, they seem almost quaint. No nudity, no special effects. It’s just a man in a robe, leaping around with a knife in hand. There’s a rumor that a number of scenes in the screenplay were described simply as “Wes Craven will make it scary.” He managed to do that, and so much more.

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