It’s easy to forget how inventive the first Scream was, especially after all the weak-tea imitations that subsequently copied it.  It took the dimwitted slasher subgenre of horror and reinvented it with knowing humor and conceptual ambition.  The fact that it pulled off a seemingly impossible tightrope act – i.e.,  participating in the slasher subgenre while skewering all its conceits – was impressive enough to make fans hopeful that it would move on to even more advanced meta-storytelling conceits in the inevitable sequel.  After all, Kevin Williamson already had a sequel mapped out when he wrote the first Scream, right?

Unfortunately, Scream 2 turned out to be as lame as any other rushed-into-production sequel.  The best part of it is a witty prologue in which two African-American filmgoers – played well by Omar Epps and Jada Pinkett – attend a screening of Stab, a film-within-a-film based upon the events depicted in the first Scream.  After discussing the merits of horror films and how rarely black cast members survive in them, the two are bumped off by Ghostface in a theater packed with fans in Ghostface masks.

And sadly, that’s where the inventiveness ends.  The story picks up with Sidney (Neve Campbell) trying to go on with her life by attending college.  When word of the killings in the opening scene reaches the campus, all eyes are on her.  Nice guy boyfriend Derek (Jerry O’Connell) tries to reassure her as does Dewey (David Arquette), who comes up from Woodsboro to keep an eye on her.  Of course, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) – who has written a hit book about the Woodsboro murders – also pops up to reunite her with the man she wrongly accused for her mother’s murder, Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber). Pretty soon, Ghostface is hacking his way through Sidney’s classmates as Sidney and her crew struggle to figure out who is behind the mask.

The finished film often seems tired and confused.  In fairness to Williamson and director Wes Craven, Dimension had them working up this sequel within six months of the first film’s release.  Even worse, it supposedly had to be rewritten as shooting began when an early draft of the script was leaked onto the internet.  As a result, Scream 2 feels like a rushed first draft was shot before any revisions could be done and overflows with loose ends: any discussion of the Stab film is dropped after the opening scene, there’s a subplot about Sidney being courted to join a sorority that never pays off, a motive is set up for the killer that is abandoned shortly after it is explained, etc.

However, the problems with Scream 2 extend beyond its rushed-through-production status.  After about a half hour, it gets bogged down in mystery-style plotting that causes the film to abandon the genre-bending playfulness of the first entry.  It also misses out its chances to exploit the film-within-a-film conceit of Stab: it’s disappointing that they missed the meta-opportunity of having life imitating art imitating life.  The story completely devolves in the third act, where it is content to run through common third-act cliches – the talking killer, the killer ignoring multiple chances to kill the hero, the killer that won’t die – instead of trying to reinvent or challenge them.

There’s also a scene where O’Connell shows his love for Campbell by serenading her in the cafeteria with a painful rendition of “I Think I Love You.”  It’s an early example of a scene that would soon become a staple in romantic comedies and is all the more depressing because it appears in a movie that should be scaring us.  O’Connell, Williamson and Craven all deserved to be slapped simultaneously, Three Stooges-style, for allowing this odious scene to occur.

As for the filmmaking, it’s competent and nothing more.  Craven seems to be in the same let-it-ride, take-the-paycheck mode that defined his work on Deadly Friend.  Campbell, Cox, et. al earn their paychecks but have little to work with beyond recycled character beats.  New cast members like Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Warner are wasted in bit roles.  The one real flash of inspiration in the acting department comes from David Arquette as Dewey: he brings an unexpected gravitas to his character in his early scenes and is the only member of the returning cast who acts like he’s survived a tragedy.  Also worthy of note is Schreiber as Cotton Weary, who makes his character both menacing and sympathetic at once.

Ultimately, Scream 2 is a pale shadow of the original.  It could have been the ultimate sendup of horror sequels but instead settled for imitating the kind of tropes it should have satirized.