Scream 2 was neither as inspired or consistent as the first film in its series but at least it had a certain continuity of style and tone to keep the audience watching.  It retained enough of the original’s magic to score at the box office and inspire a third film in 2000.  Unfortunately for fans, this installment saw the series devolving further.  Scream 3 is the kind of sequel that happens when the economics of the film business override any sort of cinematic inspiration, resulting in a finished product that makes more sense as a deal than it does as a film.

At the outset of Scream 3, all the surviving principals of the first two films have gone their separate ways.  Sidney (Neve Campbell) lives in seclusion and works as a crisis line operator, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) is an entertainment show reporter, Dewey is working as a consultant on the latest installment of the Stab series and Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber) is a talk show host.  The by-now-obligatory shock opener features Cotton and his girlfriend being killed by yet another killer wearing the Ghostface mask.

L.A. police detective Mark Kincaid (Patrick Dempsey) calls Gale in to help with the case (???) and she soon locks horns with Dewey, who is still smarting from being seduced and abandoned for a second time in the last installment.  She snoops around the Stab 3 set as the killer begins to target other people working on the film, a motley lot that includes Jenny McCarthy as a nubile bimbette and Parker Posey doing misplaced screwball-comedy schtick as the actress hired to play Gale in Stab 3.  Sidney comes out of hiding when she hears Ghostface is back in action.  As she and the rest of the heroes-cum-targets try to figure out who the killer is, she discovers a secret history that connects her mother’s murder to the Hollywood killings.

The finished film is easily the worst of the series.  The key problem with Scream 3 is the script.  Ehren Kruger took over the writing here and what he came up with is a clumsy, obvious imitation of the Williamson style: the attempts at pop-cultural banter are leaden and he overdoes the comedic angle, transforming the tone of the series from darkly humorous to goofball.  The silly tone of Scream 3 is further cheapened by a number of desperate touches to pump up the film’s commercial appeal, like a cameo from Carrie Fisher (complete with limp Star Wars gags) and a walk-on from Jay and Silent Bob.

Even worse, the script sidelines the series’ major character – Sidney – for the first half of the film.  When they finally bring her on, she mostly remains a peripheral figure until the finale.  As a result, she feels like an extra in her own story – and the attempts to make Gale and Dewey carry the film only remind the audience that their relationship works better as a subplot.  Devoting the first fifty minutes of the film to their sitcom-lite antics makes this part of the film feel like an episode of a t.v. show where they cover for the absence of the major star by giving the supporting characters their own episode.  It seldom works on t.v. and it definitely doesn’t work here.

Scream 3 also completely blows the opportunity to do any kind of ambitious meta-movie trickery with the relationship between the characters and the film-within-a-film.  The only sequence where they try this is a good setpiece where Sidney is chased by the killer through a replica of the murder site from the first film.  Beyond that, the film’s commentary on Hollywood is limited to “Tinseltown preys on the young” cliches that went out of style with Harold Robbins novels.

Even the plot hooks are dumb here.  For example, the idea that a major metropolitan police force would hire a tabloid t.v. reporter to assist their case is offensively moronic, even by horror sequel standards.  However, the film’s element that really defies the suspension of disbelief is the presence of a magical handheld device that allows the killer to imitate the voice of any other character, including one who has been dead for a few years.  This kind of writer’s-convenience element is right out of a Scooby Doo script, as is the ridiculous final reveal of the killer.

Wes Craven’s direction is competent but he’s on autopilot: any decent director-for-hire could have produced the same basic results that the audience gets here.  He manages a few decent setpieces but doesn’t try to fight the script’s goofball comedy tone, resulting in a schizoid mess where the horror elements are watered down.  In terms of acting, Cox, Arquette and Dempsey put in solid performances but Posey’s schtick seems to have walked in from a different film.  Campbell gets to do little but sit around looking wounded for most of the film – however, that’s the script’s failing, not hers.

In short, Scream 3 provides a depressing ending  to the original Scream trilogy because it is the bland, Hollywood-appropriated version of horror that horror critics accused the first film in the series of being.