- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2000

''Scream 3" concludes with a gracefully serene and hopeful image: the sight of an open front door, with a balmy day beckoning beyond the threshold.

Moviegoers familiar with the "Scream" thrillers will notice that this disarming fadeout contradicts the terrifying emphasis of the series they've been following.

But since the "Scream" pretext, always playfully ominous at its best, is now flirting with thematic and stylistic exhaustion, bowing out gracefully is the intelligent thing to do.

Wes Craven, the director of all three installments, plays his sunny farewell gesture straight. There's no sudden reversion to a facetious shock effect. A knife-wielding fiend in a surreal mask doesn't come barging through that inviting open door. "Scream 3" admits that enough is enough.

In context the open door implies that Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott, the repeatedly menaced heroine, need no longer be a prisoner to nightmarish apprehension. She's in seclusion during the first half of this sequel, tucked away at a house in northern California where she can do counseling over the phone for a women's crisis network, lending sympathy and advice under the name of Laura, which suggests a combination homage to Gene Tierney and Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

Sidney is smoked out of her hideaway by a murder spree that begins by targeting an acquaintance from the earlier "Scream" chapters and then concentrates on cast members of "Stab 3," a mirror-image sequel-within-the-sequel. Still in production in Hollywood, "Stab 3" lacks anything resembling adequate protection from a lurking psychopath.

The filmmakers may miss a romantic comedy bet while kidding their own milieu. Patrick Warburton of the "Seinfeld" series makes a brief, gratifying appearance as the droll, monolithic bodyguard of a scatterbrained actress, a role well-suited to Parker Posey.

The most inspired single moment in the film finds an alarmed Miss Posey jumping into Mr. Warburton's comforting arms. They seem a funnier potential match than the holdover comic mismates: Courteney Cox Arquette as cutthroat journalist Gail Weathers and David Arquette as dogged deputy Dewey Riley.

Obviously, it's become a losing struggle to sustain deceptive plots about killers whose twisted motives involve major grudges against the jinxed but decent and resourceful Sidney.

"Scream 3" resorts to a figment of prehistory that belabors the tawdry reputation of Sidney's late mother, the original "Scream" murder victim.

Replacing Kevin Williamson as the resident screenwriter, Ehren Kruger gets some amusing incidental mileage out of the movie background but fails the strategic task: his choice of serial killer seems one of the weakest alternatives available.

The shortcomings of Kevin Williamson Inc. shouldn't obscure the fact that his "Scream" script was a genuine pip. Deftly realized by Mr. Craven, it rejuvenated a moribund horror genre at the end of 1996, adding an exuberant, movie-wise aspect to the fright mechanisms.

Part of this wittiness reflected a humorous familiarity with the trivia of the genre, reawakened in "Scream 3" when the Jamie Kennedy character, Randy Meeks, is resurrected to instruct us in the conventions of horror trilogies, lecturing from the grave on a video entrusted to his kid sister.

There was also a knowing aspect to "Scream" that cut deeper than movie trivia: it seemed exceptionally perceptive about the erotic implications of horror thrillers.

Frequently morbid courtship parables and tongue-in-cheek dating rituals, they tease and torment a predominantly young audience with the prospect of sexual betrayal or abuse.

The typical protagonist is a vulnerable, ardent young woman, who can never be quite sure where she stands with intimacy and seduction. The question of trust is subjected to sensationalistic and frightening exaggerations.

The "Scream" sequels had a hard act to follow. They haven't disgraced themselves while failing to improve on an inspired original, but it's clearly time to call it a day and seek a breath of fresh air.

** 1/2

TITLE: "Scream 3"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Wes Craven

RUNNING TIME: About 115 minutes


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