Film: Wes, your number's up

The Big Picture: SCREAM 2 Wes Craven (18)
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SCREAM 2 Wes Craven (18)

Ever since Bunuel and Dali attempted razor surgery in the opening shots of Un Chien Andalou in 1928, cinema has been punishing audiences for the pleasure of looking. But Scream 2 gives it to you in the ear, not the eye: torture is administered aurally.

From the film's vocally motivated title onwards, there is an explicit link between sound and fear; two characters find themselves separated by the soundproof glass in a recording studio, and, as one of them is stabbed, both the victim's howls of pain and the witness's impotent shrieks are rendered silent to the other; a man in a toilet cubicle, who is trying to discern the whispers coming from the neighbouring stall, is rewarded for his curiosity with a knife driven through the partition and into his ear. It's the sound of violence. As in Scream, the telephone is an instrument of terror, and the suspense is most effectively maintained in those moments before the killer reveals himself - when he's just a strangulated voice on the other end of the line.

The picture may offer an original take on the use of sound as a scare tactic, but that does not stop director Wes Craven from resorting to the archaic language of early horror movies: some viewers may be comforted to find that, even in these sophisticated times, a moment of horror is still signalled by a sudden zoom and the sound of an anvil falling on a piano.

Craven and his screenwriter, Kevin Williamson (both returning from the first movie), have once again made a film which analyses, but also adheres to, the codes of horror. That it is less thorough in this endeavour may be due to it being Craven's third foray into the same hall of mirrors where his chosen art form is both distorted and scrutinised - his underrated 1995 film Wes Craven's New Nightmare asked and, more unusually, attempted to answer some difficult questions about the moral responsibilities of horror film-makers. All that Scream 2 can do is load yet more icing on to a cake already collapsing under the weight of its own over-abundant decoration.

This air of overkill is especially disappointing given the ingenious premise. The story begins with the opening of a movie called Stab, based on The Woodsboro Murders by the reporter Gail Weathers (Courteney Cox) - in other words, based on the events which comprised Scream. The interface between the conditional reality of the film we are watching and the double- fiction of Stab - a replaying of supposedly real events as fiction - is beautifully sustained. There are still a few defective products in Williamson's box of post-modernist tricks, such as Cox's reference to Jennifer Aniston - a gag that disrupts the film's internal reality and will tickle only those people who have Friends where they should have friends.

The picture's most audacious stunt transforms the cinema screen into a mirror; at the screening of Stab, the bloodthirsty crowd squeals with delight, imitating us, the real audience watching Scream 2 - and the joke isn't diluted by having been borrowed from Joe Dante's films Gremlins and Matinee. The worst sequels offer rehashes of their predecessor's trademark scenes, but Scream 2 literally gives us the same episodes again, with actresses playing themselves playing fictional characters who, within the context of Stab, are supposedly based on real people. Hands up if you need a paracetamol.

In the film-within-the-film, Tori Spelling is the heroine Sidney, played here and in Scream by Neve Campbell. Isn't that just like life? They make a movie about you, and then you end up being played by Tori Spelling.

Like one of its heroes, the film theory student Randy (Jamie Kennedy), Scream 2's defining characteristic is its cine-literacy. There is a class discussion in which Randy declares: "Sequels suck. By definition, they're inferior films." It's a brave attempt to deflect criticism from the movie's own shortcomings, even if self-deprecation soon evolves into self-fulfilling prophecy. Williamson is much sharper on the theme of merchandising and the way that sequels have created a hunger in mass audiences for the same meals over and over again. The picture isn't innocent in this respect; it has its catchphrase ("Do you want to die?") and its own readily identifiable logo - the killer's mask, its elongated mouth frozen in a Munchian scream. These disguises are distributed at the Stab screening; after an audience member is knifed by a masked murderer, she looks out across the auditorium at a sea of people, each wearing the face of her attacker.

A sequel which questions the worth of sequels risks proving its own redundancy if its argument is too persuasive, and Scream 2 identifies so many booby- traps in the horror genre that it eventually comes a cropper in most of them. There is some promising commentary from a character who criticises Stab for being "a dumb ass white movie about some dumb ass white girls", while a black cameraman decides to flee Woodsboro because "brothers don't last long in situations like this". But the film isn't exonerated from the charge of flippant racism just because it has identified the trend. There's little doubt that being Sidney's best friend increases your chances of premature death, but when you're black into the bargain, then you might as well cancel that skiing trip you had planned for next year.

Anyone anticipating the same bristling wit in Scream 2 as in the original film will come away disappointed, though if you ask only to be given the screaming heebie-jeebies every 20 minutes, you won't have many complaints. By far the most successful scene in this respect occurs when Sidney has to wriggle from the back-seat of a crashed police car into the front and out of the driver's window - across the lap of the seemingly unconscious killer slumped at the wheel. The episode will chill anyone who has ever had to ease the remote control out of the grasp of a parent asleep in an armchair.