Early in Scream 2, a class of film students discuss sequels, and movie geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy) challenges his friends to name a sequel that improves on the original. Waving aside Godfather 2 and Aliens, a lonely voice pipes up for House 2: The Second Story. It's clear that we're back in postmodern slasher territory.
When guest star Jada Pinkett is murdered in a cinema during a sneak preview of Stab, a convincingly cheesy based-on-fact horror flick about the murders seen in the first film, Randy reasons a copycat killer is putting on his own sequel and lists the rules: bigger body count, more elaborate death scenes, etc. The film, of course, proceeds to follow those rules, right down to the important, but unmentioned, one of not being quite as good as the first film (even though it is ten minutes longer) - which one would like to think was done deliberately.
The set-up is that heroine Sidney (Campbell) has almost got over the ghastliness of the first film and gone to college, pursued by most of the surviving characters - hanger-on Kennedy, crippled ex-deputy Arquette, rapacious newslady Cox and one-time fall guy Schreiber - and there attracting a brand new circle of soon-to-be-victims, red herrings, bystanders and psychopaths.
It would be unfair to reveal too many twists, but the windy plot allows Wes Craven to demonstrate again just how good he is at punching your scare buttons, employing sharp editing and a superb sound mix to make even the hokiest sudden-appearance-out-of-the-dark a moment guaranteed to spill your popcorn. Given an original idea, like the need to clamber over the unconscious murderer to escape a crashed car, he comes up with real tension and pays off with a proper shock.
Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who has already added I Know What You Did Last Summer to his resume, has returned and shows again a feel for the way movie-literate students talk, getting laughs from gags at the expense of Top Gun and Paul Verhoeven ("What's your favourite scary movie?" the killer asks one victim, only to be told, "Showgirls").
But Scream 2 strains for a more all-encompassing theory of horror, paralleling a gimmicky screening of Stab, with an audience full of knife-wavers dressed as the Scream killer, with a performance of a Greek tragedy in which Campbell is similarly beset by masked figures.
There is a trainspottery charm to the ticking-off of all the obligatories: a sinister guest appearance from David Warner as a one-scene professor who works hard to make himself suspicious, Sarah Michelle Gellar's perky showing as the smart-mouthed blonde who gets on the killer's list by objecting to the whole idea of sequels, characters who are worried because their equivalents in the first film were gutted, the gathering of all the survivors on stage in the finale so their mutilations of each other take on the aspect of a student drama bloodbath.
In-joke fans will especially relish the extracts from Stab, in which - as she feared in the first film - Sidney is played by Tori Spelling. In Stab, key moments from Scream are done again with caricature cheap horror movie twitches that pile up on what were already essays in textbook genre-making.
Like most sequels, it's hamstrung because giving you what you liked last time doesn't account for the fact that what you liked last time was surprising then but isn't any more. Arquette and Cox are allowed to develop their characters a bit, though the warming romance doesn't undercut his slightly suspect geniality or her rampant careerism too much.
If it has a real problem it's that all the good stuff piled into the film means that the heroine rather fades into the background until the literally stagey climax, with traumatised good girl Campbell too often required to play straight woman to masked people with knives or unmasked people with better lines. Still, that's sequels for you, and this is loads better than House II: The Second Story, not to mention House III: The Horror Show and House IV: The Repossession.