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Third "Scream' is a charm

With tongue still in cheek, Wes Craven wraps up a slashfest that actually improved from start to finish.

It's safe to assume that those buying tickets to a movie called Scream 3 know what they're doing, and they're probably under 40. Any advice from a fuddy-duddy film critic won't make much difference.

Knowing that any critic likes Scream 3 might even scare someone away, like skipping the asparagus because Mom says it's good for you. But, how can you resist a movie that laughs at itself and anyone taking it seriously, one with such an affable vibe and moments approaching true wit? Scream 3 is better than asparagus, which is the kind of bashful admiration Wes Craven's movie deserves.

Craven and series creator Kevin Williamson used the first two Screams to veto every rule of slasher flicks. Except one: The first two chapters each grossed more than $100-million at the box office, so a third movie made sense. Greedy traditions are toughest to forget.

Yet there is more to Scream 3 than a simple cash-in. Craven and Williamson's writing successor, Ehren Kruger, takes great pains to declare that this isn't a sequel merely imitating the original; it's the third part of an honest-to-goodness trilogy. You know, like The Godfather films and the first three Star Wars movies. Classy stuff. The idea of comic-book terror inspiring such a saga would be arrogant, except that nobody connected to Scream 3 believes it themselves.

Certainly not the actors, who speed through pop-up deductions and reminders for the memory-impaired with gusto, plus a healthy dose of self-parody. Survivors of the first Scream were just happy to have jobs then, and their sincerity dulled Williamson's satire. Now everybody can loosen up, take jabs at their roles, or settle for a guest-corpse appearance. It gives the impression that anything can happen to anybody at any time, which is the goal of any good horror movie.

Therefore, surprises should be preserved. Dimension Films has worked hard to keep the story line a secret, although Internet spies have revealed much. Bodies should be identified later, although the unveiling of the guilty party (parties?) behind three movies' worth of gore does seem like a cheat. The fun is getting to that let-down finale, and Craven does his leap-and-shriek best to get us there.

Suffice to say that chronic victim Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is still creeped out by her previous brushes with murderous Ghostface, and news hound Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox Arquette) is more cutthroat ambitious than ever. They become interested in a rash of killings on the set of Stab 3, a sequel based on Sidney's hometown terror. Former deputy and gimpy geek Dewey Riley (David Arquette) works as technical adviser for Stab 3.

Craven takes every possible shot at his profession with that movie-in-a-movie motif. The plot strains on occasion to allow meetings among each actor playing someone being played by another actor. Some in-jokes are obvious; others require refresher courses in the first two Screams. A few gags are priceless, such as a crisis centering on a faxed script rewrite, and Jenny McCarthy's air-headed opposition to a shower-scene murder: "It's been done. Hello? (Do you remember) Vertigo?"

And just when a picky question comes to mind _ like why does everybody always aim for the chest when the target is probably wearing a bulletproof vest? _ Scream 3 comes up with some clever correction for the error. Throughout the series, Craven changed the rules of slasher films to gleeful anarchy, in a trilogy that actually improved from start to finish. He may have ruined the teen-meat genre forever by offering so many reasons to never take it seriously again.

MOVIE REVIEW

Scream 3

Grade: B

Director: Wes Craven

Cast: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox Arquette, Parker Posey, Patrick Dempsey, Jenny McCarthy, Lance Henriksen

Screenplay: Ehren Kruger, based on characters created by Kevin Williamson

Rating: R; violence, profanity, sexual situations

Running time: 116 min.

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