`Scream' Stifled By Too Many Jokes

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XX 1/2 "Scream," with Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Skeet Ulrich. Directed by Wes Craven, from a script by Kevin Williamson. Cinema 17, Everett 9, Gateway, Grand Cinemas, Kirkland Parkplace, Newmark, Parkway Plaza, Puyallup 6, Varsity. "R" - Restricted because of strong graphic horror violence and gore, and for language.

Early on in this new thriller from the creator of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," a teenager points out that the first "Nightmare" was fine, but "the rest sucked."

Is this Wes Craven's revenge on the people who directed the sequels he didn't make?

A few minutes later, a failed trivia quiz about "Friday the 13th" leads to a murder that puts a small California community on the alert.

"This is `Prom Night' revisited," suggests a horror-addicted video clerk. "If the police would watch `Prom Night,' they'd save a lot of time."

And so it goes in this movie-obsessed hall of mirrors, which, like the similarly self-involved "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" (1994), doesn't know when to stop with the jokes about other horror movies and settle down to tell a coherent story.

After a tense opening sequence in which Drew Barrymore is quickly dispatched in a manner reminiscent of Janet Leigh's abrupt departure from "Psycho," "Scream" focuses on another teen-in-peril heroine, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), whose mother was mysteriously murdered the year before.

Sid has a boyfriend, Billy Loomis (played by Skeet Ulrich, who looks just like Johnny Depp, star of the first "Nightmare on Elm Street"), who tries to charm her into bed by pointing out that their R-rated relationship seemed to be heading toward NC-17, but "lately we're sort of edited for television."

One of her girlfriends discusses how to pause a tape for "All the Right Moves" at the moment when Tom Cruise's genitals are revealed. Another is convinced of the truth of an endlessly recycled piece of gossip about Richard Gere's relationship with a gerbil: "You hear it so many times you have to believe it."

Tori Spelling comes in for a bit of verbal abuse and Jamie Lee Curtis' "scream queen" period is dissected - along with the apparently significant fact that she never exposed her breasts until she appeared in a mainstream comedy ("Trading Places").

Finally the heroine has to say it: "But this is life - it isn't a movie." Instantly she's given a wake-up call: "Yes it is, Sid, it's all one big movie."

Has there ever been a picture in which teenagers talked more about movies, celebrity careers, video obsessions and show-biz gossip? Could the phrase "Get a life" ever mean anything to these people?

Craven has a certain amount of malicious fun with his latest teen-scream epic, and so do most of the actors.

Courteney Cox has a field day playing the kind of television reporter who asks Sid, "So how does it feel to be almost brutally butchered?" David Arquette is goofily charming as a semi-naive deputy who's infatuated with Cox, and the Fonz himself, Henry Winkler, turns up as a high-school principal who's disgusted by the behavior of today's teenagers.

"Scream" certainly stands out as the multiplex novelty of this Christmas season. But the picture is so full of cross-references, self-mockery and movies within movies (including a stalking that's recorded on video) that it can't help turning into a precious two-hour in-joke.