I shouldn't have gotten greedy. I saw the first Scream was available for streaming on Netflix and decided to watch it on a whim; I had seen it once before and remembered it fondly. It ended up being so much fun that when Netflix offered up the sequel for further viewing I said "why not? how bad could it be?"
Rookie mistake. I doubt that I would have ever enjoyed Scream 2, but watching it immediately after watching the first Scream was doubly disappointing. Even though they share the same writer and director, as well as having most of the same cast, the second Scream is far, far worse.
I can pinpoint the difference between them exactly. It isn't the plot. Both are horror movies where self-aware teens get attacked by a masked killer that build to an unfulfilling big reveals; both the original killer and his copycat have basically nonsensical explanations for their murderous rampages. And it isn't that one film is scarier than the other, since they both knowingly traffic in the sort of "the killer is suddenly behind you!" tropes that litter horror movies, and all of the jump scares are equally as effective / annoying in each. And it isn't the actors, all of whom are fine. It's the tone: Scream is much funnier than Scream 2, and that makes a lot of the silliness it wants you to swallow go down easier.
Both movies are trying to be clever: they each feature scenes where the characters lay out the rules of horror movies and then they alternate between leaning into those rules and pushing against them. The difference is that on top of those meta-jokes the first Scream writes in actual jokes. Some of them aren't particularly clever - I really liked it when one character stopped his gauche friend from overdescribing a recent murder by saying "It's called tact, fuck-rag", but that isn't exactly Shakespeare. Still, there are subtle moments of humor, too, like when a video store clerk is explaining why everyone they know could be the killer while an out of focus customer freaks out in the background before slowly backing away. Scream doesn't take itself too seriously, so when it gets ridiculous it's easy to indulge it.
Scream 2, however, really only had one scene that made me laugh, and that scene only works because it builds on a foundation laid in the first movie. In the franchise's meta-verse the events of the first Scream movie have been turned into a trashy ripped-from-the-headlines exploitation film called Stab, and the small glimpse of Stab that we get is great - it's Tori Spelling and Luke Wilson dumbing down a pivotal dialogue scene between Scream's hero and it's killer, turning would be tragedy into tongue in cheek comedy. But other than that scene the jokes fall flat, treading over the same ground as the first movie without adding anything.
That said, some of Scream 2's touches might have been more intentionally funny than I give them credit for. The final showdown takes place on a college theater's stage and there are several shots of people being freaked out by the fake lightning and fire the drama department was using to stage a Greek tragedy - but even if those touches were intentionally dumb they still felt dumb; why would these characters who are brave enough to fight off a serial killer be that scared of some red and orange butcher paper flames?
Many horror movies (ironically) traffic in goodwill: they only work as long as you give them the benefit of the doubt. They expect you to look the other way every time the killer magically pops up from the dead - both because you are so scared you can't bear to look, and because if you think about it too much it won't make sense. The first Scream earns that goodwill - now that we're decades removed from peak-slasher film its premise is a little dated, but the script is still smart enough that the overall product still feels fresh. However, Scream 2 feels like a cheap cash-in, so it doesn't build up the same reserve of goodwill, thus it's little contrivances start to irritate more. And when a script has this many contrivances that's a problem.
In many ways the first Scream movie is not a horror movie - or, if it is a horror movie, it is in the same way that Shaun of the Dead is a horror movie, which is to say that it's part horror movie, part horror movie parody. The second Scream movie is barely a horror film, much less something bigger on top of that. Given how fast the rate of decay was between the first and the second one was I think I'll be skipping the third one, even if Netflix is pretty sure that I'd like to see that, too.
Winner for Scream: Me
Winner for Scream 2: The Cat