As I walked out of the press screening for Scream 4 I overheard someone angrily say to their companion, “There was no reason for this film.” My initial thought was — what a peculiar and unfair statement to throw at an installment of a horror movie franchise. Sure, there are factors of quality one can critique with such films, but is there ever a reason for a horror sequel, by any stretch of reasoning? But I suppose this is a self-inflicted problem for the Scream franchise, which has always invited – if not outright demanded – being held apart from the rest of the horror genre. When lined up with its horror sequel peers, with Nightmare on Elm St 4, Hellraiser 4, Halloween 4, Howling 4, or Children of the Corn 4, how does Scream 4 fare? It fares well. How could it not? But if we judge the film by its own hip standards – coming from the perspective of something that claims to have stood outside the herd, picked apart the foibles of its brethren, and created a work that is both biting satire and a fulfillment of all the baser notes of its genre – how does it fare then? Not well. Not well at all. Be careful what you wish for, Scream 4.
Let’s take a step back for a second.
Despite writing for the vitriolic internet, I am not autocratic with my opinions on film. I think we are all fully entitled to like and dislike whatever the hell we please, especially if we can justify why we think/feel that way with at least a modicum of clarity. I see no reason why you need to like the original Scream, but I’ll never understand the people who hate the film. The haters generally seem to have one of two different axes to grind: 1) they are enraged by the film’s status as “clever,” as they purportedly have a deep enough knowledge of the genre to see that the film is just an unoriginal rehash of old cliches. Or 2) they are enraged because they think the film ruined horror movies.
Complaint #1 makes no sense to me, whatsoever, and mainly seems to imply that the person saying this either didn’t understand the movie at all, or is curmudgeonly hating on something younger people liked. Because this complaint is comparable to disliking Hot Fuzz because it is a “rehash of action movie cliches.” You can’t lob a film’s blatantly stated intent/satire back in its face as if you’re deploying a deft gotcha move, just cause you didn’t enjoy it. That’s lazy. Then there is Complaint #2. This is a whole different can of worms. Scream holds the unusual distinction of simultaneously revitalizing and ruining a genre. For those maybe too young to remember or be aware, the horror genre (especially the Slasher subgenre) was in dire straights by the mid-90’s. Once a reliable cash cow for distributors, the genre’s theatrical heyday had peaked and broken at the end of the 80’s. So Scream did a very good thing by being successful. It got the bean-counters interested again. Unfortunately, the film’s slick production values and hot “it” cast ushered in a new era of studio domination that has largely obliterated the independent horror film market (which simply can’t compete with the visual tone and recognizable casts casual viewers now expect), which is where the vast majority of genre classics and innovative new films used to come from. Buuuuut… I really don’t see why that should be held against Scream. I dislike the shaky camera work and choppy editing that has dominated action cinema for the past decade and a half, but I don’t hate Saving Private Ryan because of it.
I liked and still like Scream. I think it is clever. Of course, Scream‘s entire too cool for school attitude was undermined by having a sequel (also something you can’t blame the first film for). But as the film had positioned itself as genre commentary, there was still an angle for Kevin Williamson to work. Sequels are a major part of the genre, after all. Scream 2 is a well put together film, but I thought it did a fairly poor job of sequel commentary, and certainly didn’t flip the conventions we associate with sequels on their head. And Scream 3 was just lousy, which – though completely unintentional – I suppose was the most meta commentary of all; the franchise had now sunk to the same level as the films it once so snarkily satirized, and for the same uncreative cash-grab reasons. This brings us to Scream 4…
The kernel from which Scream 4 grows is pretty clever, I think, as far as the film’s raison d’être is concerned (yeah, French! Shit just got fancy up in here). That kernel is the very relevant concept of reboots. Once more Neve Campbell is back as Sidney Prescott, now famous for having written an inspirational memoir about surviving multiple Slasher attacks. David Arquette and Courtney Cox are also back as Dewey and Gale, now married and bored living in Woodsboro. But there is also a new generation of kids, the same age that Sidney and her friends were in the first film, headed up by Emma Roberts as Sidney’s cousin Jill. When Ghost Face reappears, our characters soon realize that the killer (or killers) is essentially remaking the events of the original Billy & Stu murders, but with new twists, re-boot style. I like this reboot commentary gimmick. A lot actually. Even if we’re living in an upside-down nightmare world where there needs to be a reason for horror sequels, I would want to see this movie. The reboot gag feels very relevant, especially because it has been a decade since Scream 3. Doing another sequel now does feel pointless (they already ran the franchise into the ground; no one wants more), but playing with the conventions of a reboot has the potential to defuse all this, creatively.
Unfortunately Kevin Williamson’s kernel doesn’t sprout. It goes no where. Sure, reboots are waxed on extensively by Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Cuklin), two dweebs who run an implausibly popular horror movie night in town — I say “implausibly” that the horror movie gatherings are that popular, yet Robbie and Charlie are still considered dweebs. Robbie and Charlie are the reboot of Randy, Jamie Kennedy’s original Guy Who Knows Things character. But the reboot talk largely remains just that. Talk. Possibly Williamson’s head has just been out of the genre for too long. His horror breakdowns in the first film felt like the musings of a man who had sat through countless Slasher films and actually thought about them abstractly (how does the killer seem to teleport around the house? Oo, what if there were two killers dressed the same?!). His reboot commentary feels like that of a man who simply knows that reboots exist. There are so many missed opportunities here, it is frankly rather sad.
So minus Williamson’s once novel meta-analysis, we are simply left with another Scream film, one that is trying to out-do the worst aspects of the franchise. Of course, the film needs a lengthy cold open, and we get the biggest, craziest one yet. I think the cold-opens are a good litmus test for the rest of the film. The first film’s cold open, with Drew Barrymore, was an homage to the original When a Stranger Calls, with its own mean twists that set-up the film’s reflexive obsession with other horror films while also being an engrossing little short film in itself. Scream 4‘s cold-up is a star-studded hyper-meta sketch comedy bit designed to keep surprising you and make you laugh, but completely devoid of any actual character emotions. This is Scream 4.
There is just too goddamn much going on in this film. Too many old characters and too many new characters. Too many celebs. Dozens of moving pieces, shifting around too much to allow you a chance to care about any of them. Sidney, Dewey and Gale at least benefit from our existing impressions, but I just didn’t give a shit about any of our new characters. When I saw the first Scream I was extremely upset when I thought both Randy and Dewey had died. In Scream 4 I just sat biding my time waiting for everyone to die so we could find out who the killer(s) is. The big twist of who Ghost Face was in Scream was part of what made that film successful, but twists are a terrible thing to try and replicate, and should not be considered part of the fabric of a franchise (if one hopes to reasonably produce pleasing results). Williamson and director Wes Craven tried so hard to keep me guessing and on my toes in Scream 4 that my brain just glazed over and I completely stopped thinking about the mystery. Once this happens a movie needs something to fall back on, but I discovered that’s all Scream 4 was doing; that and talking about reboots in the most shallow of senses. Also, on top of all this, I correctly guessed the identity/identities of the villain(s) about half-way through. (Sorry, I signed an ominous piece of paper promising not to divulge anything about the ending, so I’m trying to make sure I don’t let anything slip.)
The film also feels very smug at times. An inherent side-effect of its attempt and failure at hip detachment. I suppose at times this is part of the film’s unique charm, but generally it rubbed me the wrong way. There is a moment in the film when the character of Robbie makes a meta-crack about how there is no nudity in the any of the films. Some may laugh at this. I became annoyed. Why isn’t there any nudity in the franchise? Presumably this is a commentary by Williamson or Craven or both regarding the objectification of women (if not that, then what? Sadism towards young men?). Taking such a stance would be fine and dandy if there wasn’t so much cleavage and pandering eye-candy in the films to begin with. Not to mention blood and gore, which any reasonable human should think is worse for people to see than boobs and butt cheeks. It’s always struck as odd that the films will mention nudity in their genre breakdowns, then refuse to have any, somewhat betraying the entire concept. If that’s how they feel about nudity, the clever thing would be to play with our expectations like Trey Parker did in Orgazmo (always having a male ass step in front of the camera as a girl was about to pull her top off), instead of just ignoring the issue.
Wes Craven is an old pro at this point. His direction here isn’t exactly inspired, but it is very competent and the film’s pacing is relentless (which may be a detriment). The film does have a few good action bits and kills. What is most interesting about the franchise at this point is how much the films comment on the events between the installments, something no other horror franchise has done much of, except Tremors. Stab, the film series with-in the film series continues here, and I frankly had some fun seeing clips of Heather Graham playing Drew Barrymore again. I’ll give the filmmakers props for continuity. I enjoyed a blink and you’ll miss it shot of a bust of Henry Winkler’s deceased principal from the first film, for example. The cast is of course all uniformly pretty and shiny too, with Hayden Panettiere being the biggest stand-out. I was disappointed with the usage of Alison Brie, who comes off rather poorly in the film. And a subplot with Marley Shelton’s character having a crush on Dewey is almost fun, but goes absolutely no where. Anyway, my point in this paragraph was supposed to be that the film isn’t a complete disaster. It’s certainly not any worse than Scream 3. But it also isn’t good either. My pull-quote for the film would probably be:
– Josh Miller, CHUD.com
Alas, since the whole film is just a rickety romp of fake-outs, gags, kills, and jump scares, hurrying towards the big reveal climax, the film’s finale is surely what will make or break Scream 4 for most viewers. It is thus very hard for me to talk fully about the film without violating the oath of secrecy I swore to the studio (I didn’t read the fine print, but I thought I caught the words “ritual” and “sacrifice” awfully close together). We’ll have to commence further discussion in the post-release thread on the forum.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars