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Non-Review Review: Scream 4 (Scre4m)

Alright, Kirby, then it’s time for your last chance. Name the remake of the groundbreaking horror movie in which the vill…

Halloween, uh, Texas Chainsaw, Dawn of the Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, Amityville Horror, uh, Last House on the Left, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare On Elm Street, My Bloody Valentine, When A Stranger Calls, Prom Night, Black Christmas, House of Wax, The Fog, Piranha. It’s one of those, right? Right?

(beat)

I got it right. I was &@#!ing right.

– Ghostface and Kirby redefine the frame of reference

In many ways, Scream 4 feels like a fitting end to the Scream franchise. In fact, it feels like it has come something of a full circle from the first film, which was envisaged as something of an obituary for the dying slasher genre. In the years since, prompted in a large part by the success of the original Scream, the genre has been resurrected. Watching the grind of horror films released, it seems that Hollywood has been churning out nothing but empty roman-numeral-denoted sequels and hallow remakes, with very little thought or creativity. Scream 4 feels a like a reflection on the “success” that the first film wrought, and actually feelings like a fitting closing act.

It's going viral...

Hell, if you ignore Scream III (which might be a smart decision), Scream 4 feels like the closing act to a trilogy. After all, it sees the return of writer Kevin Williamson, who wrote the first two films. I suspect that a lot of the shoddiness from the third film was due to Williamson’s extremely limited involvement. (Media pressure for censorship in the wake of Columbine can’t have helped either.) So, while the original Scream satirises slasher movie conventions, and Scream II picks apart the shallow and vacuous horror movie sequel machine, it seems oddly appropriate that Scream 4 is constructed as a criticism of the crude and soulless remakes, relaunches and reboots that we’ve seen a lot of in the past decade or so.

Scream resurrected the mainstream slasher movie, proving that there was room for wit and vitality in a genre that had been stagnant for years. More importantly, it proved that there was money to be made, and an audience eager for these types of films, with each of the trilogy grossing over $100m domestically. Many genres would kill for that kind of opportunity, a chance to engage with the public at large and to prove that they aren’t entirely dead. So, well over a decade later, it’s quite depressing to look at the state of the horror genre, at least within the American mainstream.

Buried in the trunk...

It seems like we’ve had a slew of horror remakes in recent years, taking video nasties and churning them out for more modern audiences. However, the approach is always somewhat shallow. It seems the movies are more intent on out-doing one another with gratuitous gore and disgusting violence than they are with actually unnerving or unsettling the audience. The last horror film to give me nightmares was Ringu, and most of those remakes have pretty much been forgotten about the moment I turned off the television or left the cinema. There’s something so soulless and mechanical about that production process.

On the other hand, there have been a handful of successes within the American studio system. Paranormal Activity was a genuinely unsettling piece of cinema, as was Saw. However, in both cases, the studios took those two films and plowed them into the ground. We’re looking at a Paranormal Activity IV this year, and Saw VII was released within six years of the original film. It goes without saying that most of these sequels have been crushing disappointments.

A cutting criticism...

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Scream 4 should look with contempt on the state of the horror genre that it helped revive. Seeing Sidney Prescott return to her home town of Woodsboro for the first time in years, it essentially pitches itself as an in-universe reboot to the franchise (which had been lying fallow for 11 years when the film was produced). Naturally, as seems to be the rule in this kind of film, Sidney’s homecoming isn’t uneventful, as a slew of murders grip the town, and the masked Ghostface is on the prowl again.

Evoking the feeling of a reboot, we meet a new cast of characters who seem uncannily like the characters from the first film. Emma Roberts is Jill Roberts, Sidney’s young cousin. She has a damaged boyfriend, Trevor. There are geeky film nerds Charlie Walker and Robbie Mercer. There’s the blonde sexy bombshell Kirby Reed. There’s the inefficient police department. All the pieces are in place, and it seems like the horror movie is actually rebooting itself within the fabric of the film. “How meta can you get?” veteran reporter Gale Weathers asks. (Some viewers might echo Dewey’s sentiments, “How whatta can you get?”)

The original Scream opened the door for a variety of slasher films...

And, of course, there’s an element of self-deprecation here. After all, as much as the Scream movies might dissect the convention of slasher movies, they are slasher movies themselves. The original film may have been intended as an ironic eulogy for a deceased genre, but it was adopted as a mascot for the revival of those sort of films. Scream 4 is itself a sequel to a long-series of horror films, much like the movies it derides, and Williamson’s script is at least smart enough to acknowledge that. During the opening, Anna Paquin pops up to criticise the increasingly indulgent meta-text of the film-within-a-film(-within-a-film) of the Stab franchise:

A bunch of articulate teenagers sit around and deconstruct horror movies until a Ghostface kills them one by one. It’s been done to death. The whole self-aware, postmodern meta-shit is over. Stick a fork in 1996 already.

I think it’s smart of Craven and Williamson to acknowledge that their own films are implicitly open to the same criticisms that they level at the rest of the genre.

Don't leave me hanging...

In fact, there’s even a sequence where Williamson and Craven seem to lament their own success, or at least the audience’s inability to recognise their post-modern slashers as sincere criticism. We’re treated, like at the start of the underrated second entry in the series, to a screening of a movie based on the first movie in the franchise. And, like in the opening scene of Scream II, the audience go wild, cheering and wooting and reciting the lines with the actors. They are completely oblivious to the fact that the movie is a critique of the genre, and seem to embrace it as a standard slasher film.

It isn’t a flattering picture of horror film fans as the group woots and chants, moaning as the sexy female character puts her dressing gown back on and shouting the killer’s lines with him. It seems that the irony has been lost in translation, as seemed to happen with so many of the horror films that followed the success of Scream, possessing the same brutal violence but none of the wit or intelligence.

Hay! Behind you!

The movie adheres (in a large part) to the pattern of the first entry in the franchise. Although the ending might subvert that set-up somewhat, it does lend the movie the vague feeling of the remakes and relaunches that it seeks to lambast and criticise. After catching Jill’s ex-boyfriend sneaking in through the window, Sidney remarks, “You just remind me of… me.” She also adds a rather sage piece of advice. “Lock your window.”

And yet, it feels somewhat progressive, as well, as if Williamson and Craven are taking the ideas they initially espoused in the original film and pushing them further. The Scream series has always been an absolutely fascinating exploration of the role of female characters in horror films. Slashers are a notoriously sexist subgenre, with the knife itself a shiny deadly phallus and any female sexual trangression is immediately punishable by death. The first film subverted that puritanical expectation by allowing Sidney to both lose her virginity and survive the massacre, but it feels like Scream 4 takes the gender-based criticism even further.

The casting rings a Bell...

It’s remarkable, watching the film, how crucial most of the female characters are, and how ineffective most of the men are. Dewey is the franchise’s longest surviving male, and he’s just as clueless here. It’s Gale who makes in-roads in the investigation into the latest killings. Dewey’s two male underlings, Perkins and Hoss, are borderline incompetent. Charlie and Robbie are just passive observers of what is occurring, documenting the action without driving it. Jill’s boyfriend Trevor is practically a non-entity.

There are no strong men here to protect the women. Indeed, the movie’s climax sees a male hostage used as leverage against a group of women. Dewey’s most competent deputy, Deputy Judy, even explicitly remarks on how female characters are finding themselves cast in conventionally masculine roles. She explains that she went to school with Sidney. “We were in Peter Pan together,” she reminds the survivor. “I played a lost boy.”The film is very conscious about shifting the viewer’s expectations about horror film gender roles.

Guess they didn't opt for "treat"...

Even Sidney seems to be trying to reinvent herself. She’s trying to be seen as something other than the stereotypical “last girl” – more than a “survivor” or a “victim.” Discussing her book, she explains, “If I was a victim for too long, it was my duty to reinvent myself.” If that doesn’t sound like the purest form of empowerment, I don’t know what does.

In fact, the movie actually attributes to Sidney a lot of the clichés and plot devices that movies like this traditionally associate with the serial killers. “You just won’t die, will you?” the killer asks after an especially thorough attempt to finish her off. “Who are you? Michael &@#!ing Myers?” Of course, perhaps Sidney still adheres to the moral code of horror movies a little too rigidly, as her agent muses, “The problem with Sidney is that she never gets laid.”

Here's to you, Misses Roberts...

It’s also worth noting that the killer here is that idea of empowerment flipped and skewed, somebody hoping to embrace victimhood rather than to fight it off. The killer seeks to perpetuate the cycle of violence and to feed into the mythology and perpetuate the cycle. It’s fitting that Craven and Williamson cast the killer as the person pushing for a reboot, hoping to churn out a soulless retread of what had been a bold and original film.

It’s telling that this is a film where we spend the most time with the killers outside their costumes. Indeed, Roger L. Jackson’s distinctively creepy voice is all but entirely absent from the climax of the film. (Or even the misleading false climax in front of the actual climax.) If this is a movie about deconstructing the shallow and empty remakes and reboots, it’s fitting that opts for a very different third act than we might expect, with the action moved out of the scene of the massacre and into a hospital.

No more Misses Knife Girl...

“This is just silly,” the killer remarks during their rampage in the hospital. I actually choose to interpret that sequence as an homage to Rick Rosenthal’s Halloween II. After all, it was the sequel to the film that originally popularised slasher films, and arguably popularised the practice of making numerous inferior sequels. It’s set in a hospital in the aftermath of the original film, and I can’t help but feel like this movie’s epilogue is a direct reference. It does, however, distinguish itself from a lot of the films that followed by boasting a screenplay by Carpenter. (And the fact that Carpenter reportedly filmed some footage during reshoots.)

Still, despite it’s very clever construction, there are some fundamental problems with Scream 4. The most obvious is that the slasher element of the film, the story used to wrap up all the clever meta-fictional commentary, is kinda limp. We know from the outset that the three surviving characters from the first film are safe, and that no other Scream film has left any new major characters standing. So we have a good idea who is not going to die (Sidney, Dewey, Gale) and a good idea of who will (practically everybody else). It is fairly predictable, which feels like a bit of a shame when the idea is to criticise these sorts of lame and predictable sequels and spin-offs.

To the devil his Dewey...

I also can’t help but feel like the movie might have been better served with some more on-the-nose criticism of modern horror movie conventions. There are references to facebook and twitter, but I can’t help but think that the social media aspect of the killings couldn’t have been played up a bit more. On the one hand, it would satirise the “found footage” subgenre, but it might also explore how outdated so many of these concepts are now. There’s a nice reference to a Ghostface “app” on one character’s mobile phone, but I can’t help but feel like a more modern iteration of Ghostface would be a bit more new-media-savvy.

That said, despite its somewhat soft handling of new media, I actually really appreciated its brilliantly “meta” self-references, as the cast are forced, repeatedly, to watch brutal killings while unable to intervene. It’s always been a gimmick of the franchise, to have characters watching other characters in slasher situations, but it seems like Craven and Williamson push the device well past its logical limit.

Mostly armless?

We get to see a killing through a window in a neighbouring house, through a live internet feed and even intercut with the murder from Stab 1 (itself an in-universe adaptation of the first film). All these voyeuristic scenes have been incorporated into the series in earlier instalments, but they serve as a wry and clever observation of horror’s self-cannibalisation, while also serving to highlight the themes of the films quite well.

Craven has, as ever, constructed a solid cast to headline the film. Although they struggled a bit with the third iteration, his three leads are all solid here. However, his younger cast all seem positively overjoyed to be taking part in the series. In particular, his casting of Emma Roberts is absolutely genius, and I think she was quite brave to take the role – especially given her typecasting in young adult movies. Hayden Panettiere is solid as the best friend, Kirby, and Anthony Anderson has a bit of fun as the inept deputy.

Bad boyfriend?

Scream 4 isn’t the best entry in the franchise. Indeed, I’d ever rank the second film as a stronger piece of film-making. However, it does bring back a lot of the shrewd and well-observed wit that was so sorely missing from the third film, and offers a fitting critique of modern horror film making conventions. It’s not a masterpiece, or an outstanding piece of cinema, but it is still a very smart little horror film, and – possibly – a fitting closing point to the series.

Unless they decide to make Scream 5 (or 5cream), which will hopefully involve time travel.

You might be interested in our reviews of the films in the Scream series:

7 Responses

  1. Good review Darren. I saw it myself, and wrote one up. It’s not quite as good as the first, but it ain’t no slouch either. I’ve had the good fortune (or misfortune, depending on how I’m feeling) of seeing all of em’ and let me tell ya. This is easily the best of the sequels. I did think it was too funny. Like, that scene where the killer goes all medieval on his/her own ass in the end was HYSTERICAL!!! The scares were good too.

    • Yep, I thought that was brutally and wryly clever myself. it is, after all, a commentary on the victimhood fantasy the killer indulges in. He/she ellicits sympathy by pretending to be a victim, even if they’re also responsible for the harm in the first place! I thought it was a great touch.

  2. I enjoyed “Scream 4” as I have with all the entries in this series, but the fundamental flaw I found is that it wasn’t all that scary. There were few moments of suspense, which all three previous films (even the third) had. That said, this film was fun and of course it played with the genre tropes well. As for the treatment of modern technology and social networking, the problem I had with it is that the filmmakers seemed to be saying, “Look at the new-fangled toys out there,” rather than these things being natural in the story, as if it’s playing to an older audience instead of the youth who automatically know what Facebook is and how to use it on their cell phones.

    I liked “Scream 3” more than you apparently did, though, and found amusement at having actors playing actors playing the characters played by other actors who are simultaneously on screen with them (that just made my head spin). In other words, seeing Parker Posey as the Gale Weathers doppelganger teaming with the real Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) to investigate the murders was entertaining. The biggest drawback was the shift in tone, which can be attributed to Ehren Kruger taking over for Kevin Williamson as screenwriter (I understand Kruger also did a polish for “Scream 4”).

    • I didn’t know Kruger was involved with Scream 4. I can see what you’re saying about Scream 3, and I thought it was quite entertaining at points – but I also just left feeling it was a bit shallow. But Parker Posey and Courtney Cox were great fun to watch together.

      And I think your observation about the new media aspect is very astute. You’re right – it needed more or less, but it just felt a bit strange with the amount present. Liek a polite nod or a hip reference that distracted from everything else when it either shouldn’t have been there (and left the movie tidier) or should have been developed further (and actually had some sort of tangible pay-off beyond the mandatory “witness watches killer stalk victim on screen” scene).

  3. I don’t think I could ever get tired reading deep thoughts on the Scream films (as long as its new interpretations), great review! I love all the Screams and part 4 is at least as good as the second, IMO.

    I think it’s interesting the different opinions of the gender roles in this movie. I read the Scream Deconstructed book which took it that the “war of the sexes” had come to a close on a truce with the characters being able to be androgynous, but in your review it sounds like the women won the “war” outright. I love that you we can interpret these things multiple ways!

  4. This is the greatest article I’ve ever read. Props to the author

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