Written by: Kevin Williamson
Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“I hear you like scary movies...”
Though just about everyone (rightfully) disliked Scream 3, it seems that most were pretty content with how the Scream series wrapped itself up into a nice little trilogy. Rumors of a fourth entry popped up throughout the past decade, and they were mostly met with trepidation, as many seemed to question whether we needed a new can of worms slashed open. Count me among those on the other side of the argument; after all, if Scream was a send-up of the slasher genre, wouldn’t it make more sense for it to continue on no matter how ridiculous it would seem? If it were a real slasher series, Ghostface would have been to space (or at least Manhattan) by now. No matter how much Randy wanted you to believe it in Scream 3, there really aren’t many horror trilogies anyway, let alone any that were actually conceived as one. So at long last, Scream 4 has allowed the franchise to embrace the genre’s most notorious aspect: its never-ending sequelitis. In an odd bit of synchronicity, it bows in theaters 15 years to the day that the original Scream began shooting back in 1996. One can only hope that’s a good omen.
Ten years after the events of the third film, Sidney decides to finally return home to Woodsboro for the last stop on her book tour. In the ultimate attempt at catharsis, she shows up on the anniversary of the first Woodsboro Massacre; this, of course, is a bad idea, as someone decides they want to remake (or is it reboot?) that massacre. Sidney isn’t the only one caught in the crosshairs, as the new killer is targeting her cousin Jill and her friends. Along with old friends Dewey (now the sheriff) and Gale (whose career has floundered), Sidney must once again endure another night of mayhem; however, have the rules changed?
This film might tout “new rules,” but one thing has remained the same: the old Scream formula still works after all these years. After the outrageous and lazy third outing, Scream 4 returns the series to its roots and delivers an excellent mix of thrills, humor, bloodshed, and nostalgia. True to series form, it all begins with an opening sequence that will tickle your funny bone before absolutely shattering it; you’re ready to roll from the get-go because the film takes very little time to announce that Scream is back, and it’s just as clever and scary as ever.
In many ways, Scream’s long absence has worked to its benefit, as the past decade of horror has provided a wealth of material for Scream 4 to riff on. This is also clear from the opening sequence, which skewers the likes of Saw (specifically part IV--consider the irony) and “that torture porn shit”; the likes of Final Destination and Shaun of the Dead are similarly name-dropped, just as 70s and 80s titles were a decade before. But purists needn’t worry, as there are also shout-outs to everything from Peeping Tom to Don’t Look Now; it almost feels like Williamson’s script is overcompensating for the lack of such references in the previous film. References and the series’ signature meta-fictional approach in general are splattered all over the place, as there are numerous jabs and nods. Most of the work well, while some seem to be thrown in as lip service--for example, the insistence that the new killer must film his kills seems like an obvious play on the “found footage” trend, but it doesn’t play much of a role outside of serving as a red herring.
The film’s biggest targets are twofold: remakes are an obvious aim, as the film’s killer is ostensibly remaking the original film. This gives Williamson plenty of opportunities to criticize remakes and set the ground rules for them, and I think his final word on the subject will have a lot of horror fans smiling from ear to ear. Going hand-in-hand with the remake craze is the film’s other target: the series itself, which was genre-defining and established new rules. It’s not afraid to poke fun at itself, and, in a witty bit of meta-madness, Scream nods to itself and satirizes its own tropes--the hip kids who are too savvy for their own good and its self-referential approach in general. It all culminates with an eerie sense of déjà vu, as the film echoes moments from both the first film and its sequel. It’s very clever, and it works well because it doesn’t descend into parody like Scream 3 did. Instead, it makes for quite a twisted trip down memory lane that still manages new thrills and surprises.
However, like the first two films in the series, you can throw all the clever winking and nodding out and still be left with one hell of a horror movie. It’s appropriate that there are a bevy of Hitchcock references because Craven shows that he can still wring suspense out of any scene if he wants to; there are numerous stalk and slash scenes with some nice twists on “the rules.” The film is also smart enough to place the three characters we care about the most in a lot of these scenes--Sidney, Dewey, and Gale carry about fifteen years worth of good-will, so putting us on edge about their fates early and often is a smart thing to do. This is not to say that the “new generation” is outshined--it’s just that Campbell and the Arquettes cast a long shadow. They don't really spend a lot of time together--it seems that Dewey especially bounces back and forth from one end of Woodsboro to the other, but it's nice to catch back up with these characters.
There are some standouts from the new bunch; I particularly liked Hayden Panettiere as the horror-loving film girl--some might call her a female version of Randy, but she isn’t--she’s much too aggressive and confident to fit that bill. She does have quite a screen presence, though, and she steals most of the scenes she’s in. Emma Roberts is Jill, and she possesses the same sort of naivety and vulnerability that Campbell projected in the first film; perhaps it isn’t wise to be such a sweet girl-next-door type if you’re in this family--it seems to be a curse. They’re joined by a couple of film geeks played by Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen--these are your Randy stand-ins, and maybe it makes sense that it would take two nerds to fill Jamie Kennedy’s big shoes. They’re the ones who are relaying the rules as they understand them--and they’ve even invented a drinking game out of them to boot.
Even the three cops (and it of course sucks to be a cop in these movies--the cops tell us so) are quirky and humorous. Anthony Anderson (in a bit of ironic casting considering his presence in the Scary Movie series) is especially funny and charismatic, while Marley Shelton is really sort of off-beat and awkward (it would be apt to call her a female version of Dewey). The characters are once again blessed with some great bits of dialogue and some pretty funny conversations--there was a lot of talk about Wiliamson’s screenplay being hijacked during production, but if it was, it doesn’t show. With the exception of some mistimed and oddly-placed bits of humor, this feels like vintage Williamson. Complementing the film’s humor is its mean streak as well--and this one is decidedly mean because it’s the most vicious and gory Scream film so far.
That’s fitting as well, and it’s another good example of the series embracing the same things that it mocks--after all, isn’t that what modern audiences have come to expect from the "torture porn" era? Sure. And in a Scream film, they can also expect a bunch of twists and turns. They’ll get them here, and while the ultimate reveal seems a bit silly at first, but the killer's motive is effective and gives the film a chance to further explore the themes and motivations behind the franchise’s previous killers; if the scapegoating of media violence was an issue for the first two Scream films, then this one perhaps takes it further by savaging the media culture that has embraced violence and is willing to make anyone a star as long as something bad has happened to them. Scream 4 obviously has a lot on its mind and on its plate, and it might try to articulate it all a little too quickly and clumsily at times, but, it‘s all really fun. I can only hope Ghostface returns sooner rather than later. To sum it all up, I’ll say this one was worth the wait, and I’ll borrow a phrase from Stu himself: “it’s a scream, baby!” Buy it!
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