Absence, apparently, really can make the heart grow fonder.
It has been about 14 years since the original Scream slashed its way into the hearts of horror fans and created a doomed spiral of self-reference and pop-culture slumming. For years after, the genre was locked down in a slog of clever in-jokes and pretentious awareness that neutralized the scares. Looking back at those films and then at the current glut of relentlessly grim and cheerless horror pictures we get now, it is easy to be wistfully nostalgic for a time when serial murder was done with a wink and a grin.
Scream 4 might not be a great movie, but it’s Craven’s best horror entry since the original debuted all those long seasons ago in December of 1996. The jokes, the smirking, and the ridiculously gory deaths are all here, crammed into an over-stuffed and clunky plot. Ghost-Face is back and he’s brought another convoluted motive with him. True fans of the series are likely to be quite pleased with all of this.
I’m not one of the Scream faithful. I saw the original at theaters during my senior year of high school, well ahead of the crazy buzz that came with it. As a rabid fan of the movies it referenced, I wasn’t as impressed. That Scream would stop in the midst of its own mayhem to wave at me and congratulate my genre binging was distracting. Then, it caught on. A new generation that had hid under the covers while Freddy and Jason had terrorized clueless teens were finally ready to laugh in their face, somehow forgetting that those original movies were plenty campy themselves.
Now, with hindsight and the benefit of years, I can see how influential the first Scream was on film in general (for better or worse). The open acknowledgement of the audience and their participation as emotional reactors to on-screen action paved the way for a mainstream post-modernism that resulted in movies like The Matrix, Memento, and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Additionally, as the sequels came, the franchise demonstrated an affection for its returning characters that wasn’t the norm for slasher movies. So, if the passage of time has transformed Scream into a pop-culture lynchpin, then why a new entry? Money of course. It helps though that Williamson and Craven actually care about the world they created and this fact saves Scream 4 from being a dimwitted and pathetic cash-grab.
From developing a virtual rabbit hole of movies-within-a-movie in the form of the ‘Stab’ series to making Sydney Prescott, ultimate survivor girl, an inspirational author of books on ‘how to be more than a victim’, the new ‘Scream’ sets up a universe that reminds fans of what they missed. It also incorporates the trend towards revisiting nostalgic memories into its own narrative fabric. The opening scene may actually be the best, and is certainly the most clever. Peeling back clichés and expectations like layers of an onion, this sequence unfolds like a magician yanking various colored handkerchiefs out of a hat. There’s a knowing, reflexive quality to the stunt casting and the staging of a trio of murders that shows a growth of maturity in the series. There’s nothing else quite like it anywhere else in the movie.
After that, things get gory and then familiar, although not unpleasant to watch. Sydney comes back to the town ‘where it all happened’ on the anniversary of the killings, to promote her new book. Then, of course, the murders start again, now revolving around Sydney’s cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) and her friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe). The returning survivors to the franchise are Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and Gail Weathers-Riley (Courtney Cox), now married and no longer the dopey deputy and intrepid reporter, respectively. Dewey is the town Sheriff and Gail is trading up her journalist gig for that of a novelist. Then Jill and her friends start getting ominous phone-calls referencing horror movies, and brutal deaths start sprouting up like toilet jokes in an Eddie Murphy movie. Throw in Rory Culkin as Charlie, a resident film nerd with his own ‘film society’ and you’ve got the perfect set-up for a repeat. Incidentally, the killer himself (or herself) is seemingly hell-bent on constructing his own remake of the original.
Not much has changed otherwise. The jokes are often funny, but the best bits are actually related to the internal structure of the Scream story, not just random shots at passing horror targets. Watching Gail and Dewey relate, or seeing Sydney identify how all of this mirrors her own traumatic teenage years make for the best moments. Craven establishes the new, younger crowd with almost as much aplomb as the first go-round. Still, there’s a sneaking suspicion (no matter how much the film warns us of its unpredictability) that few of them are going to be standing around for the credits. The kills are appropriately gruesome but often become so mean-spirited that they stifle the general frivolity of the rest of it. The biggest problem with the new Scream is that Craven and Williamson only refine their humor, not their instinct for terror. There’s nothing that remotely qualifies as scary this time out, and the self-awareness mostly serves the laziness of the plot. It’s one thing to telegraph that these sorts of things are predictable, but then to go ahead and follow down that same lane seems a bit rote.
The big reveal of the killer isn’t terribly surprising. At least it’s related to the central cast and not farmed out to periphery characters like the two sequels. It does work within the internal logic of the film, and if you consider the larger context of the genre and the casting, it makes sense there too. Don’t think on it too hard and it fits perfectly fine with the rest. Perhaps the biggest problem with the movie is the need to keep acknowledging the audience and the trend towards meta-narratives. The best joke comes from Cox’s Gail, who drops the word ‘meta’ and then sheepishly acknowledges she doesn’t really know what it means. Seemingly, neither do the armchair film scholars who slip it into their conversation on a daily basis.
Scream is in love with what it once was, and the state of the film world some ten or fifteen years ago. The filmmaking is purposefully austere and antiquated, with nary a sepia filter or rapid edit to be seen. It’s amusing to see the inner walls of the film club adorned with posters for Deep Impact and The Green Mile. Like the rest of us, Scream 4 seems to dream of a world that would exist without it.