Tuesday, October 18, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Scream 4 (2011)

The third sequel to 1996's box office juggernaut Scream works far more effectively as an amusing and trenchant social commentary than as a straight-up, frightening horror film.  However, perhaps at this juncture in the continuing Ghost Face saga, that development is  inevitable.

Creatively-speaking, it grows exponentially more difficult across the  long years, to make the same, familiar Bogeyman scary, and so horror franchises routinely lean towards comedy.

The good news is that as observational, gadfly commentator on the Facebook Generation, Scream 4 indeed impresses. 

In fact, the psychologically-depraved climax of the film -- which features the immortal line "I don't need friends...I need fans!" -- involves the most amusing (and most committed) talking killer in the franchise since Stu and Billy took turns stabbing each other. 

Thus the old sting-in-the-tail/tale cliche (in which the killer just...won't....die) gets resurrected and drawn out to ludicrous extremes here, and -- literally -- it becomes electrifying.  Between the dedicated commentary on a narcissistic youth generation in love with its technological reflection, some timely jokes about celebrity-for-the-sake-of-celebrity (think: The Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, and Paris Hilton), and the audacious, viscerally intense final moments, Scream 4 ends at least, on a high note of ingenuity and wit.

Jauntily constructed by Kevin Williamson and capably directed by one of the undisputed greats of the genre, Wes Craven, Scream 4 boasts a surfeit of funny jokes, and also spotlights a copious amount of gore (more than any of the other sequels, in fact). And yet to the movie's detriment, it never truly proves emotional involving or very surprising.

The pace really flags in the film too, in part because Williamson's "next generation" of victims -- a tally that includes Hayden Panettiere, Emma Roberts, Marielle Jaffe, and Cory Culkin -- doesn't get the screen time that Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Rose McGowan, Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich did back in the original.   As you might guess, this group scares center stage with Cox, Arquette and Campbell, and the final mix is somehow unsatisfying.

On one hand, seeing the hold-overs in action one more time will satisfy long time fans of the franchise.  On the other, it doesn't necessarily bode well for the future of the Scream films, which need fresh blood.  By the end of the movie, we're essentially back to square one, spending time with the exact three survivors we anticipated at the beginning of the film.  By the next sequel (if there is one), the events of this movie will be rendered pointless.

Scream 4 also makes relatively poor use of Dewey, who is so late for all the film's deadly action -- even after notified of an attack by phone -- that you'll want to hurl your remote control at the screen.  Comic ineptitude is one thing, but Scream 4's killer endures for so long mainly because Dewey is conveniently M.I.A.   Some folks may also complain about the fact that imperiled teens constantly text and phone one another when they should be focusing on escaping Ghost Face.  I don't necessarily have a problem with this aspect of the sequel, however, since we live in a culture in which people text while driving. 

Texting-while-dying is merely the next logical step.

The central conceit underlining Scream 4, and the quality that makes this entry smart enough to pass muster, is that this movie has arrived in the age of horror remakes.  So just as Scream obsessed on 1980s slasher movie references and Scream 2 involved the rules of sequels, Scream 4 notes, depicts, mocks and plays with the various and sundry rules of horror genre remakes.  The conceit is a good one, and the narrative focuses on a murderer (or a team of murderers) intent on "recreating" for a new generation the famous Scream (or Stab) crimes.

Specifically, just as Sidney Prescott (Campbell) returns to Woodsboro to promote her new self-help book and autobiography Out of Darkness, the Ghost Face killings resume.  For Gale, who has spent a decade absent from the limelight, the murders present an opportunity to once more become a star author.  With the help of two high school movie geeks who apparently live-stream their entire lives, Gale begins investigating the crimes.  She does so over the objections of her husband, Sheriff Dewey Riley. 

Meanwhile, Sidney's cousin, Jill, looks to be one of the prime targets of the tag-team killers this time around.  Could the culprit be her on-again/off-again boyfriend? A movie-obsessed geek? A new female deputy with the hots for Dewey, or some twisted combination of all of the above?

The Scream films are renowned for their bravura and dazzling opening sequences.  Drew Barrymore and Jada Pinkett headlined in previous first sequence gambits, and Scream 4 gives the audience a doozy (or five...) starring the likes of Kristen Bell, Anna Paquin and Aimee Teegarden. 

The film's opening salvo, however, illuminates both Scream 4's virtues and weaknesses.  It is amusing, inventive, and dead-on accurate in its observations about the state of the genre in 2011, and yet each character presented in the ever-escalating sequence talks in exactly the same voice and intonation, which quickly proves distracting. 

Then, when the actual story proper begins, the characters in that drama also express themselves in the exact same way. 

This famimliar banter may indeed represent the snarky, trademark and staccato back-and-forth of Kevin Williamson's canon and yet here -- with "film within a film" moments coming hot and heavy -- the movie simply doesn't play fair with its surprises. 

If every character speaks precisely the same way, dresses precisely the same way, and inhabits the same world of upscale, designer homes, even, how is it even remotely possible to guess which scene occurs in Scream 4 and which is happening in Stab 6 or 7

Also, it's worth remembering that the Drew Barrymore scene in Scream was deeply terrifying as well as amusing.  Wes Craven generated enormous tension and escalating terror from the familiar scenario of a girl at home alone in her house at night, stalked by an obscene phone caller...Ghost Face. 

The movie-centric riffs -- what's your favorite scary movie? -- during that Barrymore sequence did not undercut the suspense or horror in any way.   We were convinced of Casey Becker's reality and the reality of her world, and the horror movie references proved delightful.

By contrast, the rapid-fire scene changes in the opening of Scream 4 (showcasing moments from multiple Stab movies) actively prevent audiences from investing in any one particular character or any one particular horror scenario.  Again, you can commend the film for its abundant cleverness while simultanously regretting that it did not set out, once more, to really scare its viewership.

Despite the amped-up levels of gore in the film (a reflection, according to the dialogue, of the "torture porn" age), Scream 4 also noticeably lacks the killer instinct when it comes to the disposition of its long-standing and beloved characters.  The film would have been edgier, more unpredictable and perhaps a gerat deal scarier had Craven and Williamson set out to violently and permanently eliminate at least one of the film's three hold-over stars in the manner that the franchise eliminated Randy (Kennedy) back in 1997. 

Now, I love and enjoy Gale, Sid and Dewey as much as the next Scream fan (and yes, I am a Scream fan...) but this new sequel, despite the gore, doesn't feel as dangerous as perhaps it could.  At their best, the Scream movies are cynical, wicked, calculating and heartless.  Scream 4 is cynical, wicked and calculating but has too much heart.   Bring on the slice and dice!

I must admit that as a longtime horror aficionado it's almost silly to criticize Scream 4 too deeply, however, because it is,  after all, a  pretty solid "fourth" entry in a long-lived slasher franchise. 

And truthfully, how many of those have we gotten over the years? 

(The answer: almost none).

Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and just about any other horror franchise you care to mention certainly couldn't keep their franchise continuity straight throughout four films, or otherwise maintain film-to-film quality, either.

In other words, Scream 4 is definitely more of the same, but not a blatant or brazen cash grab.  With Scream 4, the franchise remembers its history and its metaphorical raison d'etre (social commentary on the rapidly-changing pop culture landscape), even if it doesn't make a rousing or dedicated effort to keep Ghost Face terrifying.  Still, at least one quirky  death scene involving a police officer, a knife to the head, and an unusually lengthy duration of survival is probably worth the price of admission for the horror faithful.

In terms of the Scream series, Scream 4 is much better than Scream 3 (2000), but not as good  as Scream and Scream 2.  "One generation's tragedy" is not exactly "the next generation's joke," to misquote Scream 4, but I'm not certain that this acceptable-but-not-always-inspired sequel will necessarily stand the test of time, either.


  1. Great look at this in comparison with those in the original trilogy, John. I may rent this, after re-screening the original trio. Thanks.

  2. John,

    It’s refreshing to read a positive review of Scream 4. So many critics of this film seem to have forgotten that the Scream films are satires of not only the slasher genre in general, but of the current society in which they were made. Yes, Scream 4 is not without its flaws, but I enjoyed this one as much as the previous three and that’s all that matters to me.

    I couldn’t agree with you more that Wes Craven is “one of the undisputed greats of the genre” – and by genre I assume you mean horror. Mr. Craven has gotten a bum rap in the past decade for his ill-received horror films Cursed (2005) and My Soul To Take (2010). It doesn’t help that Craven renounced his heavily reedited Cursed and that he took a genre detour with the mediocre thriller Red Eye (2005). If you watch the Unrated Version of Cursed, you get an idea of the film that Craven might have made without studio meddling. I like this and My Soul To Take based purely on Craven’s ability to generate pace and tension though editing and skillful camera work. Craven also has a knack for choosing underappreciated or unknown actors that suit their characters well.

    It seems to me that younger horror critics and fans like to dismiss the old but still-living directors that are responsible for creating the modern horror genres that they claim to love. Just because someone isn’t in there 20’s or 30’s, doesn’t mean that they can’t make a great film.

    Keep spreading the word, John!

  3. Hello, my friends,

    Le0pard13: Scream 4 is definitely of a piece with the original trilogy, and I got a real kick out of it. I think it's hard to make a fourth venture as scary as the first. Perhaps the most important thing is that Scream 4 speaks to our time as well as Scream spoke to the era of the mide-to-late 1990s.

    Fritz: I'm a huge admirer of Wes Craven and his work in horror. I also very much enjoyed "Red Eye," I mus admit.

    Craven's given us masterpieces like the anti-violence (but often misperceived) Last House on the Left and the Pirandello-esque Wes Craven's New Nightmare, and of course, the original Scream and Nightmare on Elm Streeet. So far as I'm concerned, his reputation in the genre is well secured.

    I thought he did well with Scream 4 (as did Kevin Williamson), I just wish it had a bit more a edge and a little moe surprise. A solid sequel, certainly. From the reviews, I was expecting a disaster, and the fact is, the film works; particularly as social satire.

    In some way, I'd love to see Craven go at Scream the way he did Elm Street with New Nightmare, re-thinking and re-inventing the franchise, somehow.

    That said, I agree with you that there are some younger critics out there -- mainly Internet ones -- who seem to take inordinate happiness in tearing down the likes of John Carpenter, Wes Craven and George Romero. I don't agree with them, naturally, but I think I understand their motivation: each generation feels, to some degree, the need to tear down the heroes and icons of the previous generation, it seems. In a few years, when that generation is more confident in itself, it will rediscover the likes of Craven, Romero and Carpenter, I hope. Right now, tearing down these greats is about a younger generation of critics proving itself and its independence, not actually about the work of these horror maestros.

    We'll see...

    great comments!


  4. yes yes yes, Wes Craven is great. who can dispute that? well who can dispute that logically? I forced myself to watch the finale of this film. this film was soft, amoeba-like in it's softness. Better than Scream 3? I guess. I am a Scream fan, meaning the original movie, not the franchise. If you seen Scream, you have seen Scream 4. This movie was uninteresting & uninspired & unsurprising. Killing off one of the leftovers would have helped, yes, but maybe not, I sincerely hope this is the end of this franchise. Craven is now in his 70's I believe and his legacy is cemented, but I hope he goes on to something else.