Quentin Tarantino guest-directs this "characters-look-into-the-trunk-of-a-car" scene from Scream 4.
SCREAM 4 (aka SCRE4M) (2011)
It took me awhile to decide if I even cared about another Scream sequel. After all, I thought both previous sequels were unimaginative bummers that looked remarkably like the kind of product being shat out to cash in on Scream‘s success. (Pause for a moment and try to remember who even ended up being Ghostface in 2 and 3. I had to look it up.) Scream begat I Know What You Did Last Summer and things got progressively worse from there — which seemed unimaginable at the time. After all, do you look back on the days of Urban Legend, Valentine, Halloween H20, Fear Dot Com and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer fondly?
It’s a rhetorical question.
Watching the Scream franchise lurch along purposelessly was like watching a badly-wigged, mortally wounded Drew Barrymore trying to yell for help as she crawls across the lawn on her hands and knees. It systematically cut loose everything that made the original cool; most notably its wit, sense of suspense and scares. You may not remember, children, but Scream was scary. If you’re old enough to have seen it in the theater when it was released in 1996, you may remember walking out into the parking lot slowly realizing that you’d seen the first effective mainstream horror movie in years. No one had really counted on that at the time. Especially not from Wes “People Under the Stairs” Craven. My interest in Scream prior to seeing it had more to do with the Drew Barrymore obsession I was cultivating than anything else. (This was during her “Ima’-get-nekkid-in-Playboy-and-flash-David-Letterman!” phase, which made me think: maybe she’ll get naked.) I hadn’t expected the surprisingly dark opening, the clever script, or the twist ending. Unfortunately kids who grew up on Scream as slumber party entertainment can’t view it in its original context and probably regard it as a horror relic. (God help the thirtysomethings among us.) But children…you must understand…mainstream horror was pretty much dead during the first half of the 90s and Scream was something significantly different and infinitely more entertaining than anything landing the cover of Fangoria back then. At a time when the last horror movie you could remember seeing in a theater was Leprechaun 3 or The Prophecy, Scream was a revelation.
Scream made big bucks and like any successful genre movie, it let loose an avalanche of copy-cat ripoffs. One might suggest that the post-modern horror rut of the 90s is actually Scream‘s fault. Some might even go so far as to say it’s Wes Craven’s fault. Never one to shy away from exploiting a success, he rushed Scream 2 and 3 through production in the same sell-out-now-while-you-still-can fashion that once guided him to shit out a sequel to his (marginally successful) The Hills Have Eyes. (You know, the one where the surviving dog from part one has his own flashbacks to the first movie? Solid stuff.)
Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell watch TV and look hot as they help justify my ticket purchase.
I knew it was inevitable that the Scream franchise would be revived and it makes sense that it was happening now. I was hoping, however, that if Wes Craven’s name was in the credits it would be following words like “Executive Producer” or “Based on Characters Created by Kevin Williamson and–.” Bringing fresh blood in to revitalize the material seemed like a good idea to me.
I thought the series had become head-spinningly self-referential; too “meta” for its own good. I expect many will have the same gripes about S4 but I make a distinction between it and the sequels it follows. For one, I think S4 distinguishes itself right out of the gate with a strong opening that sets a tone that’s pitch perfect. It ends up doing all the things I hoped it wouldn’t, but in a way that’s clever without being cute and violent without being bloodless. Not only is the five-minute prologue meta to the max, it’s also protracted, gory and genuinely surprising. It’s self-referential, but in a smoothly calculated way that I dug. Without spoiling the surprise, the opening almost seems designed to give Scream scribe, Kevin Williamson, the opportunity to show how he’s grown as a writer of teen dialogue as the things being said go from being Dawson’s-Creek cheeky to conceivably human in three easy steps. For me, that smooth calculated approach is what lifts S4 above the rubble of its predecessors.
After the satisfying opening, the plot kicks in and catches us up with the series’ surviving characters Sidney (Neve Campbell), Gale (Courtney Cox) and Dewy (David Arquette). Sidney, the “final girl” of the original trilogy returns to her hometown on the eve of the anniversary of the original “Woodsboro murders,” which have, over the years, become a true-crime book, a movie franchise and more of a celebrated local legend than a stubborn blood stain on town history. She’s there to to hock her new “survivor” autobiography…which you know is just asking for trouble. During her homecoming she’s guest to her aunt (a criminally underused Mary McDonnell) and niece (Emma Roberts), who inexplicably live in Woodsboro despite their family’s disturbing history there.
It’s through Roberts’ niece character, Jill, that we’re introduced to this installment’s buffet of teen flesh: creeper boyfriends, movie dorks, sexy popular girls, nice girls, mean girls, and Hayden Panettiere. (–who, I was surprised to find, can actually act– I never watched Heroes but I really liked her in this.) Marley Shelton is also along for the ride as Sheriff Dewey’s deputy, as are dunderhead cops, Adam Brody and Anthony Anderson. Naturally one of the above characters is (probably) this go-round’s Ghostface — and plot-wise, saying much more would probably be saying too much.
Scream 4 starts with a bang and picks up steam as it unspools, with more red herrings than a Hallmark Channel marathon of Murder, She Wrote. Sideway glances, back-story drama, jealousy, bitterness and suspicious behavior by multiple characters have us looking every which way for clues. After the inventive killer reveal at the end of the first Scream, 2 and 3 dropped the ball with forced “tah-dahs” that left us feeling cheated for anticipating something more surprising. Scream 4 eventually ties up its loose ends with a genuinely twisted resolution that hinges on taking the kind of chance prior installments shied from. As far as murder mysteries go, I liked this wrap-up better than the original’s over-acted, Matthew-Lillard-plagued capper. It takes some risks and they mostly pay off. It’s a strong ending by any standard and a really strong ending for the genre. I’ll even go out on a limb and say it’s the most satisfying ending to anything Craven has ever directed. (Feel free to challenge me on this.) And if Williamson can be given full credit for coming up with S4‘s third-act twists, well, kudos to him too. (What’s the last interesting thing he’s done anyway? *runs to IMDB to check* …turns out Scream is the last interesting thing he’s done.)
Ghostface serenades Emma Roberts with R Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet."
Per usual, there are too many pop references that will have the movie feeling dated before it hits DVD, but that just sort of goes with the Scream territory. For better or worse it’s what Scream does, and at least this time references to other horror movies seem to serve a more legit purpose, unlike the context-free riffs in 2 and 3 which made those two feel like self parodies rather than sequels– like Scary Movie joints with the jokes removed. (And God help the screenwriter who can’t illicit more laughs than the Wayans-brothers’ anti-comedies that make up that inexplicably profitable series.)
That said, we do come to the Scream franchise expecting a few laughs, and by my count S4 has fewer gags than the previous three combined. But at the end of the day, I’m so totally okay with that because Scream humor only ever worked about a quarter of the time anyway. There are some solid laugh lines in S4 but nothing that reeks of “horror comedy” which most movies never get right…save exceptions like Shawn of the Dead, which gets a nice little nod in S4‘s final reel. (Incidentally, my favorite visual gag goes by so fast I barely caught it: *minor spoiler ahoy* In a high school hallway scene watch for a memorial bust of Henry Winkler; who played the ill-fated Woodsboro high school principal in the first movie.)
Where scares are concerned, admittedly, there’s nothing here that’s going to make you sleep with the lights on. But shocks and suspense are provided in generous helpings. Additionally, gorehounds should be pleased with a nice-sized body count and murders far more graphic than in previous entries. (I mean, ENTRAILS! Who doesn’t love entrails?!) Even the requisite “jump” scenes aren’t so gratuitous as to become grating.
Another check in the plus column that I had no reason to expect? Legitimate character development. Campbell’s Sidney is still kind of weepy and flat for a “final girl” but that’s not necessarily Campbell’s fault. I think she’s doing the best she can with the what she’s given and even though she’s still a little bland, it’s clear that Sidney has grown up since we last saw her…and it’s not just the big-girl bangs. Instead, it’s Courtney Cox’s Gale Weathers who walks away with S4 as its most interesting character. What started out as a shrill, TV-news glory hound has become a character of considerable depth and cunning. I found it far easier to root for Gale than any of the other knife bait on hand.
Craven’s handling of S4′s teen actors seems more confident than ever too. Panettiere’s line readings alone are enough to make you forget she’s being directed by the same man who guided Heather Langenkamp through her “FRED KRUGER, MOM! FRED KRUGER!” dialogue. (Or remember Rose McGowan’s “Bam! Bitch goes down!” bit from Scream? There’s nothing nearly that annoying to be found here.)
Despite some self-conscious, killer’s-POV, video-camera gimmickry — the only element that smacks of the previous sequels– the dialogue is less forced, less hokey and closer to the way real people talk than you typically get from this franchise. Maybe it’s a sign that the Craven-Williamson partnership is worth resurrecting after all. (Something that would have sounded absolutely bonkers after a screening of Cursed.) –but then, during my little jaunt over to IMDB, I see that Scream 5 has been announced for 2013 and that Scream 4 has already been pitched as the start of a new trilogy…and I get that familiar, sinking, The-Hills-Have-Eyes-Part-II feeling.
*** – 3 stars out of 4
"--but if you'd let me explain -- we're selling knives door to door to fund the senior class trip to Orlando!"