Scream was a big kick in the ass for the horror industry in 1996. Not only was it one of the most successful genre outings of all time bringing in almost $200 million worldwide, but the film added a layer of self-conscious humor to the genre which allowed it to be both a loving parody of slasher movies and a surprisingly effective scare factory in its own right. By mocking slasher movies, the film inadvertently caused a slasher movie resurgence (I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc.) and also turned into a self-cannibalizing and repetitive franchise itself. Scream 2 had some amusing jokes about horror sequels, but by the time Scream 3 rolled around the franchise was dragged down by mythology no one cared about and endless meta-horror jokes that had gone out of style. Though widely successful at the box office, the Scream franchise ultimately hurt the reputation of Scream the movie, which should be regarded as classic horror masterpiece, but is instead remembered as a good film in a dated franchise. Why anyone was convinced making another Scream movie ten years after the previous film was a good idea remains a mystery. The good news is that Scream 4 is definitely a better series capper than Scream 3. The bad news is that’s not saying much. If Wes Craven took a crap on camera while wearing a ghostface mask that also would have been better than Scream 3.
Scream 4 opens with easily its best sequence. Going into details would spoil it, but Scream-stalwarts director Wes Craven (A Nightmare On Elm Street) and screenwriter Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek…ugh) have fun toying with the audience expectation of an unexpected movie star kill in the first scene.
There are a number of fake outs and hilarious jokes about endless horror sequels and for a moment it seems like these guys have a genuine reason to bring back Scream. Sadly, that quickly passes as we’re reintroduced to Neve Campbell’s series protagonist Sidney who is now a successful author touring around to promote a book about her life. Once again Craven and Williamson seem convinced that audiences care deeply about the characters in this franchise and endless scenes are wasted catching up with David Arquette’s bumbling cop and Courtney Cox’s bitchy writer. Eventually we learn that the ghostface killer is back in town staging killings oddly similar to those in the first movie. In fact, you might even say the killer is remaking the first movie.
That’s right, this time Craven and William have set their sites on mocking the recent batch of horror remakes and reboots with their killer (or perhaps killers…I’ll never tell) determined to update and overthrow the reputation of the first round of Woodsboro murders. It’s actually a pretty clever concept as is the identity and motivation of the killer, which would be a shame to spoil. The problem is that horror remakes don’t really have conventions and clichés to play with. They just tend to be crappy. Craven and Williamson have a few amusing gags making that point, but it’s just not enough to hang a movie around. Instead, the running time is padded out by pointlessly expanding the Scream mythology and adding digital technology to sound hip to all the young kids out there. Characters wear digital cameras, the killer now records his crimes, and the word “internet” is uttered whenever possible. It feels like a lame attempt to make the film seem contemporary by people who don’t actually understand the appeal of digital technology. Even the franchise staple murder mystery feels worn out. The motivation of the killer is an interesting comment on contemporary celebrities, but the who-done-it mystery approach feels like little more than a crutch to move the story along.
The other major issue is that the new cast just isn’t nearly as compelling or memorable as the original cast. Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere are strong as the self-conscious leads, but the requisite movie geeks, suspicious boyfriends, and knife fodder are all little more than pretty young folks who photograph well, but don’t really understand the whole “acting” thing. That’s a big problem in a movie that’s supposed to a) be funny and b) make you think everyone on screen is a suspect. The film desperately needs someone like Jamie Kennedy to hammer the humor home, but he isn’t there. The carryovers Campbell, Cox, and Arquette are fine, but with so many different characters vying for screen time they tend to get lost in the shuffle.
Now, the movie is not without its moments. If nothing else, Wes Craven is a master horror craftsman and handles the suspense and shock sequences admirably. The film is certainly as violent and action packed as those that proceeded it, but 15 years on the formula feels a little quaint. The first Scream faced enormous difficulties getting an R-rating from the MPAA, but this one is an easy 14A. It’s not so much that Scream 4 is that dramatically less violent as much as it is that the horror movies over the last decade have pushed onscreen content that much farther and now the style of violence employed in the series isn’t particularly shocking anymore. For a horror movie, that’s a problem and I can’t imagine new horror fans reared on the Saw series being won over by what’s on display here.
I’m sure there are Scream diehards out there who will be thrilled just to see that now iconic mask on screen again, but at the end of the day Scream 4 can’t be viewed as anything other than a disappointment. It’s not funny enough, scary enough, or smart enough to hold a candle to the original. There’s some nostalgic joy to be had whenever Craven and co. get one of their gags right, but that happens far too infrequently. The Weinstein Company has threatened that this might be the first title in a new Scream trilogy. Let’s all pray that doesn’t happen. Soon they’ll be so low on ideas that they’ll be forced to criticize the conventions of a Scream movie in the next Scream movie. Actually that’s not a bad idea. Anybody have Wes’ email address?