I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.
It has been seventeen years since Scream was released. Think about that for a moment. Seventeen years. There are two ways you can look at the legacy of that film. The first is that it was a game-changer for the horror genre—reinvigorating the teen slasher film with a self-aware, witty script that also worked as a commentary on the genre. The other way to look at it is the same way you can look at the other series of horror films with which Wes Craven is most associated. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, the sequels to Scream quickly took what was original about the first film and turned them into rote clichés. The sequels for both films are known now as creatively bankrupt, cynical cash grabs (excepting the terrific Wes Craven’s New Nightmare). With the release of Scream 3 in 2000, it seemed the series had finally stumbled to an expectedly disappointing conclusion.
But of course, Harvey and Bob Weinstein are not the type of executives to let a recognizable property just sit on the shelf where it makes them no money. Fortunately for them, Craven, screenwriter Kevin Williamson, Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette are not exactly the most difficult group to re-team. And so it was decreed that in 2011—a full eleven years after Scream 3—Scream 4, a film no one really wanted to see was unleashed on the viewing public. The critical and commercial response was a massive shrug of the shoulders.
All of which is an explanation for why I was surprised when I enjoyed the film. That’s not to say it’s in the league of the original but it does have its share of clever moments that made me overlook that its only reason for existence was as a shameless cash grab.
This time around, Sidney Prescott (Campbell) returns to her hometown of Woodsboro—the site of the killings in the first film—on a publicity campaign for her self-help book. Of course, it’s not long after Sidney’s arrival that a killer dressed in a “Ghost Face” costume starts hacking the local teenagers to bits with a knife. On the case are Sidney’s fellow survivors from the first three films, Dewey (Arquette), now the sheriff in Woodsboro, and his wife Gale (Cox), the former tabloid journalist turned struggling novelist.
Any more plot description than that is unneeded. If you’ve seen the first three films in the series, you know how this one will unfold. What elevates this entry above the dismal second and third films is the lack of forced comedy and attempts to surprise by killing characters simply for the shock value of doing so. There are the requisite discussions among the teenaged characters about the “new rules” of horror films in this age of remakes and the word “reboot” gets mocked on several occasions, but Craven and Williamson largely play everything straight (in other words, no Jay and Silent Bob cameo in this one).
Of course, my reaction may be a result of diminished expectations. There is plenty about the movie that doesn’t work: the red herrings are obvious, there’s a ridiculous scene where a character takes an eight inch blade in the forehead and continues to walk and talk for 20 seconds before dying, it’s too long by fifteen minutes with too many fake-out opening sequences, and Cox’s performance is a little too over-the-top.
But the film gets more right than wrong. The comedic moments are almost gentle, rooted in the characters and their history together. There are two outstanding attack sequences that provide actual suspense and excitement. Williamson and Craven make good use of web cams, streaming video, and smart phones to satirize the tech-savvy teenagers obsessed with documenting their entire existences online. And the younger cast members (including Emma Roberts, Rory Culkin, and Hayden Panettiere—looking ten years too old to be playing a teenager) are talented and likable.
I don’t want to oversell the film. It’s not great, but it’s fairly solid and would be a decent entry on which to end the series. Given its disappointing take at the box office, some would say that could be the case, but I doubt it. As the characters in the film understand, name-brand horror franchises don’t die; they just claim to reinvent themselves while simply recycling the same old material. In the case of Scream 4, the recycling worked well enough to justify its existence. Through the lens of diminished expectations, that looks like a win.
Here’s a trailer that includes a lot of dialogue not in the actual movie. Truth in marketing:
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