Dir. Wes Craven
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 103mins
Dir. Wes Craven
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 103mins
**NOTE: This review is spoiler free!**
Some people appear to have mistaken my anticipation for Scream 4 as just geeky franchise worship. And while it’s true that I would most definitely go and see even Scream 8: Ghostface Takes Manhattan, a lot of the reason why this movie feels like such an event is because this is the Scream 4 we never thought we’d get. By the time the fourth film of a horror franchise rolls around the cast and crew that made the original(s) so worthwhile have almost all but moved on, so when it was announced that not only that the original creative team – director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson – were returning, but also the three main principal cast members – Neve Campbell, David Arquette and Courteney Cox – well, that was the tipping point from being an exciting curiosity to full-blown mad anticipation. Did it live up to my own hype? It sure did!
Coming 11 years after Scream 3 reconfigured its story to Hollywood and became one big in-joke (a funny one that I like much more than most, it would seem), Scream 4 returns to the Californian town of Woodsboro from the original Scream where the residents seem equally divided between those who mourn the original tragedy and those who revel in it. The anniversary of the slayings is treated like Halloween by the younger generation, sending mock telephone calls to their friends and dressing public property up in scary costumes. Hollywood turned Woodsboro’s – or more specifically, Sidney Prescott’s – tragedy into a movie named Stab and now the students of Woodsboro High host a yearly “Stabathon”, a movie marathon featuring all 7 of the Stab movies. Even the fifth one that, hilariously, somehow involves time travel.
Returning to Woodsboro is the aforementioned Sidney Prescott, touring a new self help book touting herself as “no longer a victim”. But, needless to say, her return brings about a new batch of killings, committed by somebody – or somebodies – in a Ghostface mask who uses the telephone to taunt his prey. Sidney’s cousin, Jill, and her friends appear to have become the killer’s prime targets, and along with Sheriff Dwight nee Deputy Dewey and his former Hollywood entertainment reporter wife Gale Weathers they must try and hunt down the perpetrator for as long as they can survive.
Some may say I was predisposed to liking Scream 4, but as has been proven time and time again it is usually those who are so closely tied to a franchise that will find the most at fault with a new one - just look at the Indiana Jones and Star Wars series’ for examples of that. And while Scream 4 has its issues, it succeeds through a mix of the old fashioned slasher movie conventions that the original Scream trilogy manipulated so well, as well as new twists and tricks that will surprise anybody who has watched the original trilogy enough. Just when you think nobody else can die, they do. Just when you think the filmmakers will take a break from the murdering mayhem, they don’t. Just when you think the movie has ended, it hasn’t. Long-time fans will find a lot of cherish about this new sequel, which abides by its tagline of “new decade, new rules”. Regular moviegoers who just want a few frights on their Friday night will also find plenty to satisfy, I’m sure. Gorehounds disappointed by the rather bloodless Scream 3 will rejoice.
Where Scream differs so greatly to the vast majority of horror movies is in its characters. Where most have generally anonymous actors playing stock standard roles that equate to nothing more than “heroic boyfriend” or “sassy best friend”, Scream 4, just like its predecessors, goes a long way in establishing its band of new and old cast members as a real group of friends and family. Their interactions with one another, their back and forth dialogue and secrets bubbling beneath the surface make them far more interesting and worthy of investing time in. When one dies – and to pretend they all get out alive is silly – there’s actually feelings there. When the killer (or killers) is revealed, it hits like a punch to the gut. In fact, Scream 4 works much better than Scream 2 or 3 in that regards, by having worked its characters harder and stronger (despite a much shorter, punchier running time). There are several deaths that were met with shock, surprise and near hysterical behaviour (and not just by me, I assure you). The performances are generally strong, with particular notice going to Campbell – looking so mature and beautiful, even if she’s dressed in dowdy outfits for the second half – Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Rory Culkin and Alison Brie. And to say it doesn't feel good to see Arquette and Cox in fine form is a big fat lie. Cox especially gets several great one-liners, relishing the chance to spit foul language out of her mouth that she can't do on Cougar Town.
If I have to be critical then my displeased glare would be focused very quickly upon the opening scene. For a franchise that became famous for its typically violent prologue (remember Drew Barrymore’s untimely end 15 years ago?), Craven and Williamson have taken an incredibly big gamble with it this time and haven’t altogether succeeded. They do, however, include several great gags that go a long way to relieving the pent up pressure that 11 years between franchise instalments can produce. Elsewhere, I have to question the character of Mary McDonnell’s Kate Roberts. Written like an afterthought, acted like she’s in another movie (actually, she would fit right in with the more comically aligned Scream 3) and all but forgotten at long stretches. It’s especially disappointing for a franchise that has always gone to great lengths to make the adults as interesting and important as the teenagers. It’s also sadly quite obvious that some scenes have been heavily tinkered with, especially when you compare it to the trailers and television commercials. It’s like there’s a different film waiting for the DVD release.
And, honestly, the number of times a character places their body against a door with the killer right outside? The number of times a character walks outside to investigate a strange noise? That's a bit silly. Haven't they learnt anything?
Still, Scream 4 succeeds far more often than it falters and that’s most surely because of the direction of horror maestro Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Both have done a stunning job of subverting expectations, whilst at the same time delivering on exactly what we wanted. They have given us Scream nerds what we wanted, and given Hollywood what it needed. They have shown how you do a sequel and proven that the fourth film in a franchise needn’t be a simple throwaway grab for cash. It can be relevant and necessary.
Williamson, who wrote with additional work done by Ehren Kruger and Craven, appears to have made Hollywood and this generation’s ever-churning instant news cycle his prime target. One scene in which Hayden Panettiere’s Kirby reels off a seemingly never-ending list of horror remakes is particularly telling and even mustered up an applause or two from the audience. The screenplay also has swift, if increasingly meta, jabs at the horror genre in general as well as the internet’s jagged turn from being a place of film discussion to a place of mass hysteria. There’s even a joke about the use of the word “meta”! Meanwhile, the media, in their bloodthirsty quest for the latest in breaking news get the biggest twist of the knife of all. Emma Roberts gets a moment of such pure and utter classic filmmaking that I have to hand it to Craven for having the guts to do it.
The Scream films have always been known for their references to other films and the latest is perhaps the most referential of all. The jokes on its own franchise with the Stab film-within-a-film-within-a-film-within-a-film(?) as well as footage from Scream 2 (if that makes sense) are just the beginning. Endless horror movie citations from Saw to Peeping Tom, film posters adorning the walls of nearly every room, two police officers that recall Craven’s own Last House on the Left and even recreations of other famed horror movies (one such scene that emulates the original Scream from 1996 specifically had me in fits of “oh shit!”) They never let up and even when Halloween II gets a big shout out, I couldn’t help but admire the bravura. It even gets in jokes about Facebook, Twitter and Jersey Shore without looking desperate for hip points and its handling of modern mobile phone technology is keenly done alongside the old fashioned clunky landline phones that are as iconic to these films as the Edvard Munch inspired mask.
The team behind Scream 4 have gone for broke. They know people stop caring about horror sequels after a while and the only way this was going to be any different was to take everything they had done before and turn it up to eleven. They succeeded in making a Scream for a new generation, one that is more brutal and more gory, yet still funny and entertaining. This could perhaps rank as the greatest franchise revival in cinema history and while even discussing the potential for a Scream 5 seems ridiculous given where this fourth film goes, if they show half as much ingenuity in it as they do here then it will be just as much of a must see as Scream 4. A- (although who knows where it'll sit once I've seen it five times, 20 times, 106 times...)