Fifteen years ago, the original Scream met with huge popularity for its comedic sensibilities and self-aware commentary on the slasher genre. Scream 4 comes eleven years after the previous installment in the franchise, and at first glance it reeks of Hollywood’s current plague, a madness for the re-make, sequel, prequel, and adaptation. Yet the making of Scream 4 is better justified than expected – to the point that this sequel might surpass the original.
As with the previous Scream films, a masked killer with a great cell phone plan is calling and killing people within the vicinity of the still-alive-lead-protagonist Sydney Prescott. This time the murders resume where they first began, in the town of Woodsboro where Sydney is visiting to promote her book Out of Darkness.
Sydney’s transition from a terrorized girl to a haunted woman represents the film at its best. Neve Campbell’s portrayal of Ms. Prescott makes space for genuine drama to shine, as showcased in a scene in which she advises her cousin counterpart with a surprising amount of personal wisdom. Further, an unexpected degree of pathos is literally carved into other characters, who die not with a simple stab and a blood capsule dribbling of corn syrup from their lips, but with serious blood loss and attention to what sharp objects do to one’s anatomy. These deaths are exorcised of any casual special effects triumph, instead evoking a profound sadness that recalls the execution of Mari Collingwood in Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (you have to give them props for making an R-rated sequel instead of settling for the money making PG-13).
Unfortunately, these moments are cut short by injections of the slasher genre’s tired practices. As in the previous Scream films, characters’ comments on the tropes of the genre are supposed to make it forgivable when the story plunges headlong into them. By referring to other horror films the audience has seen, you flatter the audience’s sense of intelligence–but mere flattery and clever commentary are not enough to camouflage Scream 4‘s flaws: Killers who must have learned how to run from Tom and Jerry cartoons, but can disappear with Batman’s stealth; and characters who, after all these years of dealing with crazed masked psychos, still don’t have the sense to equip themselves with a gun, some mace, a boot knife, AND a derringer in their underoos. Not to mention the groan-worthy Bond Villain monologue moment for the killers in which the filmmakers get to shamelessly air their thesis statement on societal ills.
Which connects to one of the greatest tragedies of the Scream films, in that director Wes Craven and scribe Kevin Williamson present some interesting ideas about society and how it interacts with cinema, yet never does anything with it (a particular favorite motif in the films is the cult of celebrity). You’ve got to develop your concepts so they’re more interesting than what the average stoner can come up with on a Saturday night.
Scream 4 is like a pizza with all the toppings: There are some parts you hate (just before or right after a death, there are some one-liners that viciously betray the film’s tone; characters who conveniently survive several stabbings), but it’s still pizza, and almost no one dislikes a pizza – regardless of the toppings.
Neve Campbell’s performance along with some witty banter make it a decent film. It’s just disappointing to see a film with the potential to transcend genre barriers settle for average.
Also check out how social class is represented in horror films, using Wes Craven‘s A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream as examples. You can read it here.