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TBTS Reviews: Scream 4

May 3, 2011

It's the Scream franchise. It's been...murdered.

Here’s the deal, people: this may be the last time you get to enjoy Wes Craven’s semi-celebrated Scream franchise, for two reasons. One, the box office totals for Craven’s latest outing were less than stellar (it was expected to premiere at #1 on its week’s chart, which it didn’t), and two, it’s pretty much a terrible movie.

I say that with a certain amount of sadness, since I’ve long been a fan of the Scream films since my brother and I wandered into the first Scream, knowing nothing at all about it, on its opening weekend in a mall movie theater in 1996. It was fresh and interesting, and came at a perfect time — about five years after the slasher film genre of the eighties began to close its curtains, and while murderers like Jason Voorhees and Michael Meyers were still fresh in mind. The opening, wherein Drew Barrymore (who, in a delicious red-herring misdirect, was decidedly not the star) gets baited by phone and brutally murdered by the Edvard Munch-inspired Ghostface, was a surprise, and only the first of great twists on the genre Craven and writer Kevin Williamson would deliver. Scream 2 was even more fun, upping the stakes to a different locale of slasher film — from high school to the college campus — and another great, twisty ending sealed up another fun outing. Scream 3, of course, was a bit of a cop-out; it focused on the making of a movie about the “Woodsboro Murders” from the first film, and became a movie-within-a-movie (something Craven had already done, to similarly dull effect, with his Elm Street franchise in 1994’s New Nightmare). It just seemed like more of the same, a quick money grab, and was ultimately rather forgettable.

With two solid films, at least, and a wealth of new technology and convention in the eleven years since the third film, the Scream franchise should have had more fodder for Scream 4. The problem is that Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven, a 46 year-old and a 71 year-old, respectively, don’t really know what to do with all the material they have to work with. In a digital age where privacy is nonexistent and everyone’s plugged into everyone else at all times, Scream 4 should have been a virtual hoot. Instead, it’s really just a mishmash of things from the previous three movies. And I mean that very literally. It’s as if that’s almost the hilarious joke they were going for: how great would it be if we made endless homages to our last three movies over and over again in this movie? 

But this needs to be a cohesive movie, not a type of “clip show” for the Scream franchise, and all of the traditional elements in place: famous cameos, the David Arquette/Courtney Cox/Neve Campbell triumvirate and the normal high school stereotypes for a Scream film –the popular and bitchy girl (Hayden Panattiere, inexplicably dressed as if she’s on her way to a Vanity Fair photo shoot about corporate mergers), the tech guy, the film buff (Rory Culkin), the asshole jock and the plain and sensible (though popular) girl. All of the characters have cell phones, of course, and there’s a smattering of web-cams involved and some mention of the internet (AOL-style instant messaging? Really, Wes?), but only one reference to Twitter and no reference to Facebook. It’s hard not to think there was a better movie out there to be made as Scream 4 than this one, and it’s a shame no one could belly up to the table with that film, because it really could have had another unique opportunity to send up and re-invent the genre for a new generation of net-baby horror buffs.

The plot’s simple and self-referential: Ghostface is back just as multiple-murderous-rampage survivor Sidney Prescott (Campbell, who is aging absolutely beautifully, I might add) returns home to promote her new book. When a new spate of murders begin to occur, it’s appropriately linked to Sidney, and the game’s afoot to find the killer.

The killer reveal – which of course I won’t divulge here — doesn’t exactly track or seem original in the slightest. Instead, Craven and Williamson seem to be very self-delighted at what a “meta” movie they’ve made (they even give Courtney Cox’s snarky reporter Gale Weathers a line about how “meta” everything is). The problem is that  Craven and Williamson don’t seem to realize that “meta” is actually in right now, and “meta” is all over the place. This schtick was original and clever in 1996, but in 2011 our culture’s dripping with post-modern sensibilities, oozing irony and winking at the retro — so none of this comes off nearly as cool as the filmmakers seem to think it is. In fact, the proceedings are all pretty dull.

There probably won’t be a Scream 5, and there probably shouldn’t be. This film was a massively botched opportunity to have some great fun again with the Scream franchise, but instead just ends up furthering the same exact conventions the Scream franchise set up for itself over the last three movies. The joke behind the first three Scream movies was that there were basic horror movie conventions to which all horror films adhere, and Craven enjoyed blowing those up. Now he’s just following the set of rules set forth by his own Scream movies, which makes him seem like just as much of a hack as the sequelized franchises he so cleverly winked at in his previous outings. Now that’s “meta.” And not the good kind.

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