Director: Wes Craven
By Roderick Heath
Ah, how sadly I remember the pain of the mid ’90s for a horror movie fan, an age when the genre was a barren wasteland. When I was in high school, almost all the great horror auteurs were either dead, trying to shift out of the genre, or entering a fallow phase, and most of the young punks then wanted to be Quentin Tarantino. Whilst the few who stuck at it were increasingly relegated to direct-to-video or cable TV fare, Wes Craven actually managed to hit his stride with several raucous, unsubtle, yet pungently satirical films, including the energetic and original The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987), the hilarious Shocker (1989) and The People Under the Stairs (1991), the flagrantly weird Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), and, above all, his reclamation of his A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), arguably the true arrival of meta-narrative in Hollywood commercial cinema. I know a lot of people hated these films, but I lapped them up; someone else seemed to notice Craven was on a roll, because he was hired to direct Scream, a film written by young hotshot Kevin Williamson, and lend it some old genre cred and hardy technique. When it was released in 1996, Scream revived mainstream horror virtually singlehandedly with its perfectly judged balance of violence, self-aware humour, satire, and high camp. Of course, it immediately inspired a stream of poor imitations, and Williamson’s signature smart-alecky, referential dialogue, which colonised television through his TV series Dawson’s Creek, led the field, including Joss Whedon and Diablo Cody, by a margin in making such argot a now-wearisome norm.
Sadly, the Scream series lost steam with the largely pedestrian third entry in 2000, which Williamson didn’t write, a telling lack. Much of the pleasure of the first two came from the tension and rapport between Williamson’s writing, with his stylised but accurate feel for contemporary teen mores and his tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre, and Craven’s more critical, urgent, go-for-the-jugular sensibility and his intense yet almost Looney Tunes-ish kind of violent action. That tension was always especially apparent in the finales, when the villains explained their reasons for going on murder sprees. For Williamson, these were send-ups of the idea of motivation, whereas Craven always seemed to take them more seriously, as part of a sociological motif in his films as far back as Last House on the Left (1972), manifest in aspects like the hint of homoerotic panic in Billy and Stu’s rampaging that made their relationship particularly, kinkily frenetic. Scream 4, reviving the franchise and reuniting the core trio of the original cast—the only ones who weren’t dead already—comes after intervening years filled with Hostels and Saws and Final Destinations, all of which get name-checked with a dash of disdain for the raw nastiness that has largely become the law of the genre. But Scream 4 betrays a distinctly darker edge than its predecessors, as if it wants to keep up with those nastier flicks, even as it kicks off in a distinctly jokey fashion.
Two teen girls (Lucy Hale and Shenae Grimes), kicking back for an evening, put on the latest instalment in the never-ending Stab series, derived from Gale Weathers’ books about the original murders depicted. They soon find themselves being stalked by a new Ghostface killer, but this whole scene turns out to be the start of Stab 6, which is in turn being watched by two young women (Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell), arguing over the vicissitudes of modern horror movies. Their argument is resolved when Bell sticks a butcher knife in Paquin—and yes, this is the start of Stab 7. Considering that this is exactly what modern Hollywood is starting to feel like, a sequel wrapped in a prequel within a remake, the joke is exact, and the stage seems set for serious, and relevant, meta-gamesmanship.
However, Scream 4 backs off from this almost immediately; Craven and Williamson out themselves as fundamentally old-school guys, for whom the brute immediacy of blood and guts subverts and offsets such trickery, not the other way around. With killers more intent on doing a reboot than a sequel, the stage is again Woodsboro, the bland small town where Scream unfolded. Stab 7, we soon find, is actually being watched by two more trim young missies, Jenny and Marnie (Aimee Teegarden and Brittany Robertson), and they really are attacked and brutally killed by a new Ghostface. This coincides with Sidney Prescott’s (Neve Campbell) return to Woodsboro on a book-signing tour, having turned her earlier battles with evil into Oprah-ready confessional-therapeutic literature. Her appearance puts her back in the orbit of old partners in crime-fighting Dewey Riley (David Arquette), now Woodsboro’s sheriff, and his wife Gale (Courtney Cox). Edging into middle age is gnawing at them all of, as Gale has no new grist for her pulp-smith mill, Dewey is being courted by his worshipful deputy Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton), and in spite of her official triumph and platitudes of healing, Sidney still carries an aura of doom and regret with her everywhere she goes.
Sidney is reunited with her aunt Kate Roberts (Mary McDonnell) and cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), who are happy, if uneasy, to have their benighted relative back home. The killer, or killers, as it quickly becomes apparent that a tag team is at work, seem to target Jill and her friends Kirby (Hayden Pannettiere) and Olivia Morris (Marielle Jaffe). After fooling Jill and Kirby into thinking Ghostface is in Jill’s bedroom, and then getting them to arrive just in time to watch as he disembowels Olivia, Jill and friends genuinely suspect Sidney is an angel of death. Gale, frustrated with no longer being a credible or credentialed investigator and with Dewey freezing her out of the investigation, puts herself in danger.
I feel a personal affection for the Scream series that’s more intense than just about any other movie franchise after the ’80s. Seeing the main characters again really does feel a bit like meeting old friends after a long absence, and time has been a little unkind to them. It’s been 15 years since the first instalment, with the TV shows from which Cox and Campbell were plucked for the original now dwindling memories and the young ingénues now, by and large, fading has-beens. It struck me how relatively listless the cast of young newbies here is, though there proves to be a clever reason for this in the case of Emma Roberts, who distinctly underplays in her scenes opposite Campbell, as Jill is clearly signposted as a younger inheritor to Sidney’s mantle. Also, Panattiere exudes class as Kirby, on the surface a regulation hottie who possesses premature poise and sultry spunkiness, and proves to have a delicious dark secret of being the biggest horror movie nerd in town.
Jamie Kennedy, Matthew Lillard, and Skeet Ulrich quickly made pop-culture fools of themselves, and Rose McGowan has struggled to put her real talent to good use, but they had a concisely tooled energy in the original. Their newer counterparts, like Nico Tortorella as Jill’s faithless ex-boyfriend Trevor, and Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen as Charlie Walker and Robbie Mercer, two film and tech geeks who become enmeshed in the murders because of running a Stab marathon, barely register by comparison, though, again, that could be deliberate given the film’s constant dialectic with the tricks and faults of remakes: the new editions always seem so pale by contrast. Increasing the impression is the fact that Craven and Williamson don’t like these characters nearly as much. Trevor is sleaze, and Robbie is an asshole who wears a video headset perpetually for his project of constantly uploading his life; the killers have the same idea, making their murder spree an instant documentary. The younger characters have a self-involved, unempathetic quality, except for Kirby. Eventually, however, there proves to be a devilishly clever motive for this.
Oddly, again, Craven and Williamson don’t work the notion of real-life brutality becoming instant self-reflexive artefact too hard as a motif, in comparison with the live webcast action in Kick-Ass (2010) as an inspired study in a modern technical-cultural capacity to conflate witnessing and voyeurism, play-acting and true consequence. With Cox and Arquette, whose flirty interaction in the earlier films was one of their distinct pleasures, here show their behind-the-scenes strains, compounding the early stiffness in Williamson’s comic dialogue. This strain, the rather rushed first few scenes, and the less inspired youngsters, threaten to make Scream 4 a wobbly trip down memory lane. Sorry memories of Craven and Williamson’s earlier failed comeback with Cursed (2005) leap to the fore.
But the film gets in gear with a solid bit of stalk and slash, as Sidney’s publicist, the chirpily venal Rebecca Walters (Alison Brie), is hunted in a hospital car-park. Brie’s comic performance is terrific, as is the punchline: her body is hurled out from the car-park to land amidst a press conference Dewey is giving to assure the public everything’s all right, a beautifully black-hearted satirical coup. Some red herrings are offered: the always-appealing Shelton’s deft performance shades into a hint of menace as Judy tries to prod Sidney into remembering her from high school, putting in mind that attention, a great modern currency, who gets it, and for what, has been a constant theme in the series. Gale is attacked when she tries to infiltrate Charlie and Robbie’s Stab-a-thon and put it under remote camera surveillance; hoisted by her own petard by the killers who have done the same thing, she is saved in the nick of time by Dewey. There’s still some tongue-in-cheek qualities to some of the film’s murders, like the fates of the two hapless deputies, Perkins (Anthony Anderson) and Hoss (Adam Brody), who fret about the low probability of surviving this sort of film as policemen “unless you’re Bruce Willis,” and Perkins, as he dies, makes his last words “Fuck Bruce Willis!”
The peculiar familiarity and warmth of the first Scream films is largely absent (let us remember that the first film actually did as much to reenergise the teen flick as it did the horror film), in this entry’s generally edgier tone and less likeable troupe of characters. There is no third-act redemption for Trevor and the geek-gets-the-girl touch of Charlie and Kirby coming together in a mutual love of splatter has a nasty payoff. What’s in its place is however equally, indeed more interesting. As Scream 4 really comes into focus the longer it goes on, is that instead of going down a self-satirising route, it is actually a darker, more vicious film than its predecessors, with some really cold-blooded twists, as Kate gets casually iced and particularly as Kirby desperately tries to save Charlie, whom she has the hots for, in a scene that purposefully recreates the very opening of the original. Kirby manages to answer Ghostface’s question correctly and rushes out to aid Charlie, only for him to jam a knife in her gut: “Now you notice me?” he questions in sighing disbelief, “Too late, much too late.” It is very much in the last act where Scream 4 nails what it’s really after, as it is revealed that Charlie’s partner is none other than Jill, who is determined to supplant Sidney as everyone’s survivor hero. She comes perilously close to realising her aim as she delivers a coup de grace to a stunned and terrified Sidney, having annihilated everyone around her in a bloody whirlwind, including betraying Charlie and casually executing Trevor (“I am not the girl you cheat on!”). Jill’s explanatory rant about fame these days not requiring anything more than having “fucked-up shit happen to you!” packs surprising potency because it suggests some real anger and sociological bite on Craven’s part, and also because of Roberts’ unhinged playing that reveals Jill’s claws, and deep, deep sociopathy.
If Roberts didn’t pull it off, likely the film wouldn’t work, but instead she’s delightful as a pint-sized marauder, as homoerotic panic and even revenge give way as motivations to pure, unadulterated narcissism. Jill slices holes in herself and smashes herself through plate glass to set a perfect stage for the cops to “rescue” her as the lone survivor, ending nearly as bloody and scarred as Freddy Kruger. Craven’s gift for cranking his narratives up to hysterical intensity in their finales works at full capacity here—is there another director in his 70s as purely, kinetically forceful?—as the scene shifts to the local hospital where Jill, having been carried out before the cameras of a world ready for their new hero, learns from Dewey that Sidney is still alive. She has to leave her bed to finish the job, leading to a hilarious and bracingly aggressive moment when Jill beats the hell out of Dewey with a bedpan. “The ending of the movie was supposed to be at the house. I mean this is just…silly!” she complains, and shoots Judy in the chest when she tries to mollify Jill, with a quintessential millennial retort: “Don’t fucking tell me what to do!” Jill gets her comeuppance, of course, as Sidney electrocutes her with a defibrillator and gives some sage advice about the first rule of remakes: “Don’t fuck with the original.” Meanwhile outside the media are still massed, raving about their newfound saviour, and it’s clear that Craven and Williamson have sustained their cake-and-eat-it approach, treading new ground with the series in recognising just how quickly heroes are created in the modern world, and how quickly those heroes can turn out to be self-important little jerks. In spite of the wayward qualities of its first half, by film’s end, I couldn’t help but welcome the Scream team back and hope they won’t stay away so long again.