In a way, the Scream franchise has always struggled to top that opening sequence in the first film. Drew Barrymore’s brief but instantly iconic tussle with Ghostface is a perfectly executed slasher set-piece that set a standard Wes Craven couldn’t match in the above-average Scream 2 and the much-maligned Scream 3. When a fourth film was announced, many were rightfully sceptical. Another killer wearing the same costume, hunting Sidney Prescott for the fourth time?
The warning signs are numerous, particularly its 15-rating in the UK. In a decade that has seen the OTT theatrics of the Saw series push the 18 certificate to breaking point, it’s sort of perverse to see a semi-realistic film about knife attacks get such a classification. Those expecting the film to be a tired rehash of the same-old have been proven right. Only this excessively gory sequel isn’t half-as-bad as you have any right to expect.
Scream 4 (or to give it the lame promotional title Scre4m) isn’t an embarrassment. In fact, it’s competent, largely well played by the cast and directed with surprising verve by the 71-year-old Craven, who just about manages to erase the memory of last year’s execrable My Soul to Take. In terms of being the fourth movie in a slasher series…it’s the best fourth part you’re ever likely to get in this genre. But it’s far from a classic and there are a few reasons for why it doesn’t become more than just another body count picture. First of which is the humour.
The Scream series has always been satire first, horror second. Anyone complaining about not being able to take these films seriously are probably the same people who can’t recognise that the redundant Scary Movie series made fun of a film that parodied itself in the first place. The franchise is sly in the way it comments on modern media through the veil of horror flicks and Scream 4‘s target is not only reboots and remakes but the nature of celebrity in the 21st century. If that sounds like rather a lot to dump on the shoulders of a humble slasher pic, you’d be right. The film almost collapses under the weight of its meta zaniness and is never scary in the slightest.
Nostalgia is a curious thing – do people remember the old flicks as being frightening? I sure don’t. That Barrymore scene aside, the films blended in as much knowing humour with the murders as they could. Scream 4 ups the ante in this regard, especially in the opening sequence which is a rather humorous comment on the futility of trying to recapture lightning in a bottle. Craven pulls the rug out from under us no less than twice in this sequence, proving that he is still a dab-hand when it comes to misdirection. Yet, history repeats itself and Scream 4 spends the next 90 or so minutes trying to live up to its opening gambit.
The plot is as perfunctory as you’d expect. Let’s just say Ghostface shows up and people die in increasingly vicious ways. That’s enough.
The presence of series regulars Sidney (Neve Campbell), Sherriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and uber-bitch Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) is certainly welcome and they slot-in with the newbies well. Out of the fresh-faced cast only the luminous Hayden Panettiere as unlikely film geek Kirby stands out. Emma Roberts (niece of Julia) plays Sidney’s hitherto unmentioned cousin with all the élan of a soap opera actress trying to win a guest spot on Days of Our Lives. It’s always good to see Marley Shelton, sadly underused as Dewey’s plucky deputy, although why Craven would cast Oscar-nominated Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica) and only give her about three lines is anyone’s guess. But no one is going into Scream 4 expecting a master class in performance.
So why would I possibly give the film three stars? Buried beneath the self-mocking veneer and Kevin Williamson’s arch dialogue is that sense of unpretentious fun that marked the trilogy as an audience favourite. In the right mindset, the film is a blood-splattered blast. It hurtles along at breakneck speed and I agree with one critic who said it ranks as one of Craven’s most confident pictures. It’s also handsomely shot by Peter Deming, whose widescreen compositions are far better than the material deserves.
The film never stops to ponder its existence, careening toward a final 20-minutes that, while ridiculous, are gutsy and unexpected. You know exactly what you’re getting with this flick and if you’ve never been a fan of the franchise then you’re not going to be swayed now. Scream 4 is a vast improvement on its predecessor, while never coming close to the greatness of the original. It doesn’t fundamentally alter the rules of the series or become as smart as it thinks it is, but there’s a great deal of enjoyment to be had. Sometimes cinematic junk food hits the right spot.
But seriously, Wes: Leave it alone now.