Scream 4 first published by EyeforFilm
In the mid-Nineties, when horror had all but disappeared from the multiplexes, Wes Craven’s Scream came along to cast a wry, critical eye back over what viewers had once loved about the genre, and so to bring it kicking and, well, screaming into the new millennium.
A smart deconstruction of slashers filled with articulate, cine-savvy teens and self-referential flourishes, it was the sharp jab that horror needed for its revival – and inevitably spawned a series of inferior sequels, sub-par imitations and point-missing parodies. Scream was both a classic, and a game-changer, succeeding at the sort of postmodern games of peekaboo that Craven had first begun playing with 1994 Elm Street reboot, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
That was then, this is now. Made and set a decade after the forgettable Scream 3, and reuniting the dream team of Craven, writer Kevin Williamson and several of the surviving cast members (Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette), Scream 4 is trapped in time, seeking all at once to preserve a formula that, much like the earlier slashers that the original had pastiched, has since withered into hoary cliché, while also trying to keep up with a changing world where Facebook, Twitter, webcasts and vapid celebrity culture have come to dominate the teen landscape.
If the original trilogy chiefly targeted the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises, then Scream 4 targets the earlier Scream films themselves, both as a narrative type and a cult phenomenon. The result is, if anything, even more self-regardingly postmodern than the earlier films, although Williamson is smart enough to include a gripping whodunnit frame to prevent viewers from becoming totally lost in his hall of mirrors.
If Scream started with a truly arresting opening kill scene, then Scream 4 both resurrects and multiplies its spirit with not one but three twistily murderous intros in which different pairs of female co-eds discuss the legacy of both Scream (“it’s been done to death, the whole self-aware postmodern meta shit”) and subsequent Noughties movements in horror (torture porn, zombie films, J-horror), as well as sequels themselves, before being offed in ways that fulfill our expectations of the Scream films while also slyly subverting them. From then on it is business as usual, although Craven and Williamson manipulate their own established formula with such assurance and skill that viewers will certainly keep having to revise their theories about the killer’s (or killers’) identity as all the obvious suspects are eliminated one by one.
It is the tenth anniversary of the end of the Woodsboro murders, celebrated not only in a series of true-crime books from journalist/survivor Gale Weathers (Cox), now married to local cop/survivor Dewey Riley (Arquette), but also in the seven-film Stab franchise. As fellow-survivor Sidney Prescott (Campbell) returns to town to launch her self-help book, a whole new generation starts dying with the emergence of a new ghost-faced killer (or killers) apparently modelling his (or her, or their) pattern of attack on the original killing spree.
Is Scream 4, to borrow one character’s choice turn of phrase, a ‘shriek-quel’ or a ‘scream-make’? In truth, it is a bit of both – for it scrupulously adheres to the timeline of the original trilogy, while having a cast of younger characters re-enact (with significant variations) all the key scenes from the first film. Yet if this reboot aspires to bring in new blood and to upgrade the technology at the disposal of its masked killer(s), it is, like Die Hard 4.0, Rambo and Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull before it, equally fixated on the previous generation and its struggles to survive in a new, if no less cutthroat, world.
This is why, when Sidney Prescott returns to Woodsboro for the first time in a decade only to see the town festooned with the now commodified insignia of her one-time would-be killer, she responds: “Well I guess today is the anniversary. Kids.” That last word, uttered with a resignation that is only ever so slightly dismissive, emblematises what Sidney herself once was in this franchise, and can never be again. “Your ingénue days”, as one character later puts it to Sidney, “they’re over” – and in identifying so strongly with her adolescent cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), Sidney is in effect handing down her final girl status to the next generation.
Likewise Gale Weathers has long since run out of material for her brand of cash-in reportage or passion in her ten-year marriage to ‘smalltown cop’ Dewey, and Williamson’s script makes much uncomfortable mileage out of the fact that their ‘movie romance’ has, in fact, outlasted the real off-screen marriage of the actors who play them. Though she is as intrepid as ever, it seems only natural that Gale should now feel threatened by both a younger exploiter of real crime (Alison Brie’s wonderfully odious Rebecca Walters) and a younger rival for her husband’s affections (Marley Shelton’s Deputy Judy Hicks). Hilariously, after declaring “How meta can you get!”, Gale has to backtrack, conceding that she heard this term from her new young friends and has no idea what it means.
In the last of the film’s three prologues, Jenny Randall (Aimee Teegarden) accuses Stab 5 of being the worst in the Stab franchise for stooping to the use of ‘time travel’. In fact Scream 4 is probably the best of the Scream sequels, but with its generational clashes and self-conscious echoes from the past, the film is already flirting with a ‘time travel’ gimmick, collapsing the differences between then and now, and making the old heroes, rather than the new villains, the ones who, Michael Myers-like, just keep coming back.
The myth may to an extent move forward, but it also cannot stop looking nervously over its shoulder, so that, for all its investment in a fresh supply of teens for the final cut, it is still Campbell, Cox and Arquette who receive top billing here, and it is their characters who remain the focus of the story. There can and always will be new murderers – but if this ageing trio is allowed to continue its survival spree, the franchise seems doomed to retain its origins at the price of its own ossification.
Put simply, this supposedly new direction for the franchise will very soon grow old, as a franchise once famed for its innovations is reduced to becoming a deeply conservative product. Craven has done a fine job of revisiting this landmark of his own glory years, and has shown that there is still plenty of life left in him yet – but it would perhaps be best for him now to bow out of this particular franchise while he is still ahead, and start refocusing his energies entirely on the next new nightmare.
strap: Wes Craven’s belated postmodern sequel is stuck in its own hall of mirrors, and unwilling to kill its darlings.
© Anton Bitel