Epic spoilers lie herein.
The fourth Scream film, while quite bad, does have some things going for it. Firstly, it’s not Scream 3. Secondly, it kills Adam Brody. I know he may have been playing a character, but as far as I’m concerned, Adam Brody got knifed in the back a few years after Angelina Jolie smacked him upside the head with a heavy telephone.
But the actual good here is that the film works in a new cast surprisingly well. I fully expected that it would show Sidney, Gale and Dewey as lip service, and then quickly forget them in favour of devoting screen time to a new cast of younger and more bankable stars. But it actually balances them pretty well, due to the second good thing about the film:
The history. The Scream series has built its entire premise on being self-aware as a horror film and its conscious knowledge of the tropes and clichés of the genre. As such, the fourth film not only needs to take into account the history of the Scream films, but also the Stab films (which is the series of in-universe films based on the events in the Scream series, but it also has to be aware of the multitude of horror films that have come in the decade between numbers 3 and 4.
Number 4 works because it doesn’t just do another instalment of a continuing story, it takes a self-referential view of the first three films. The writers have created a very believable history between numbers 3 and 4, with the main trio of characters having been very severely affected by the events of the first three films. It’s nice to see them evolve Sidney from a subversion of the traditional “Final Girl” of horror films to an outright deconstruction – she’s not just a character who keeps on having a whole bunch of murders take place around her – she’s a person whose entire life has become defined by the tragedies in her past. Gale’s career as a hot-topic reporter has waned, and she’s looking for her limelight again, and Dewey has become the sheriff of a small town defined by its past tragedies. It works in realistic elements that are then used to frame the introduction of the new cast.
The whole shtick of the fourth film is that it’s satirising/analysing remakes or attempts to revive an old series. The new cast echoes the characters of the first film – the main is Sidney’s cousin, she has her friends and even a vaguely threatening boyfriend a la Billy Loomis in the first, so on and so forth. Despite it not living up to its potential, there’s a lot for these new characters to do, and they’re not just re-treads of the first film.
The thing that this film does best, and even then it’s only through other faults, is ramping up the paranoia. As the characters sit around and discuss the situation as people around them keep dying, they try to figure out who it can be. Given that they’re all aware they’re in a horror film, and the fourth in a series of films which is doubling as a remake, they also realise that it will try to outdo the original, which means that those of us in the audience who try to second guess the film are kept guessing as to who’s going to be the killer. I admit, I did figure out who it would be before the reveal, but it did have me guessing for a fair while, if only because the film keeps driving it home that you should be guessing.
Which brings us to…
The single worst thing about the film is how Meta it is, but that’s getting its own section below. Also, the killer’s voice, though played by the same voice-actor as the other films, sounds just a bit too over-the-top to take seriously. But that’s a bit of a flippant complaint.
Scream 4 is a dumb film that thinks it’s being clever, and it keeps tripping over its own stupidity for the entire run. An eleven-year break between films means that the actors are a little rusty in getting back to the parts. I quite like Courtney Cox as an actress, but she’s almost laughable in how tired her performance is. You can almost see the thinking-patterns on her face as she goes “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, oh shit – gotta be sassy and tough here so dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.”
Hayden Panettiere is another interesting one. I started out hating her performance and character, and would throw her in with the bad if she hadn’t somehow managed to create a decent and likeable character by the film’s end. So while this is good, it’s bad that the film has so little in the way of proper character growth that her very good work comes off as bizarre because it doesn’t mesh with the other lacklustre performances. Rory Culkin, what were you doing!? You were so good in Mean Creek, but here you just look bored and unwashed!
Another annoyance is that the film is remarkably stupid in some areas that distract from the rest of it. There’re two cop characters that are assigned to protect Sidney and her cousin. They’re played by white-and-nerdy Adam Brody and black-and-stereotypical Anthony Anderson. Given that they’re characters in a Scream film, they discuss their situation as the expendable cops, with Anthony Anderson pointing out that unless a cop is being played by Bruce Willis, they will always die, and he will die first cos he’s the black one. So the film plays with this by killing Adam Brody as he’s standing in front of Anthony Anderson, only for Anthony Anderson to then cop a knife straight through the forehead.
I know you’re meant to suspend your disbelief in a horror film about what is survivable and for how long, but watching a man with a gushing head wound – i.e. a knife straight into the brain – stumble around for a while and still have the mental capacity to utter “fuck you Bruce Willis” before he falls down dead is the point where I say “fuck you movie.” This movie was just stupid with things like that, like having the two film-buff characters surmising that the only way to survive a horror film in the modern climate is to be gay. When one of them is being stabbed and reveals that he in fact is gay, and the film plays this as though he seriously expects this to make a difference, you ignore that it’s meant to be funny and just think it’s a shitty piece of writing. Another thing – if they wanted it to work, they should probably have mentioned he was gay more than just lingering on two of his smirks and raised eyebrows in the second act. It was a shittily done execution of the “Bury Your Gays” trope.
The killer turns out to be Jill, Sidney’s cousin, and her motivation for it is that she wants the same fame that Sidney had by doing a remake of the original murders. When Sidney inevitably defeats Jill, she shoots her and tells her the first rule of remakes is “never fuck with the original.” This would be forgivable as a cheesy kiss-off line, if the director of the film hadn’t been Wes Craven, who’s first film was a remake of The Virgin Spring which didn’t so much “fuck with the original” as “bend it over and rape it,” given that that particular film is Last House on the Left.
It’s this kind of crap that lets the movie down, but it could almost pass if it weren’t for…
For the uninitiated, “Meta” refers to a character or an aspect of a film/series/text of any sort commenting on another aspect of the film in such a way that it also serves as a comment someone outside the work would make.
Perfect example from Buffy: In one episode where all the characters have lost their memories, Spike (a vampire) is postulating that he must be a good vampire because he doesn’t want to kill Buffy. Her response: “A vampire with a soul? How lame is that!?” and it’s funny because the series previously played the notion of Angel – a vampire with a soul – as anything but lame. It works because it points out something the audience is thinking, and pointing out that their thought may be legitimate, but at the same time it’s kind of proving that despite that, the work passes it off successfully.
A more simplified version of this would be to call it “winking at the audience.” Scream 4 spends so much time winking at the audience that it may as well have its eyes closed.
Consider the opening. Those familiar with the Scream series will know that the films open with a character being killed, usually played by a big-name actor. Scream 4 opens with a series of fake openings, which turn out to be the first scenes of a Stab film. One of these has the characters in Stab 7 watching the opening of Stab 6. So this is already a Meta-reference to the way that the Scream sequels have incorporated a film-within-a-film before. They take this further, because Stab 7 opens with Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell watching Stab 6. Anna Paquin’s character goes on a rant about how terrible the Stab films are, and the faults she describes are all followed by the Scream films – “a bunch of articulate teenagers sit around and discuss horror films” (or something like that) but she reels it off in a self-deprecating way that could be read as the characters saying “hey we know the Scream movies are kind of hokey, but oh well.” This scene also really disappointed me as it was really badly done. It could’ve been a good send up of what the scream movies have done up until now, but it just came across as two characters whining about how unoriginal they are, and it’s all the worse because I really like Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin.
Later, as the main characters are discussing their predicament, they point out everything that the audience would and should expect of them, and the point out how these things might be played differently, and while it’s the film trying to be self-aware and witty, it just ends up a movie that second-guesses itself at every turn.
The first film essentially said “I’m a horror movie, but I’m gonna make things interesting by doing exactly what you expect, but calling myself out on the way, and it’ll be all the more interesting for it.”
The fourth film tries to do this, but is more like “I’m a horror movie, but I’m gonna call everything I do before you even realise I’m doing it and –OH GOD TELL ME I’M GOOD! GIVE ME YOUR APPROVAL! PLEASE!” It mistakes anticipating the action as wit, when really what it’s doing is telling you what will happen next before you have a chance to feel any suspense.
The decision to make these characters so aware of their predicament is also what makes it all the more obvious that they are really stupid characters. It’s already a little bit silly that the characters (including the fucking police) are investigating through the patterns of horror films, but it becomes fucking ridiculous that the teenage characters who are obsessed with horror films discuss what’s going to happen next – but then don’t do anything about it! They all know they’re going to get stalked/attacked/killed but none of them do anything such as – getting a fucking gun! Even the third film had Sidney very wisely grabbing a gun before going to meet the killer – so why the hell don’t these kids, who through the film’s own self-awareness are expecting to have to outdo everything that’s gone before, get a fucking gun and shoot the fucking killer. The Ghostfaces have always used knives. Guns shoot bullets, which go a lot further than a knife lunge.
There’s only one character in the film who uses a gun as protection, and that’s Dewey, the sheriff. Even then, when he has to use it, he can’t get a single hit, despite Ghostface being a pretty obvious target, and at a fairly close range.
The problem with this is that it defies the movie’s own logic. It’s fair enough for other horror films to go down the path of “let the victim be more vulnerable” because those films follow a logic wherein the character isn’t used to being in this situation. The characters of Scream 4 are not only aware of the traditions of horror films, but they’re aware that their current lifestyle is being patterned from horror films, and they know what to expect. That they still walk around, alone, unprotected and unarmed is ludicrous, because of the film’s own devotion to making these characters aware of their plight. This means, unlike in other films where you forgive the characters of their genre blindness, that the characters of Scream 4 are just idiots waiting to die. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you should ever find yourself in a small town where your friends are being murdered, GET A FUCKING GUN!
Actually come to think of it, the killer(s) in every movie get defeated when the characters FUCKING SHOOT THEM! LEARN THE FUCKING LESSON!
All of the above can be written of as me reading too much into a genre film. I like the Scream films. Scream 4 was not as good as the first, but it was definitely better than 2 or 3, and it was very entertaining. The characters are stupid, and the film is just too self aware which means you don’t end up watching a story, you watch people give examples of scenes from horror films and act them out
It is also still a clever film at some points, and I think some of its stupidity may come down to some inexplicably bad acting. I did love the moment when Hayden Panettiere’s character is being menaced on the phone by the killer, and he’s making her play the trivia game. When he says, “Name the remake–” she cuts him off by listing pretty much every horror film remake of the past ten years to shut him up. That was clever. The gay character telling the killer he shouldn’t be killed because he’s gay was insulting, and just not clever.
If you like the Scream films then you should be ok with this. But if you don’t like a film where the self-referential scenes are more frequent than the scenes that tell the story, you’ll be frustrated. It keeps on coming back to itself so much it feels a bit like it’s walking on the spot.
Put it this way – one of the characters makes a point of talking about films that call out their own traditions. Another character asks him “Geez, how Meta can you get?” The answer, of course, is too much.