The efforts of Wes Craven, Kevin Williamson, and the slough of found footage films (Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch, etc.) have effectively broken the fourth wall of horror films. And while tearing the wall down may be great fun – as 1996’s Scream showed us – once it’s down it can’t be built again, as the audience is now much more aware of the shortcomings of the genre and its cliches. And once the wall is down, it isn’t long before the entire house comes crashing down as well. But, since the wall IS down, we may as well have some fun with it.
Scream 4 (styled as “Scre4m“) is the most fun that has been had with the horror genre since 1997’s Scream 2. It’s not the biting satirical and loving ode to the horror genre that Scream was, and it doesn’t quite have the same level of humor and sheer fun that Scream 2 did, but it is orders of magnitude greater than the soulless Scream 3, and it certainly gives modern horror a run for its money.
What makes Scream 4 work where Scream 3 and modern horror films fail is not that it recognizes new tropes in horror films – though it does – as the simple act of acknowledging that horror films are formulaic is formulaic now (and while it points that out in the brilliant doubly-meta opening sequence, it doesn’t escape the formula). What makes it work is that it stays away from this exposition of the formula for the majority of the film, instead focusing far more on the underlying meditations on the media’s role in society that the first two films capitalized upon. The killer is motivated not by some petty anger (both Loomis killers and Roman), meta desire to expose Hollywood (Mickey), or peer pressure (Stu), but by a desire to become famous by being the sole survivor. “Sick is the new sane”, the killer says – and they are very right. Alison Brie’s character (a lovely sight to see in more ways than one) is Sidney’s publicist, and is ecstatic that new murders are happening while Sidney make a stop in Woodsboro on her book tour, a fact for which Sidney fires her. This idea of the media glorifying violence is not new – what makes Scream 4 stands out is its examination of the media’s effect on people, how it drives them to revel in tragedy and – in the killer’s case – to create it for personal gain.
Beyond that, the film is just plain fun. It’s been too long since a slasher film has so successfully given me chills and sat me upon the edge of my seat. Too many times during the film I said “I know what’s coming,” yet even when it did I jumped – the film has some predictable moments. Yet just as many times I said “I know what’s coming,” and then it didn’t come. The lack of closure and payoff lingers until the eventual Ghostface jump scare, and makes most every scene with a character alone very terrifying. Craven and Williamson put a new spin on their own formula, adding text messages, webcasts, and Twitter media to the mix – the killer does not just call people imposingly, but he texts them and films his murders, he tweets them and stalks them on Facebook. It’s an ever-so-slight-as-to-be-inconsequential rumination on the role of social media, but overall it is just a breath of fresh air into a formula that, by Scream 3, was getting tired.
A major criticism of the film will likely be the underuse of the fantastic actors at its disposal, and the great characters we have come to know and love – Neve Campbell, David Arquette and Courteney Cox are woefully underused in the film. However, while this is a little discontinuous with the rest of the series, there are some wonderful new characters from Woodsboro High who fill the void quite nicely. Hayden Panettiere and Emma Roberts especially give very fine performances, the former as horror-savvy girl-next-door and the latter as Sidney’s cousin, shaken by the death of three of her friends early in the film. These new kids almost entirely make up for the relative scarcity of the original actors (although, as in Scream 3, Randy Meeks is sorely missed. RIP, buddy), and I would be very glad to watch a movie with just them – but it simply wouldn’t be Scream without Sid, Dewey and Gale.
The film is not without its shortcomings, however. As previously mentioned, it is rather predictable in numerous parts. Many characters are disposed of long before their potential has been explored very well – for instance, Alison Brie’s character was a lovely candidate for the murderer, with her revelry in the killings for the boost it will give Sidney’s publicity and book sales. Yet she is killed barely a quarter of the way into the film (a chilling scene, to be sure), wasting her potential as a character, actress, and, yes, eye candy. And the killer’s eventual identity, while not too predictable, does not come as nearly as much of a shock as the revelations in the first two films in the series.
Scream 4 is not a masterpiece or a masterwork by any stretch – it is, however, a very fun horror film that sets its sights at better-than-average fare that also has a rather chilling message to portray, and it does all of this wonderfully with a script that, while not as self-aware and satirical as Scream, pays its dues in spades.
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