People often ask what I think of “torture porn” flicks like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005). As it turns out, I feel the same as director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson, the minds behind the Scream franchise. Whereas the original trilogy celebrated horror cinema, making light of its clichés and excesses, this latest chapter works more as a condemnation. Here is a film for folk like me who bemoan the genre’s recent turn toward graphic violence and nihilism, remembering a time when scary movies used their chills and thrills to convey something positive about the world.
After an ingenious opening sequence that I dare not spoil except to say it embodies the farcical spirit of the series and lets us know not to take things too seriously, Scream 4 reacquaints us with the previous instalments’ survivors: Sidney (Neve Campbell), returning to Woodsboro for a book tour; Dewey (David Arquette), now the town sheriff; and his wife Gale (Courteney Cox), who gave up journalism for a theoretical career as a fiction writer. The filmmakers treat them with a lot of affection. In fact, when a new Ghostface killer inevitably emerges, the movie feels less like a revival than a final hurrah for characters we know and love, sort of like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls (2008) minus the awful.
The high concept here is our heroes have stepped into a remake of the first Scream (1996). As such, we’re introduced to a slew of new characters (in fact, way too many), each a counterpart to someone from the original. For example, Trevor (Nico Tortorella), with his needlessly shifty eyes, serves as this decade’s Billy Loomis, while Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Kulkin), who manage their high school’s cinema club, share the task of replacing Jamie Kennedy’s Randy. The only real addition to the cast consists of Kirby (Hayden Panettierre), a sassy, sexy horror buff who, of course, didn’t exist in the nineties; otherwise I would’ve married her.
However, the most intriguing doppelganger, which is to say the only one properly explored, is Sidney’s cousin (Emma Roberts), who seems aware of the role the plot requires her to play. Gill doesn’t yet possess that heroic “final girl” quality, but she’s working hard toward it. As Sidney 2.0, she adds a deconstructionist twist to the whodunit mystery, as we’re never quite sure which heroine Ghostface means to harass. After all, though they each represent a different generation of scary movies, Gill and Sidney essentially play the same character, and the heart of the satire lies in their very different takes.
The contrast between young and old fuels most of the comedy. “One generation’s tragedy is another’s joke,” complains Dewey as if talking about his own film franchise. Our senior heroes feel out of their depths, forced to consult apathetic teens to figure out the new slasher rules, yet they seem to have more fight in them. Like Sidney’s book Out of Darkness, old-school thrillers discuss survival and empowerment. As such, the grown-ups always get a few shots in before Ghostface takes them down. Current slashers, on the other hand, deal with victimisation, so the new cast acts like helpless cannon fodder.
As a jab to contemporary gore fests, Craven downplays the usual cat-and-mouse bit and ramps up the violence to the point of absurdity. He even switches to a muted colour palette to mimic their visual style. One murder, in particular, leads to a crime scene straight out of the Saw movies, with entrails lying about and blood on every wall. How a few knife wounds can lead to this level of carnage is never explained, but then that’s the joke. Consider Sidney’s irritated expression when Ghostface threatens to slit her eyelids so she won’t blink when he stabs her in the face. It’s worth the price of admission alone.
If it seems like I’m limiting this review to highfalutin symbols and thematic schemes, it’s because Scream 4 doesn’t really work as a purely visceral thrill ride. That is, not until the final act, when the old tropes take over and blend comedy, commentary, and insanity in such a perfect way I couldn’t help myself cheering out loud. Otherwise, the movie sort of plays against itself, adopting tropes it openly criticizes: the better the parody, the worse the slasher. For the first time since the original Scream, Ghostface’s identity proves integral to the plot, but it only makes sense in the context of the satire.
Mind you, is that so bad? The Scream series stands out specifically because of its satire and self-referential humour. The first film deconstructs the slasher but also mocks the image of a morbidly desensitised youth. The second pokes fun at sequels and exposes our use of the media to avoid personal responsibility. The third has some nonsense about trilogies but really discusses our tendency to confuse fame with validation. In every case, the killer’s deliberately inane motive elevates the story by way of both cultural pertinence and sheer lunacy.
In Scream 4, the cinematographic in-jokes and broader satire dovetail to denounce a cynical trend in today’s entertainment. Consider the film’s final line, spoken by a nameless reporter: “an American hero right out of the movies.” There are no more role models in horror cinema, just as there never were in reality fair like Jersey Shore. Sure, shocking your audience half to death may prove jolly good fun, but scary movies can achieve so much more. They can comment on life, social constructs, popular culture, and sometimes even themselves.