The year is 1996 and horror films have become a parody of themselves. This state of affairs provoked Wes Craven – a master of modern horror – to make Scream, a film which worked as a horror film while also satirising genre conventions. It also made it commercially viable for a film to be self aware and successful. Then we had Scream 2 in 1998 and Scream 3 in 2000. Successful they may have been, but eventually the parody series became a parody of itself. Fast forward 11 years into the future and Wes Craven has returned to Woodsboro to bring us Scream 4.
15 years after the original film in both mythology and reality we return to Woodsboro with Sidney Prescott who is on the last leg of her book tour, promoting her self-help book – out of darkness. Upon returning home she finds that Dewey is now the Sherriff and he is married to Gail Weathers. Unfortunately the bane of Sidney’s life, the ghost faced killer, also makes a return by killing off the locals indiscriminately- teenagers and adults alike.
The most important thing above the story and its execution is whether Scream still has a purpose. The first film satirised the slasher film, the follow up sequels and the third trilogies, the fourth of the series attacks the reboot. To that end it is a success. Unfortunately the film becomes that which it is satirising and nothing more. This may be what the franchise is known for, but at the same time the original is 15 years old the joke is beginning to wear thin now, especially when the film grinds its axe so incessantly. It still has a point to make and make it, unfortunately Wes Craven over-employs the idea so relentlessly that it tainted the experience, this especially true whenever the token geeks where deployed.
Luckily scream 4 is more than entertaining enough to make up for this. It follows the same structure as the originals in that it has the murder mystery running alongside the masked killer murdering people. And true to form, all the developments here come from people being told rather than finding out, but in presenting the mystery through these tools the film can really shock in a way that the franchise never has before. Therefore it’s needless to say it’s probably the least predictable denouement the series has had yet. But on the other hand the justification behind the murders was nothing more than childish. To have such a hefty body-count for such a flimsy reason, satire or not, did nothing other than antagonise me.
The murders themselves are much more graphic. On one occasion we see entrails leaking out of one of the many victims stomachs. That might put some people off, but it doesn’t really compare with the likes of Saw or the zombie genre which is playfully referenced through Shaun of the Dead. Just as the film has got more graphic in its representation of violence, it has also become more inventive with it too. In that respect it’s a good thing that Craven waited so long between the third and fourth films as he has much more material to use in updating the series for modern tastes and sensibilities.
It might be more graphic in its violence than ever before, it’s also funnier than it ever was too. For a film that deals in horror to be much funnier than a comedy is great news for Scream, but bad news for the comedy genre. Still it is a funny film that uses hyper-violence and it’s by products as a vehicle to amuse. The jokes may come from the violence, but that is usually the nature of black comedy – it makes us laugh at things we shouldn’t really find funny. To be more precise you won’t laugh because people die, you will laugh because of the over-the-top and shameless way in which people behave both before and after the cold hand of death has been dealt.
Scream 4 may succeed in its intention to poke fun at the tropes of horror cinema, it also succeeds in entertaining but it fails as a horror film. It may have an atmosphere which is important but that is dropped and instead the film fishes for cheap jumps. In a genre that has become such a parody of itself it’s pretty hard for anything fresh to be achieved in the scares department, not only have we seen it all before we’ve also seen it all before to the point that we know what to expect and when. It could be argued that this is what Wes Craven was trying to achieve, but that seems like too much of a convenient excuse to mask the fact that his latest film isn’t scary. If he followed the lead from the latest Hammer published film in its fervent creation of atmosphere rife in tension and all things unsettling and then playing for scares on top of that, he would have the raw materials to make a scary movie – but he doesn’t.
I enjoyed Scream 4. But it was hard to come to this conclusion because of an ending which tries to sabotage the film by cheapening it all with its unwanted commentary on celebrity culture. It also feels like it is using the post-modernity that the series is known for as validation for not doing things well. Like the acting, I couldn’t tell whether it was bad as a conscious decision or whether it was just the smorgasbord of pretty young things who couldn’t act and instead where cast for their staggering beauty. The big three in Neve Campbell, David Arquette and Courtney Cox as well as scream newbie Hayden Panattiere may have had standout performances, but that is really damming with faint praise as everybody here is terrible. Still, if you liked Scream in the past you’ll like Scream 4 in the present. Go see it.