By Richard von Busack
Is Scream 4 a “shreiquel” or a “screamake”? I shouldn’t ask that question because the film asks that question itself. Strangely likable morsel of slasher-Pirandello that it is, Scream 4 asks more questions about what everything means than a high school sophomore. The characters all but admit they’re characters in a movie. They know what they must do to survive, because they’ve watched enough movies about unstoppable serial killers. Like its three predecessors, Scream 4 explains what it’s about, outlines the hackneyed qualities of its own setup, and ticks off its various rules of the genre… which it then starts to breaks, except for one important rule in the finale.
Sidney (Neve Campbell) is back in Woodsboro with a book to flog…unfortunately, it’s not titled Memoirs of a Surviving Virgin. It’s the tenth anniversary of the murders, and the local kids have hoisted up melting ghoul-face masks on the city’s lampposts to celebrate. At the bookstore, Sidney runs into fellow stalkee Gale (Courtney Cox) whose rival account of the murders has resulted in the popular Stab film franchise. There have been seven movies so far, including “the one about time travel.”
Gale is not happy with success. Typecast as a crime writer, she’s also feeling a certain strain in her marriage with the town’s sheriff (the ever-hapless David Arquette). Her husband’s blonde, big-eyed deputy (Marley Shelton) is noticeably sweet on him.
Naturally, that very night, the murders recommence. Gale decides to go back to journalism to catch the killer, right after a local female fan urges her to “revitalize your tarnished brand”--see what I mean about how this movie reviews itself?
After taking out a pair of incidental characters, the masked Ghostface leaves some circumstantial evidence in the trunk of Sidney’s rental car. He’s at large, this survivor of the chain of ten year old murders. Oddly, in his few comments—cranky phone calls, larded with terrible puns—this edition of Ghostface has no opinion on being the subject of so many movies. He seems to take his fame in stride.
He tells a victim who is defying him:
“You think you’re the star!”
“This isn’t a movie,” she replies.
“It will be.”
And amid the doomed teens, there seems to be a newly minted surviving virgin. Emma Roberts plays Sidney’s cousin Jill, who doesn’t know her traumatized, famous relative Gale very well. It’s an open question whether Ghostface is targeting his old quarry Sidney, or the new, younger Jill.
Kevin Williamson, the scriptwriter and franchise-hatcher, uses the kind of slang that makes it sound he should be spending more time eavesdropping at the mall. The incidental dialogue is fairly flat. The surfaces and colors are flat, but that may be deliberate too: it was filmed in Ann Arbor for the Michigan tax breaks, instead of Santa Rosa, California, as the first Scream was.
Despite the Michigan settings, the surroundings couldn’t look more scrubbed and recession-proof if director Wes Craven had time-traveled back to the MGM lot. In a world that honored its cinematic traditions, preserving its vintage studio backlots as it should, Craven would have been able to butcher the teens right on the lawns of Andy Hardy’s Carvel.
Every director of commercial entertainments is in danger of becoming a hack, but there’s an upside to a long stretch of commercial work: in a word, confidence. Craven has the kind of confidence a director can only have when he enters his seventh decade. At 71, is Craven the oldest director to have a film in a box office top ten…at least during the last ten years?
His confidence keeps him afloat in an era when there’s always ambient nervousness in horror filmmaking: worries about ratings and logic and tone, worries of the sympathetic qualities of the characters; worries about the awkwardness of love scenes, or the intensity of comic relief.
There should be more confidence in horror; as J. Hoberman once noted, the gorehound audience is the most democratic in the world: “they don’t care who gets it as long as someone gets it.”
Craven serves up a chain of startling popups and knife-ups, spaced out enough with enough breathing room that that the audience can jump without feeling frazzled. Craven knows where to put the camera so that the killer can sneak into the frame with little effort. When Ghostface seems to turn up at two places at once, as if he were Bugs Bunny, we roll with it. Craven also doesn’t even have to put much emotion in the mayhem. The Scream world is like an Agatha Christie plot. The victims die, less with horror, than with surprise….sometimes, it’s as if they die of embarrassment at having being fooled or found out.
This franchise has long ago worn out its scariness, if it ever had any. Craven seems OK with that too. The town’s teens, showing up for a Stab marathon at an old barn, recite the dialogue along with the screen. They play drinking games. They crow and cheer. These movies within the movies seem to have all the primal terror of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“One generation’s tragedy is another generation’s joke,” goes a line here: Scream 4 embraces the decay of serious-as-cancer horror films which actually scared people, and celebrates their transformation into idly-watched entertainment: bad-attitude flattering wallpaper, a socially acceptable entertainment for misfits, … as stimulating, but as dangerous, as a trip to Starbucks.
And maybe because the pace is fast, or the film doesn’t take itself seriously, an odd likeability sets in. Scream 4’s citation of every film theorist’s darling, Peeping Tom (1960) might have been the tipping point, as far as I was concerned. Shortly before that title gets dropped, a character says that Ghostface only has one career option: to change from killer to film director.
During a lethal game of trivia emceed by our masked killer, Hayden Panettierre’s Kirby, a girl gorehound, claims that Peeping Tom (1960) is the first horror film in which we see from point of view of the murderer. In her view, that’s what made it the first slasher movie: it was the first movie in which audiences sympathize with the hunter instead of the hunted.
Even considering what Peeping Tom achieved, I doubt if director Michael Powell pioneered this POV. A POV shot of the victim (to be) greeting the murderer (to be) as a friend…little knowing what’s in store for them… is so well known from 1940s films that Carl Reiner could parody it without explanation in The Man With Two Brains (1983).
Still, I started to respect Craven’s game of Stab the Chump by the finale. A strange thing happens. Once the stage is cleared of the minor characters: the pain-free, even theoretical, violence suddenly starts to hurt…as it really should. Even “Novocain Neve” Campbell seems worth protecting. Give her credit; she has spirit. Campbell’s a strapping, athletic heroine, who easily krav-magas the knife wielding murderer down a staircase. By the end, when she’s in serious peril, Craven starts supplying what the movie had denied: that a murder film isn’t about witty bending of narrative reality, but about the guts of what makes any crime story worth following: the motivation, the opportunity.
Scream 4 begins as what seems like a crime of economic necessity—the jump-starting of an old franchise that had said everything it was going to say ten years ago. Surprise: it turns into something more like a crime of passion.
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