The opening of a slasher film has to be clever. The opening to a Scream film has to be clever in a similar manner while recognizing the stupidity and irony of the cleverness and critiquing itself as it plays out. There is lot of pressure here considering that the opening of the first Scream with hot ’90s star Drew Barrymore is now something of a Horror genre legend. The opening to the second film is almost as good: it shows a staged version of the first film’s opening in a movie adaptation of the first film’s events. It is a movie within a movie. At the screening, a young couple is killed. Everyone laughs and cheers because they think it is a publicity stunt. Scream 3‘s opening is kind of disappointing (much like the rest of the film). Liev Schreiber’s character is killed off to set in motion a series of killings that completely lose the irony of the first two films. Scream 4, or as I prefer to call it, The Triumphant Return of Kevin Williamson, deliver’s an inadvertant (and probably unintentional) Inception joke of an opening that lasts for almost twenty minutes and will leave most audience members satisfied.
The Scream series tells the unfortunate and repetitive life story of Sidney Prescott. In the first film she is introduced as having had her mother brutally murdered the year before. Murders start happening around her and it eventually becomes apparent that her life is in imminent danger. It turns out that her mother had cheated on her father with her boyfriend Billy Loomis’s father which destroyed Billy’s parents’ relationship. He and his friend then went on a murdering spree to get revenge and get media attention. Their plan was to blame the movies for their negative influence. What elevates Scream above most other slasher films (including many originals) is its self-awareness and its criticism of both the media and (in turn) itself.
Scream 2 could’ve been a simple retread of the original, but with Kevin Williamson on script duty, much more was delivered. The story continues with Billy Loomis’s mother out to get revenge for taking both her husband and her son from her. Of course it wasn’t actually Sidney’s fault, but blood-relation seems to be enough for her to inherit the blame. Williamson ingeniously toys around with the debate between sequels and originals citing Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Godfather Part II, and Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back while incorporating sequel-specific characteristics into the film.
In the third outing, Williamson did not return and was replaced by Ehran Kruger. The third film is underrated and actually holds up solidly as a murder mystery and as a mediocre slasher film. But it spends too much time tying itself to the first film and not enough time playing around with the irony that made the first two films successful. Also, rather than establish the now trademarked “horror movie rules” that make the Scream films so famously self-aware, the only new rules that are established here are that anything can happen in the conclusion of a trilogy. Saying that there aren’t any rules isn’t clever, it is a cop-out. The plot continues the idea of Sidney’s mother whoring around from the first film and continues the movie-series-within-the-movie from the second film.
That puts us up to date on Scream 4. Neve Campbell has played Sidney Prescott for the duration of the series’s existence. Her character is not particularly unique but has genuinely developed from an insecure and naive high schooler to an expirienced and wise young adult. Joining her is David Arquette as the awkward but hardworking and genuinely brave Dewey Cox (now the sheriff of Woodsboro). He is married to Courtney Cox (both onscreen and off) who plays Gail Weathers, the ambitious news anchor who is not a bad person but sometimes loses touch with what is morally acceptable in her workpath. I bring up these characters again rather than delve right into the plot to emphasize that they are the reason that Scream 4 is worth the price of a ticket. Throughout the quadrilogy, a complicated series of relationships have unfolded and the mysterious history of Sidney Prescott’s life is unveiled. Director Wes Craven (whose talent is often wasted) have offered up many terrifying moments in the now famous series including the afforementioned Drew Barrymore opener in the first film, the scene where they have to crawl over the killer in the car in the second film, the scene where Randy almost meets his fate in the first film, and where he does meet his fate in the second film. The series also features a surface-level, but sarcastically ironic look into the media and the film industry and how they percieve violence. But what keeps the series fresh are the three central characters and their lives that remain interesting like the complex web of a soap opera. I know that the cinematic world is short on fresh ideas and critics like to complain about sequels, but some things work as a franchise. And frankly, I think Scream is one of them.
If the problem with Scream 3 was that it lacked the humor of the series, Scream 4 will not disappoint. Kevin Williamson’s effect on the series is obvious from just the opening. Right off the bat there is a quick critique of both excessive sequels and a line about the newly developed torture porn. The film is constantly throwing out one-liners and film references and the plotline as a whole is a metaphor for sequels and the modern obsession with them. It also rings true to the original by keeping alive the “movies as a source of violence” debate. The film is, however, probably the least scary of the series. There is only one great kill in the film (and it is not the much-talked about mail-slot kill either). This one is the third person to die after the opening and the first real character to get killed. It happens when the killer plays a clever game with cell phones to trick a group of girls. But it happens far too early in the film. And after the strong opening sequence, the second half of the film really can’t match the first half.
I could write another thousand words about how many lines are great (or how many are terrible), how underdeveloped the twists are, or how simple the film’s statement about the media and violence are compared to such films as Network, Ace in the Hole, or The Truman Show. But those thousand words would do no good in describing the relevant flaws and virtues of Scream 4. So what is it that is relevant? To me, it is great to see the heroic trio return and face the killer (now named Ghostface). It is great to see a thrilling opening and at least one great kill scene. It is great that in the final shot of the film, the newscasters label the killer a hero. What does that mean? It means that the world is sadistic and messed up and this movie is a sick joke. But hey, it’s a good joke.
The idea of Scream 4 (as interpreted by the tagline “New Decade, New Rules.”) is to bring the self-aware horror film into this decade. This decade has changed horror. There are three types of horror films now: remakes of slasher films (Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and every other slasher film ever made), torture porn (Saw), and handheld camera films (The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield). As I said, there is a line about Saw early on, but the film rightfully doesn’t take this too far (it wouldn’t fit the spirit of the series). The handheld cameras issue is addressed by having the murderers film their murders. But this doesn’t do much good since we never see the footage. The film thematically focuses on spoofing the remakes. There is one great scene in which the murders are setup us as a remake of the first film and a young woman has to answer a question about horror movie remakes. She lists off most of the ones from the past decade. It is hard not to laugh as it takes her a solid twenty or thirty seconds speaking very quickly to do so. It occured to me in this moment that the perfect Scream movie to make right now is not Scream 4 but an actual remake of Scream. It would open up the remake debate, allow for a Hitchcock-Man Who Knew Too Much joke, and be a more accurate depiction of horror as it stands right now. It could be brilliant. But for now, we are left with another sequel. Which is still pretty good.