Cleverness is a double-edged sword, and Kevin Williamson doesn’t seem to understand this. On the one hand, his screenplay for Scream 4 is rife with witty dialogue and a few interesting insights into the horror genre. On the other hand, he spends far too much time winking at the audience, as if he were desperate to make us aware of the many, many conventions the film is both utilizing and working against. He thinks he’s being smarter than his audience, when in fact his audience was wise to his tricks a long time ago. Through his characters, he makes it abundantly clear how intimately familiar he is with horror movies; not only does he perpetuate exhausted stereotypes, he also has them spout an endless succession of facts and figures, as if the actors had memorized cards from the Slasher Edition of Trivial Pursuit. Ultimately, I didn’t feel as if I had watched a movie but rather attended a lecture. A very bloody lecture.
The purpose of this movie, as it was with the first three Scream movies, is not to thrill you but merely to jerk your chain, to lead you along on a mechanical ride through some of the oldest horror clichés imaginable. That Williamson is aware of them, that he makes his characters aware of them, doesn’t make them any less tiresome. I’ll give credit to director Wes Craven for giving the film some visual appeal – assuming you find stabbings, gaping wounds, and gushes of blood appealing. Many audiences do, and believe you me, the people I sat with showed their appreciation in no uncertain terms. Perhaps I’m flawed in that I’ve never found anything particularly entertaining about slasher films, since they’re essentially vehicles for faceless, hollow teenagers to die on cue. Horror movies work best, I believe, when you’re actually made to care about the characters.
The plot: On the anniversary of the original 1996 murder spree, a new psychopath dressed as Ghostface begins terrorizing the town of Woodsboro – which, like Haddonfield in the Halloween movies, has such a notorious legacy that it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to continue living there. Arriving on the exact same day is Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who’s in town to promote her new self-help book. She reunites with Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and former newscaster Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), who have since married. New to the film is Sidney’s teenage cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts), her best friends Kirby and Olivia (Hayden Panettiere and Marielle Jaffe), and Sidney’s aunt (Mary McDonnell). Also new is Jill’s ex boyfriend, Trevor (Nico Tortorella), and her classmates, Robbie and Charlie (Erik Knudsen and Rory Culkin), who take the reins from Jamie Kennedy as the annoying horror aficionados. Inevitably, many of these characters will die horrible deaths. And one or two of them will be the killer(s).
All of the Scream films revolve around rules that horror movies tend to play by, which I would wager most audiences are either unaware of or simply don’t care about (I place myself in the latter category). For Scream 4, Williamson takes it one step further by making a commentary of sorts on horror remakes, which have been plentiful within the last ten years; they’re represented by numerous sequels to Stab, the fictitious horror series based on Gale’s book. It’s an interesting idea, but the way the movie handles it, what we end up with is a showy display of self-awareness. There’s only so much nudging I can take before I start bruising. It loses all steam when the killer is finally revealed; yes, there is a motive, but it’s founded on events so innately cinematic that it isn’t intelligent so much as it is cynical.
I mentioned before my ambivalence towards slasher films. With Scream 4 in particular, it’s no longer fun for me watching everyone around Sidney die. If anything, it’s actually pretty sad. At one point, Jill calls her the Angel of Death – wherever she goes, someone will inevitably get killed. Sidney is, of course, hurt by that. But I’ve seen the films, and … well, I think Jill may be on to something. I haven’t done a body count (you have my permission to shoot me if I ever start examining a horror movie that closely), but I know that a lot of Scream characters have met their maker since 1996. Perhaps they would have been wise to stop answering the phone and responding to the question, “What’s your favorite scary movie?”
There’s an opening film-within-a-film-within-a-film sequence that I found dementedly amusing. Perhaps this was a nod to the metafictional structure of Craven’s own New Nightmare, one of his better efforts. Truth be told, I was involved for the first twenty minutes or so; it was by the numbers, but at least Williamson provided us with some appealing dialogue. Alas, it eventually became tedious, and by the time it was over, Scream 4 didn’t seem like a horror movie so much as a blood-soaked inside joke for fans of the series. And now, I will end on a digression. “You forgot the most important rule of remakes,” says a character at a crucial moment: “Don’t mess with the original.” Mr. Williamson, have you actually sat and watched 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Or 2007’s Halloween? Or 1982’s The Thing?
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