Back in 1995, Wes Craven directed Scream, an exceptionally well-crafted slasher film that, in addition to providing the scares audiences desired, also served as a bold and often humorous critique of the horror genre. Establishing “rules” regarding teenagers having sex and never saying “I’ll be right back,” it eviscerated Hollywood tropes while also never alienating its audience and the result was a movie that many consider to be a classic today.
Now, fifteen years later (10 years after the last sequel hit theaters), the franchise is back with Scream 4. In as much as this movie continues the series, it also does something new: it reboots it. Understanding that it now has horror lovers from a new generation with a completely different contextual take on horror movies (growing up with Saw instead of A Nightmare on Elm Street), director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson use the sequel to reach out to both halves of their audience. While the results are a bit messy at times, it’s ultimately successful.
Set 10 years after the last crazed lunatic dressed up as Ghostface and started killing teenagers, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to Woodsboro on the last stop of her book tour. But shortly after Sidney’s arrival, as you’d expect, the madness starts up again and she reconnects with Sheriff "Dewey" Riley (David Arquette) and his wife/former news reporter, Gale Weathers Riley (Courtney Cox). Also now in the mix are a group of high school students new to the “Woodsboro experience,” including Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts), Sidney’s cousin, and her friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), Charlie (Rory Culkin), Robbie (Erik Knuden), Olivia (Marielle Jaffe), and Trevor (Nico Tortorella). As the body count quickly rises, the race is on to discover the identity of the new killer.
Continuing the strategy that made the first two movies so successful, Scream 4 is at its most fun when it’s picking apart the genre that it’s unabashedly a part of, and implementing its own tropes. Never is this done better in the film – and possibly the series – than at the start, in a sequence so well executed that I don’t want to discuss it any further and ruin it. Franchise fans will love seeing the return Stab - which now has six sequels – and newcomers will enjoy listening to characters talk about how Saw IV is “all gore, no character development” while hearing Panettiere list at least 20 horror remakes from the last 10 years.
While the Scream movies have always been deft at balancing the funny with the scary, sadly the fourth installment comes up lacking in the latter department. Though there is the occasional jump with a bit of brutality there aren’t any moments of absolute terror like the Drew Barrymore opening in the first film, which had moviegoers gripping on to arm rests for dear life. All of the really terrifying bits are telegraphed, be it a character walking alone in an empty parking lot or Sidney taking down a set of wind chimes only to hear them rattle again a moment later. It doesn’t help that these scenes often drag, going on too long as Craven mistakenly believes he’s delivering something scarier than it is.
What makes Scream 4 interesting is the way it tries to double up on its audience. In the last 15 years horror game has changed completely, with the genre largely populated by PG-13 versions that dial back the bite in order to keep MPAA ratings low or torture porn which believes in the philosophy that graphic violence and blood and guts is automatically scary. Scream 4 is neither. While this newest entry does try to modernize itself in some ways, the Scream franchise was born as a commentary on 80s horror, and that theme continues in this newest installment. Now though, most of the audience is too young to remember that decade, or even the first three films (Roberts, as a perfect example, was only nine years old when Scream 3 came out). So while it maintains the original’s theme and structure, Scream 4 actually becomes Scream for the modern 17 year old, though sadly this doesn’t provide much forward motion for existing franchise fans.
Craven’s film makes an effort to serve both old and new Scream fans in its audience. Though some fans from the 90s may still find parts of Scream 4 tedious, newcomers are sure to be excited by what this latest entry has to offer.