By Matt Smith
The one thing that has kept my interest in seeing further entries in the Scream series is Neve Campbell. How she never became a bigger star is beyond me, though for a while in the late-90s, it certainly looked like she was on the verge of a serious breakthrough. But it never happened, and the Scream films will surely be her acting legacy, despite her best efforts in independent dramas like When Will I Be Loved and I Really Hate My Job. Ditto that sentiment David Arquette, who is certainly likable enough as Dewey, but who I don’t very much care for as an actor outside of his work here. Maybe it’s fitting then that this new installment, Scream 4, sees them return along with Courtney Cox as Gale Weathers, and that it’s actually a pretty good flick to boot. For a movie that by all accounts should have sucked (per the rules of moviemaking), it comes together into an enjoyable exercise for fans of the genre and for fans of the franchise, which is no easy feat, believe me.
It’s been 15 years since Ghostface, an admittedly lesser slasher villain by the nature of his character always being someone different, made his debut in the original Scream. Back then, he was the epitome of horror genre self-awareness. He killed people methodically according to the rules of a slasher movie, even goading his victims into playing along via phone quizzes and intricate set-ups that made sure they would end up exactly where they needed to be. Still, with the help of a small group of friends, the “last girl”, Sidney Prescott survived her encounters with the killer and overcame the odds each time. This despite repeated betrayals by friends, boyfriends and mothers of boyfriends. I would have probably given up if I were her. How much can one take? As with most protagonists in horror movies, the answer is a whole hell of a lot.
The beginning of Scream 4 features several movies-in-movies, featuring a string of cameos that culminate in Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell’s unexpected twist on the remake/opening kill formula before it’s revealed that yet again we are only watching a movie the first victims are watching before their, this time real, deaths. This sequence featuring the Stab films, the adaptations of Gale Weather’s book on the Woodsboro murders, are the focal point of a few clever opening murders which serves as commentary on the innocuous kills of anonymous hotties that normally kicks off a slasher flick, while also providing us with the insight that countless sequels have a way of truly ruining how good the original film was in the first place. In many ways, the fictitious Stab series is the Scream that could have been but thankfully never was; the never ending cycle of young bodies and inventive puncture wounds that pave the way to sequel hell for many other horror franchises.
Scream 4 finds Sidney Prescott older and a bit wiser, the author of a new book on her efforts to overcome the darkest portions of her life, who has returned to the town of Woodsboro on the last stop of her book tour, a symbolic gesture to convey her having come full-circle and accepted the horrible things that happened to her that have taken her so long to get a handle on. Dewey is now Sheriff Dewey and is married to Gale Weathers-Riley, who is in semi-retirement from journalism until things start to go bad for Sidney again. And this time, I think it’s fair to say they go really bad. Evidence starts to show up in her car’s trunk. Someone seems to be aware of her constant move. Worse, her young cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) is facing down the same killer, much the same way Sidney did in the first film, and her friends are the ones dropping like flies when Ghostface starts his spree.
It’s the story of Jill and her circle that provide much of the format of a remake in Scream 4, and the use of two high school film club horror geeks (Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen) that fill the void of cinematic knowledge left by Randy’s (Jaime Kennedy) earthly departure in Scream 2. The rest of the young characters are also stand-ins for the original cast in the remake of the killings in Woodsboro a decade after Sidney survived them. Hayden Panettiere’s Kirby is Rose McGowan’s Tatum, Knudsen’s film geek fills in for Gale because he’s broadcasting everything that happens to him, and on and on. True to remake form, the kills are more unpredictable, bigger, and Jill’s best friends die in a different order, but with some of them, like the murder of Jenny Randall under her garage door, or the ending confrontation of the film, mirroring some of the murders from the first film.
There is also a much larger cast this time around, which inevitably leads to more victims. It’s also nice to see some faces pop up here and there, including Marley Shelton, Adam Brody, Anthony Anderson and Mary McDonnell, playing police officers and Jill’s mother, respectively. All of these characters have some pretty great moments, and even if some of them die, at least we’re given actual characterizations by some solid actors instead of a typical generic kill that is just there for the sole reason of increasing body counts instead of providing something for the story.
Original screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s script retains the clever self-aware hipness that screenwriting hack Ehren Kruger (Scream 3) sapped from the series, and coupled with Wes Craven’s familiar and sure handed touch, it’s like slipping back into a conversation with old friends, which has long been a vital component of watching serialized dramas on both film and television. If the characters aren’t interesting, and no one cares about them, you may as well not make a movie or television show in the first place. I’m not going to give away the ending, because the last fifteen minutes or so are pretty damned brilliant in my book, but maybe it’s due to my total lack of interest in celebrity culture and the stupidity that arises out of obsession with famous people and becoming a celebrity oneself by getting a video seen on the internet.
Scream 4 is about as good a horror sequel as one could hope for. Very rarely does a franchise pick up after a decade looking and feeling as much like home as this one without undergoing a lame “reboot,” which rarely works anyway. And fret not, for this film isn’t all about Jill and her friends; Sidney is a central character, as are Dewey and Gale. The young additions to the story are integrated into it fairly well, so that the original storyline following Sidney can develop side by side with her cousin’s emerging story as the film goes on. As a horror devotee, I can tell you with no uncertainty, that you could do much, much worse for a movie in this genre, especially with the number 4 in its title.