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Entries in Scream 4 [2011] (1)

Sunday
Apr172011

Scream 4 (2011)

A Series of Tubes

Horror movies belong to young filmmakers.  Anyone screaming "Ageism!" right now probably hasn't seen Wes Craven's Scream 4, a movie as desperate and confused in its understanding of millennial pop culture as Senator Ted Stevens' description of the Internet as "a series of tubes".

To be fair, Craven only gets half the blame for this huge misstep.  Kevin Williamson's screenplay is so cheeky, hip, and meta that I imagine he wrote it on a cell phone in a bar surrounded by patrons half his age (while wearing an Ed Hardy t-shirt and some sick-ass kicks, yo).

Before I go any further, understand that I can't talk about this movie's problems without spoiling the plot.  In my other reviews of the franchise, I've stayed relatively spoiler-free, but those were (mostly) quality films that I'd hoped you would watch.  Scream 4 should only be viewed as a curiosity, or as a trophy for horror completists.  Under no circumstances should you go into this thing expecting to be scared or entertained.

The film picks up eleven years after the events of Scream 3.  Series heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) has just published a book about coping with severe trauma--stemming, no doubt, from losing most of her friends and family to a series of grisly murders.  She returns to her hometown of Woodsboro, CA, on the last stop of her book tour and catches up with friends and fellow survivors Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette), now a bickering married couple.  Sidney's arrival kicks off a new string of murders by someone wearing the infamous Ghostface mask and reaper costume; the deaths are meant to re-create those of the original Woodsboro Massacre (known to audiences as Scream, which was turned into the movie-within-a-movie, Stab, based on Weathers' own book; follow?).

The first Scream was a self-aware analysis of horror movie conventions.  The second broke down and shook up what we know about sequels.  The third went hyper-meta in its assessment of trilogies--meaning it was unnecessary and awful.  Scream 4, we soon learn, is Williamson and Craven's comment on this decade's version of sequels: Remakes.  The ploy allows them to reboot the franchise without technically remaking the original film--though their mission statement forces them to do just that (sort of).  If that's confusing to read, it's even more confusing and disheartening to watch.

Here's a good example:  The opening of Scream 4 sees two teen girls alone in a house chatting about guys and the creepy Facebook messages one of them has been receiving lately.  The phone rings, and of course it's the ominous Ghostface Voice (Roger Jackson) threatening to slice both of them to pieces. This is the obligatory ten-minute-opening-shocker, where a brutal attack jumps right into the film's title card--except this time, it's the opening scene of Stab 6.

We cut to a different couple of girls sitting on a couch watching Stab 6 on television.  One of them laments the era of torture porn and how movies aren't scary or surprising anymore.  Her friend pulls a knife out of the cushions and stabs her in the belly.  This, it turns out, is the opening of Stab 7.

Cut to yet another set of teenage girls (one of whom is made up to look like a 45-year-old PTA chair for some reason) watching Stab 7 in a big, empty house.  They talk about scary movies; blah, blah, blah; Ghostface shows up and kills them, and we finally get the official Scream 4 titles.

By this point, I'd given up on the movie.  That's not to say that I wasn't open to being surprised, but I had no expectation that anything frightening or original would happen.  Part of this has to do with the Inception-like false-bottoms in Williamson's script.  Once we know that the Stab fake-outs are so poorly acted and ham-fistedly written because they're parodies of awful sequels, it's up to the writer to pack the real movie with sharp dialogue and fuller characters for contrast.  Unfortunately, all of the teens in Scream 4 are self-obsessed, dumb, snarky little monsters.  While it may be the filmmakers' astute commentary on the plugged-in, vapid drones that comprise their audience now, the effect of trying to accept them as protagonists is draining--especially since the buzz surrounding the movie has been of the baton-passing variety, with the older cast possibly getting killed off in order to pave the way for Sidney and Friends 2.0.

No such luck.  Even though the Rules of the Remake, as stated by film nerds Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin), explicitly say that all previously established franchise icons are now expendable--and even though a variation of this same rule was laid out in Scream 3--by film's end, we're still left with Sidney, Dewey, and Gale as the lone survivors of the fourth Woodsboro bloodbath.  No teens live through the first Scream of the new generation, only a trio of thirty- and forty-somethings.

The film isn't a total wash.  Despite evidence to the contrary (namely, the director's last picture, My Soul to Take), Wes Craven still has some skills left.  Scream 4 features a couple of decent chase scenes, a fleeting moment or two of eerie atmosphere, and one terrific character death involving a knife to the forehead (the effectiveness of which is undone by the victim's last words, and the fact that he, as the only person of color in the movie, is indicative of the franchise's embarrassing tradition of casting most of its African Americans from the Hell Naw School of Social Interaction's graduate-degree program).

But the good moments comprise about ten of the film's 111 minutes.  The rest of the time, I sat with my head in my hands, questioning the judgment of everyone involved in the production.  Questions such as:

Why does Scream 4 look like an US Weekly-produced Revlon commercial?  More than in any of the other films, this movie has tons (and tons and tons) of cute cameos by hot actresses who aren't asked to do anything except be recognized (I should say half-recognized; what percentage of the target audience will actually say, "Holy shit!  That's Anna Paquin" vs. "Holy shit!  It's that girl from True Blood!").  I almost didn't recognize any of them because so much of the film is bathed in a blurry, golden glow that it's sometimes hard to make out where backgrounds end and luminous skin begins.  It's like watching a Barbara Walters special on a butter-smeared TV.

Also, how much did Courteney Cox pay for that face job, and was she happy with the result?  She and Mary McDonnell both look like Rihanna after her last date with Chris Brown.  Cox in particular is a Joker-esque caricature of her once-stunning self, and I wondered how hard it must be for regular middle-aged actresses in Hollywood to get by if a millionairess super-star feels the need to become a living Bratz doll in order to stay relevant.

Lastly, What combination of apathy and ineptitude have allowed the Ghostface Killer to become as anonymous a presence as Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees?  In the first two Scream films, the killer was shrouded in mystery.  We couldn't wait to find out who was behind the mask, and what their motivations were. It was a bit Scooby-Doo, sure, but we understood that there was a real personality and plan at work.  In the last two movies, Ghostface is just a fast-moving zombie with a knife fetish and great phone reception.  Maybe it's because the killer(s) were just re-creating all of the deaths from the first Scream with little variation, but I didn't care about this movie's Big Reveal in the least.  I'd also figured out the secret way before the climax, which is an unfortunate first.

So, whodunnit?  Once again, we're presented with a murderous tag-team.  The first is cinema buff Charlie, and his partner--indeed, the mastermind--is Sidney's niece Jill (Emma Roberts).  This is, I suppose, the major twist, as Roberts had been presumed to take over the Neve Campbell roll in (God forbid) parts four and five.  But, no; mousy Jill is a complete psycho who believes that killing the famous Sidney Prescott and posing as a victim of another Woodsboro massacre will buy her instant fame and fortune.  It's a novel concept, and her Talking Villain speech is the most stunning critique of our superficial, reality-show-driven culture of 2007.

Sorry, Kevin, the "Let's-Blame-The-Kardashians" ship has sailed.  Blame the constant churn of the culture you so want to skewer/market to, but the truth is this pseudo-Columbine argument is a flimsy skeleton, and I can see right through the glossy pop skin you've draped over it.

That, in a nutshell, is where the whole franchise went wrong.  The first two Screams were horror movies first and savvy dissections second.  The third and especially the fourth film assume that the reason people showed up in the first place was so that the creators could show off how in-touch they were with their audience's tastes.  That's a dangerous place to start from, especially when the easiest way to put asses in seats for a horror movie is to make a really good horror movie--one with scares and cool deaths we've never seen before.  Scream 4 is more concerned with getting all its pop cultural references down, condemning it to certain laughing-stock status ten years from now (an era in which, I assume, the term "Facebook" will be as giggle-worthy as "video cassette" is today).

While I've grown to like this franchise's survivors a great deal, I hope this is the last time I'll ever have to endure their exploits.  This series is dead.  Its creators have said everything they have to say about anything; and much of what they've said has been stated poorly.  I don't think the self-aware horror movie should go away, necessarily, but the next successful one will be made by someone who hasn't been discovered yet (maybe not even born yet).  As an art form, the movies have taken meta-analysis as far as it can go.  It's time to stop being so fucking detached from everything and get back to making scary movies for real human beings.  It's telling that when Ghostface asks anyone in the Scream 4 what their favorite scary movie is, the answer is never a film that was made in the last twenty years.