A film review by Craig J. Koban April 28, 2011

SCREAM 4 jj
½ 

2011, PG-13, 111 mins.

 

Sidney: Neve Campbell / Gale: Courteney Cox / Rachel: Anna Paquin / Chloe: Kristen Bell / Rebecca: Alison Brie / Dewey: David Arquette / Kirby: Hayden Panettiere / Jill: Emma Roberts / Charlie Walker: Rory Culkin / Perkins: Anthony Anderson

Directed by Wes Craven / Written by Kevin Williamson.

I will say this about SCREAM 4: it has one of the most ingeniously creative openings for any fourth film in a series.   

The mind-bending, INCEPTION-esque introduction shows two teenage girls at home all alone watching a horror DVD and then discussing the pros and cons of the SAW series, which one of the lasses rightfully labels as mildness torture porn.  The phone rings and on the other end is a raspy and ominous voice of a serial killer that threatens to end their lives in a few short minutes.  The girls are dubious, but cautious minded, but within no time the black hooded Ghostface shows up and mercilessly slices and dices the two unfortunately souls. 

Now, this is not the ingeniously creative part; what happens next is: It turns out that this opening is not the opening of SCREAM 4 at all, but rather the opening scene of a film within the film called STAB 6, which in turn is being viewed by two teenage girls at home all alone who argue over its merits.  Wouldn’t you know it, a series of very quick and dastardly events occurs which leaves one of these girls dead as well.  But this too is not the real beginning of SCREAM 4, just another opening scene from the STAB franchise.  Then the real opening for SCREAM 4 begins...I think.

SCREAM 4 begins with a level of freshness, sly wit, and a self-conscious sense of being in on the film’s satiric jabs that made the first two SCREAM entries so diabolical enjoyable.   It’s been an awfully long time since the first installment, which was conceived and penned by the then unknown Kevin Williamson and directed by the iconic Wes Craven.  That film, at face value, was a slasher flick, but what it did was smart and subversive: it amalgamated the basic obligatory elements of the slasher film with pop cultured infused comedy and an involving whodunit mystery.  Even better, its characters served as a collective voice of its makers, understanding, commenting on, and frequently critiquing the more laughable traits of dime-a-dozen horror films.  The teens and young adults in SCREAM worked very hard to not commit the inane blunders of the mindless characters that populated the horror films they cherished.  It was the juicy irony and ultra-swift self-referencing that made the early films so brazenly innovative. 

Alas, what was oh-so-revitalizing and unique to mid-90's viewers is not so much so now, and this new entry in…shall I call it…the SCREAM QUADRILOGY makes a blunder of both mocking and using the very clichés and conventions that it cheerfully chewed into during the first few films in the series.  The 1996 original found a healthy dichotomy between harnessing obvious slasher formulas and sardonically chastising them, but this go around it becomes apparent that the series is very quickly running out of creative gas.  SCREAM 4 seems slavishly reliant on clichés more than it engages in a droll dissection of them, which has the adverse effect of making the film feel largely redundant and unnecessary.  Aside from the terrific opening, there’s not much here in terms of the genre-altering newness that SCREAM 1 levied. 

The film once again returns to the small and cozy town of Woodsboro where we reconnect with the people that managed to survive SCREAM 3’s orgy of death.  The STAB film series is as popular as ever, spawning seven sequels of increasingly low quality, but they nonetheless spawn an unofficial celebration of the anniversary of the first string of Ghostface killings.  Of course, this really annoys the new town sheriff, Dewey (David Arquette), to which he laments, “One generation's tragedy is another’s joke.”  Dewey is married to the reporter, you may recall, that had an up-close and personal brush with the murderous rampages of the first three films, Gale (Courtney Cox, former Mrs. Arquette). 

Meanwhile, an old and familiar face returns to Woodsboro in the form of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) who has returned as part of a book tour involving her self-healing writings.  Unfortunately, the Ghostface killer re-emerges with Sidney’s return and seems hell bent on targeting her remaining family, cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell).  Jill’s friends, which include the horror-movie loving Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Charlie (Rory Culkin) also seem to be on the killer’s hit-wish list, so all of the familiar players reconnect to try to solve the identity and ultimate end game of Ghostface before the town morgue gets overstuffed. 

On a good note, Kevin Williamson’s dialogue is pretty snarky, hip, and wise-crackingly smart and has its fingers on the pulse of the modern horror genre, although this go around the dialogue exchanges between the teen personas feel less natural and more like the product of a middle-aged screenwriter (granted, I would rather have savvy sounding teen characters than mindless ones).  Some of the exchanges are indeed amusing, not to mention how some of the characters wisely deduce that the torture porn and faux documentary-styled horror genre is largely voyeuristic, which makes the motives and methods of the new Ghostface equally voyeuristic.  Like the earlier films, the characters this time have to ponder on the contemporary trends in horror cinema to allow them to stay one step ahead of the killer. Like, for example, how “the unexpected” is the new cliché and that virgins can now die, but homosexuals, on the other hand…you got a 50/50 chance. 

Nevertheless, the primary dilemma of SCREAM 4 is, as stated, that it does not joyously destabilize genre clichés, at least not as much as it thinks it is.  Undermining it all is the fact that there is not much of a storyline here for viewers to get truly vested in: we get recognizable faces – and some new ones - that reunite and find themselves yet again in the middle of a hellish murder spree while engaging in a verbal analysis of horror films while, one by one, they get bumped off.  The film has some fun engaging in a cat and mouse game with audience members as to whom the killer really is, and it predictably gives us plenty of false suspicions about some outwardly duplicitous people.  Note to screenwriters: when you go out of your way at being too obvious with laying suspicion of guilt on a few suspects, that usually means that those few are not suspects in order to make the perfunctory twist reveal more shocking. 

I won’t give anything away, other than to say the reveal of the identities (there are two Ghostfaces here, people) is weak and preposterous, which culminates in a finale that is so absurdly over-the-top that it should have been in the SCARY MOVIE series.  I am not quite sure if I bought the actual motives of the exposed killers (the best – but lazy - rationale the film offers is jealousy…mmmkay), nor did I wholeheartedly believe that any of the characters presented in the film could be capable of the savagery displayed during its running time.  The finale also accentuates how terribly long the film is, but I will concede this: SCREAM 4 is perhaps the only film ever to have its characters comment on how gratuitously long it takes itself to come to a closed ending. 

More than ever, I was left questioning and pondering the many logical loopholes in the story: Why would Ghostface adorn the same disguise as the past killers and why wait a decade to return?  Why would Sidney return to the town that has been the source of so much pain and suffering for her?  Why doesn’t anyone own a gun or have a home security system or, heaven for bid, check their call display when needed.  Why are so many public places so horribly unguarded at convenient times?  A late scene in a hospital is unintentionally hilarious for how it seems to be the only hospital ever to only have its key characters, the murderer, and no staff or security occupy it.    

I will close by saying this: I did not dislike SCREAM 4, but I found myself largely disinterested in it.  Some of the new faces and performances are decent and stand out (like Panettiere and Culkin) whereas others seem uninspired and bored (like Campbell).  Aspects of the script and dialogue are crafty and sharp, but the film’s follow through and conclusion are lackluster.  Perhaps the real quandary of SCREAM 4 is that it represents how this series is becoming the very thing that its past characters pitilessly scorned in the ’96 introductory film and its ’97 sequel: it’s a rather routine and by-the-books slasher film on auto-pilot, and not much more.

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