Scream 4 plunges into theaters this weekend with a rabid Ghostface getting all stabby and plenty of meta hi-jinks. Unfortunately for legendary horror director Wes Craven and co., Scream 4 is less of a legitimate horror movie and more of a tongue-in-cheek tribute to horror films in general and the franchises they spawn. Beyond being almost tediously meta and self-referential, Scream 4 lacked any real substance or fresh ideas.
Ten years have passed in the town of Woodsboro. It’s the annual celebration of Ghostface and the grisly serial murders that not only put Woodsboro on the map, but made original survivor Sidney Prescott famous. Officer Dewey is as incompetent as ever, only now he’s sheriff of the town and married to the ambitious reporter Gale Weather. Gale has written a series of books based on the murders (which have been made into a slasher film franchise…sound familiar?). Thanks to the books and the movies, everyone knows everything about the original killings and it has become a kind of fun fixation for the teens of the town.
But the times are changing, and so are the horror “rules.” Sidney has written a kind of inspirational memoir about her experiences, and the success of her book brings her back to her hometown Woodsboro as part of a promotional tour. Only when she gets there, it’s déjà vu and then some. Her young cousin and schoolmates begin to get vaguely familiar calls and threats (and the odd movie trivia question), and then the killings start up again. Ghostface hasn’t changed, or the cat-and-mouse phone calls, but this time there are internet cams and web blogs. And the horror movie geeks that help explain the “rules” are more obnoxious than pathetic.
Filmmakers worked mightily to recapture the magic and freshness of the original, re-uniting most of the original cast, director, and screenwriter. Craven directed, Kevin Williamson penned the script, and Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette reprised their respective roles. It’s been about ten years since Scream 3 came out in theaters and the events in Scream 4 are taking place ten years after the original killings. And that’s just the beginning of the meta mania.
The opening sequence mirrored the original’s, but souped it up. There was what I like to call the “recognizable actress feint.” This happened in the original Scream, when audiences assumed Drew Barrymore wouldn’t die because she was a recognizable actress. Then there was all the “film, within a film, within a film” stuff. The opening scene of the movie was actually the opening sequence of a slasher film based on the story of the original Scream. Confused yet? It turned out to be one of the better meta moments of the film, which unfortunately had to start relying on actual storyline and plot after the first 20 minutes in, and thus began a downward spiral.
If you take out all the film references and inside jokes, the storyline is paper thin and the plot insubstantial. It delivers plenty of laughs (especially the first 20-30 minutes), but only when it’s being meta. And eventually even that aspect gets tired. At least in the original there was some build up and back-story to the characters, especially Sidney. Scream 4 neglects almost all character development in preference of extreme self-awareness. As there were some important new characters introduced, like Sidney’s cousin, this lack of development was detrimental to the movie as a whole. Most of the new characters felt one dimensional.
As far as acting went, the cast seemed a little listless. Cox and Arquette seemed like they were playing shadows of their original roles. Arquette isn’t young or cute enough to make his character’s incompetence forgiveable. His “awe shucks” demeanor might have worked in the first couple movies, but his character in Scream 4 is the sheriff of the town. Cox managed to steal a few scenes, but overall I felt like her heart wasn’t it in. Leading the cast in overall suckiness was Campbell, who not only look tired and old, but acted it. Her performance was lackluster, and watching her made me feel like she just didn’t really want to be there. Mostly she just looked serious and unhappy all the time. There was one exception; Hayden Panettiere. She took her small role and ran with it, giving a vivacious, confident performance.
The original Scream was fresh and cheeky, and it was amusingly self-aware. It came across as a horror film homage to all the horror films before it; the sometimes silliness of the genre, and also the thrill and fun of it. Though it was an effective homage/parody, it was also an effective movie with a good plot, narrative flow, character development….etc etc. Scream 4 never makes it there.
Everyone knows horror films spawn sequels like it’s nobody’s business and Craven no doubt felt the need to make this sequel the penultimate sequel. Full of insides jokes, genre movie trivia, and lots and lots of bloody violence, this film is like a movie geek’s wet dream. But then said movie geek wakes up to find he’s quickly forgetting everything he saw and he’s a sticky mess. Scream 4 is fun to watch because you know you’re watching a sequel that knows it’s a sequel and is reveling in it, but ultimately it’s a re-hashed plot and thus, like most sequels, is largely forgettable. It suffers from what it is only too aware of, lack of originality.
If you’re a fan of the original you’ll probably enjoy the self-referential and comedic qualities of this installment in the franchise (not to mention the return of the original core characters), but it doesn’t have the stamina or heft to be taken seriously. As Sidney herself says in this latest installment, “don’t fuck with the original.”