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Making the Denouement Fit the Crime: The Ending of 'Scream 4'

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Monday, Apr 18, 2011
Before its awful ending, Scream 4 was routine and repetitive. After the reveal, it's just ridiculous.
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Scream 4

Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Adam Brody, Aimee Teegarden, Nico Tortorella

(Dimension Films; US theatrical: 15 Apr 2011 (General release); UK theatrical: 15 Apr 2011 (General release); 2011)

Some films can survive a crappy ending. The audience can look back on all the good stuff that came before and forgive the screenwriter(s) and director for not being able to finish it all off successfully. This is especially true of the horror genre, a cinematic category that usually saves the shitty denouement (the killer’s ID, the fiend’s foul motives) until the very last moment. Viewers love to “play along”, believing they can outguess the filmmakers when it comes to storytelling slips. Of course, the typical slice and dice effort doesn’t necessarily play by the rules of a clockwork plot. Instead, they will toss out someone unknown to the narrative (like Mrs. Voorhees) and make them into the monster we’ve all come to fear. Yeah, it’s a massive rip-off, but it’s better than taking someone we’ve seen maneuver throughout the entire story and then switch them up, arguing for an outright deception amongst the character and those unlikely enough to sit through the shenanigans.


The Scream films have always been this kind of cruel capitulation. From having boyfriends turn into baddies to tossing in the random unknown relative from unseen situations past, it’s never been beyond disappointing the audience with its last act round-ups. Sadly, Scream 4 is no better -and in the mind of many, it’s much, much worse. While praised unrealistically by those who believe Ghostface belongs up there with classic creature feature felons from horror’s past, the truth is more tacky. With his commercial cred fading and his need for a hit everpresent, Wes Craven is retreating to previous pastures, hoping there’s still enough to harvest there. Of course, anyone whose seen the god-awful My Soul to Take could guess otherwise, but with original Scream scribe Kevin Williamson along, it should all work out, right? Not necessarily - and it all has to do with the weird wrap-up given this chapter.
  
Scream 4 is the first film in the franchise that does not rely on the death and adultery of Sidney Prescott’s mom Maureen as the basis for all the bloodshed. There is no real connection to the past crimes, and the killer’s identity, when revealed, has more to do with the inherent message Craven and Williamson want to espouse than any kind of satisfying scary movie strategy. Before getting into the latest installment’s ending, it’s key to remember what came before. In the first film, two of Sidney’s schoolmates - including her boyfriend Billy Loomis - were the culprits, seeking revenge for the older Mrs. Prescott’s slutty ways. Scream 2 saw Loomis’ mother return the favor, slaughtering several (with accomplice) in payback for what happened to her son. In Scream 3,  Sidney’s long lost half brother was the villain, working through the abandonment issues he faced via a mother (Maureen) who didn’t want him and eventually rejected him as an adult.


Taken in total, the first three Scream films make a nice, neat package. All quality issues aside, the films stay true to the roots of the original without varying wildly into intentions it can’t support. In many ways, it’s like the Saw films. As Jigsaw became less and less important (and viable as a dying cancer patient), his story was extrapolated out into various other character arcs. Soon, random members of the second film’s SWAT team where taking point, all part of the prolonged preplanned punishment that John Kramer is metering out to the entire world - but the key is that, no matter how unlikely or conveniently coincidental, the narratives of all seven Saw films still center around a single element. For Scream 4, the connection to the past is sketchy at best, and when you consider the stated reasons for the crimes, the purpose appears clouded and content to pander to a 2011 audience.


In general, Scream 4 is a generic slasher film where gathered victim fodder fumbles about before the iconic horror wannabe Ghostface shows up to stab them. No Jason Voorhees like invention. No Michael Myers like stalker suspense. Instead, it’s set-up, gory payoff, and on to the next corpse-in-waiting. All the while, the remaining members of the original cast - Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courteney Cox - roam around, looking for a purpose. The closest we come to a connection to anything that previously happened is the murderer’s attire and the notion that Sidney is somehow the “angel of death”, returning to Woodsboro just as the crimes are starting up all over again. Indeed, things have been quiet in the small California town for so long that the locals have actually taken to mocking and ridiculing their horrifying reputation (and Stab the film within the film that has sprung forth).


After a new series of slayings, we end up at the final confrontation. It’s not so much an answer to the proverbial question of “whodunit” as the final step in a stunted process of elimination. We are left with Sidney, Sherriff Dewey, a mortally wounded Gale Weathers, and five fledging franchise newbies - Sidney’s cousin Jill, her horror loving pal Kirby, irritating ex-boyfriend Trevor, and a pair of fey film geeks, Robbie and Charlie. Since Sidney’s old associates are presently down for the count and out of the picture, we are left with the original “last girl” and a quintet of possible fiends. One by one, they die off, eventually leaving us with Sid and the killer. We then get to the reveal and the reasoning, and at that moment, Scream 4 completely falls apart.


Here’s why (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT). It turns out that Sidney’s cousin Jill and her film nerd buddy Charlie have been responsible for the recent murder spree. She is jealous that her aging relative is getting all the limelight, mostly from the sales and celebration of her post-survivor self-help books. Jill wants in on the action, and she doesn’t want to earn it the legitimate way. Instead, she wants to skip all the education and hard slog and become a tabloid terror ornament, the new final female in what is always a death cycle with a single remaining gender counterpoint. Jill wants to kill Sidney, allow Charlie to post the crimes on the Internet (they have been filming them with webcams and hidden devices the whole time) and then blame everything on Trevor. She will become an Oprah superstar, he will become a full blown fledgling auteur, and Woodsboro will be free of Ghostface once again…


Except (SPOILER CONTINUES), Jill actually wants sole claim/credit. So she kills Charlie and Trevor then goes about mortally wounding Sidney. As the film’s final scenes play out, it looks like our evil adolescent will get exactly what she wants. The media clamors over her imagined heroics. What Jill doesn’t count on is Sidney surviving her assault, and since, per genre, this villainess had to monologue for a good five minutes about every aspect of her plan, her downfall is just a hospital stay away. So she does what every good/bad hack and slasher does and attacks Sidney in front of everyone, giving herself away and leading to a dose of lead reality (or, in this case, a temporary defribulator to the torso before buying a bullet). With the plot planets realigned and the original three leads still alive, Scream 4 finally ends. There’s no post-credits stinger, no sense of where a “new” trilogy could begin - at least based on what we’ve seen here.


The problems with this conclusion are immense, and we’re not even talking about the ridiculous lack of any concrete or realistic level of police procedural involved. As one critic pointed out in their dismissing of the movie, it’s as if Woodsboro had never seen an episode of CSI. Crime scenes become tourist attractions, everyone walking through and over the potential clues as if they have no purpose toward solving the case (and since no one knows how to use them, they don’t). Similarly, logic dictates that every suspect somehow circles around Sidney and her cousin. A day or two of holding them all for questioning (or, perhaps the involvement of the FBI???) would have lead to some significant advancement in the solution.


But the most unbearable element of this ending is the notion that Jill and Charlie could actually get away with it. They plan is so full of holes, from the notion that they could pin the crimes on Trevor via the web (a place where anonymity exists in only a delusion) and that, once over, no one would ever re-open the case to make their own name - meaning, that no one like Gale Weathers would show up, school yearbook in hand, and make mincemeat out of the duo’s desire to be celebrated survivors. As a “comment” on the current cultural clime, this ending had potential. But Scream 4 isn’t brazen enough to take the real route - letting Jill and Charlie claim the crimes and then work the social stigma angles to help them avoid punishment. Instead, it’s another bait and switch, a weak-willed waste of a nu-media, social networking statement.


The worst thing about the conclusion, however, is the desire to remove Maureen Prescott and the entire original series from the storyline. Campbell, Arquette, and Cox come across as placeholders, inserted to remind a new generation of where the original left off before going in a totally different - and dumb - direction. Scream 4 has a brilliant core idea: the influence of the web on the morality of murder, but it never lets its play out. Instead, it’s all a ruse. Jill and Charlie never come across as capable of committing a string of crimes like this, and the brutality of the murders often suggests someone (or a stuntman) who is more physically adept. More than a letdown, it de-legitimizes everything we saw. When you add in the lack of any real law enforcement effort, the entire project becomes a crock. Before its awful ending, Scream 4 was routine and repetitive. After the reveal, it’s just ridiculous.   


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