'Scream 4': Another Stab at an Aging Franchise... and It Draws Blood

Wes Craven once again gets the audience on his side, this time doing a postmodern take-down of postmodern take-downs.

Scream 4

Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Emma Roberts
Distributor: Anchor Bay
Rated: R
FIlm: Scream 4
Release date: 2011-10-04

The original Scream rejuvenated a genre that had literally become a joke. Slasher films caused studios to see blood-soaked dollar signs through the '80s with hugely successful franchises. In that decade, these new horror mythologies made even more money from the lucrative combination of VCR’s and teenagers.

By 1996, the terrors of the '80s had become immediately recognizable icons of horror but too comfortable and too familiar to be frightening. Jason Voorhees had left Crystal Lake and had an outing in Manhattan. Michael Myers had gone from being the mysterious Shape to becoming an unkillable supernatural machine ensnared in an increasingly complex family romance. Even Freddy Krueger had degenerated into a slapstick comedian.

When Wes Craven returned, triumphantly in my opinion, to the increasingly absurd Nightmare series with New Nightmare (1994), most audiences skipped it. Fans assumed it was simply one more hackneyed slasher.

But Craven had discovered a new direction to the slasher. While it didn’t work with the Nightmare series, a fresh and bloody start would. What do you do when a genre has become utterly formulaic? Step back and make the audience your ally by disassembling the formula piece by piece. Craven did it with Scream and more than a few imitators followed, some great and some awful.

In Scream 4, now available on DVD and Blu-ray, Craven has pulled it off again. He has managed a postmodern deconstruction of postmodern deconstruction, a self-aware narrative that knows you’ve seen it all before. Some will read the effort as too hip by half but I found it a pretty vibrant little conceit and a refreshing departure from the unending stream of reboots and “found footage” mania which feels as dated to me as Blair Witch Project (because it is).

The first ten minutes of Scream 4 are spectacular. Craven takes us on a bumpy ride through two films within a film, each mirroring certain aspects of the opening of the original. Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin show up for a great few minutes and a pretty shocking vignette.

Once we get into the actual movie, Neve Campbell is back as Sidney. She’s presented as a successful author whose real life experiences are the basis of the Stab series, a faux horror franchise that stands in for the Scream series itself. David Arquette and Courtney Cox are back as well. So is Ghostface with his creepy phone calls (which now include texts, of course) and the fun begins.

There are lots of nods to genre fans here. Bell and Paquin’s scene will please fanboys and girls everywhere but there are also shout-outs of various kinds to Friday the 13th and Rear Window. Hayden Pannettiere was not my favorite in this film but provides a funny Heroes reference.

As much as I loved this film, it does have some obvious flaws. Arquette, Cox and Campbell are great but many of the other performances are listless. I really felt that Emma Robert’s turn as Jill was a bit weak, especially frustrating since her character becomes a load-bearing weight for the whole narrative. I would add that the last half hour or so is a bit misguided, with several seeming endings that turn out not to be endings at all. This, of course, mirrors the opening but some serious seams show in the plotting here and the whole story loses some of the amazing energy the film opens with.

Never mind though, you’ll have great fun with this one. Horror fans, and anybody who loves a great popcorn flick, should watch Scream 4.

I was really pleased with the extras. The audio commentary is mostly strong. Craven is the best at this, turning his comments into a film school seminar with lots of acknowledgments for his make-up and SFX guys and generous nod to his screenwriter.

Unfortunately, Craven should have done the commentary by himself. Pannettiere and Emma Roberts are mostly distracting with plenty of self-involved cross talk (“nothing scares me as much as chase scenes. That scares me so much!” and “Oh my God, yeah, wow!). Neve Campbell shows up about 15 minutes in and describes portraying Sid. Unfortunately she’s on the phone from London during the commentary and so a bit marginal to the discussion.

Deleted scenes are also included with Craven commentary. It makes sense why most of these didn’t make the final cut although one crime scene tableaux should probably have been included with its gory imagery and Craven doing a cameo as the coroner. A gag reel is included and these are always great fun with horror movies. This one was a special treat as the actors often get really spooked by Ghostface suddenly jumping out from behind doors... so spooked that they miss their marks.

The “Making of” feature is worthwhile and includes some good interview footage with Craven. These are too often retreads of the audio commentary but not here. Although, like most of these features, it shows plenty of clips from the film you just watched, there are also lots of shots from the set and interesting reflections on the characters by the actors. Its short, so not a lot of detail for SFX nerds here, unfortunately.

One of my favorite parts of the “Making of” feature was learning that Roger Jackson, who voices Ghostface on the phone for every entry in the Scream franchise, is sort of the man nobody knows. In fact, he’s not even seen on the set, creating a creepy feeling for the actors. Craven describes Jackson as this funny, kind, normal guy who can very suddenly become the voice of evil.

The “Making of” includes Campbell paying a kind tribute to Craven as well. She notes that when she first met him in the nineties, she expected a pretty twisted guy. It turned out he was something of “the shy professor” who still must be “a little twisted” deep down (in fact, Craven was once a humanities professor who taught literature and philosophy).

Horror fans have been benefitting for 40 years from Craven being just a little bit twisted. Scream 4 is a commendable entry into his oeuvre, a body of work that has explored alternate realities, the line between nightmares and waking and the bottomless well of narratives within narratives within narratives. And its all been so damn fun.

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