There was a time, oh so long ago and now seemingly eons away, when movies were made for a general paying audience. No focus group determined merits. No demographically manufactured target viewership. Hollywood simply hired talented people (or a close facsimile thereof) and let them try and entertain the masses. If they did, they got a second chance at doing so. If they didn’t – well, the world is currently turning on the backs of such failed artists. But today, thanks to MBA and the Internet, the bean counters have won. They have micromanaged the moviemaking process down to a particular clique, a specific approach, and a somewhat guaranteed return on said projections. A perfect example of this strategy arrived on DVD and Blu-ray this week in the form of Scream 4.
Let’s face it – after the final act in the original Wes Craven/Kevin Williamson trilogy (which ended with a whimper in 2000) few in the fright film fanbase were clamoring for more. What seemed fresh and inventive back at the midpoint of the ’90s now seemed aged and desperate. The sly, satiric message of the original (that horror had become so hackneyed that a real life killing spree could be calculated by the various tired terror tropes involved) became a Saw like scramble to tie each and every character to each other and the crimes with storylines so slight they almost always stretched and then snapped. By the third, everyone involved was tired of trying. The results wrote off any possible forward motion, the franchise finally fading away in the memory of all except the most undying of devotees.
And now, thanks to the endless tweets and blog posts, their unrealistic nostalgia and penchant to propel even the most lax cinematic experience into the lap of the Gods, the soapbox nerds have convinced Craven, co-conspirator Williamson, and the Brothers Weinstein are to once again brave even more genre backlash. Hoping to hip things up via the inclusion of the very element that forced its money grab revitalization – the Web – we move a decade away from the pseudo smart riffs of the originals and into a whole new world of smarm and snark. Once again, Williamson has fashioned his script after the various voices crowding the marketplace of (mediocre) ideas, deriving as much stupidity as insight.
The focus now is the lure of Facebook and other social networking novelties. Williamson also decries the need for everyone on planet Earth to have their own fifteen seconds of instant YouTube fame. Along with such a lame social commentary is a return to the scene of the previous crimes – Woodsboro. The town is trying to distance itself from its lethal past while the always out of step teens celebrate something called “Stab-athon.” It’s an all-night party/marathon of the now seven films and growing fictional meta-franchise within the film. Trying to keep the chaos in check is Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette). He is constantly clashing with his wife, former tabloid TV queen Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), over her lack of anything “important” to do.
Like a bad penny, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) shows back up in her hometown on a book tour (she’s a successful self-help guru) and she’s got her own lingering issues to contend with. The new victim fodder also arrives in the persons of Sidney’s cousin Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts), her suspicious mom Kate (Mary McDonnell), cell phone addicted best friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe), school film pals Charlie (Rory Culkin) and Robbie (Erik Knudsen), and creepy ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella). All have a sick nu-media fascination with Ghostface, the crimes, and the movies made of same. All also seem to have a direct connection to whoever is now repeating said slayings.
There are really two films fighting for consideration in Scream 4, and neither of them is very effective. The retread of the entire Woodsboro Killings is unnecessary and stirs up more red herring revisionism than is wholly required. We get that someone among the group is going about Ghostface’s gory business. Figuring out who it is ends up becoming a matter of narrative endurance. Eventually, the dead pool will be so full that you’ll discover who “did” it, or better yet, who is lying about their own demise. The conclusions are as calculated as the desire to “restart” this franchise, the need to make the clues coherent resulting in a sense of obviousness that is overpowering.
And then there is the take on technology. Williamson and Craven could have had a lot of fun here. From webcams and random surveillance footage to the whole cellphone-as-roving-video-camera idea, a lot could be made out of the fact that a psycho killer in 2011 would have a hard time staying covert. With TMZ and a dozen paranormal investigators on watch, we’re one viral away from discovering the truth. Instead of embracing this fact and running with it, the duo dip their foot in the shallowest end of the www-ater and then shrink back, frightened and a bit flummoxed. As a result, the denouement comes across as so dopey and dumb that only horror obsessed teens could come up with it.
When viewed through the perspective of the past and where horror has gone in the last 11 years (torture porn, PG-13 frights, numerous remakes of the ‘classics’) Scream 4 seems like way too little far too late. It’s a gift geared at those who wait patiently for each new Craven excuse, who still follow Williamson’s work on shows like The Vampire Diaries and The Secret Circle. Instead of playing it really smart and finding a way to make the core aspects of Scream work for a far more sophisticated and savvy cult, the movie backpedals, only to eventually fall off the edge of its own relevance. But since it was sourced out and vetted for an appropriate (and hopefully, paying) audience, everyone believed it would be a hit. Perhaps, on home video, it will connect with such a crowd. Until then, Scream 4 is just another sad sign of being careful what you wish board. A bunch of blog posts can lead to the derailing of an already suspect series.