Scream 4 (2011)

Scream 4 opens with such a dense amount of metaness that anything to follow after it would have to be tame by comparison. As the familiar setup of two young girls alone in a dark house unfolds, a layer is pulled back to reveal that the events are actually from the latest Stab film, a series of horror flicks based upon the events of the original Scream. As the two blonds comment upon the predictability of the Stab films, the film pulls back yet another layer.

It’s almost as if the film lays out what could well have been the entirety of Scream 4, a multilayered examination of media consumption made by young, snarky teens. Instead, the film compounds it all into one opening sequence, crafting Screams within Screams, a joke not only upon the actual nature of the series itself, but also a joke at how ridiculously self-aware movies have become in the last decade.

The actual plot of the film then proceeds to be a saner horror film, although no less snarky, sardonic and, at times, idiotic as the film’s fictional spoof series Stab. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) once again finds herself amid a series of murders, although this time it’s once again in her hometown of Woodsboro on what she plans to be the kickoff of her inspirational book series.

Yet this is not the Woodsboro of 1996. The town has a new sheriff, the veteran, yet goofy, Dewey Riley (David Arquette) who has been married for ten years to Gale Weathers-Riley (Courtney Cox), who’s attempting to write a fiction novel. And while these three form the core trio of the Scream franchise, the film introduces an entire series of young, fresh blood.

What’s remains surprising about this new ensemble cast is how well a number of the characters are carved out. From the delightfully voracious press agent Rebecca Walters (Alison Brie) to the punkish horror nerd Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere), the film takes the time to set these people up as more than just victims for the return of Ghostface, making them believable and identifiable teens.

While suffice to say that the film has an array of cast members that could take an entire review to introduce, let alone discuss their performances, it’s best just to say that everyone in the film brings their A-game.  Up and coming talents like Alison Brie, Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere play well against the fantastic return of Campbell, Arquette and Cox.

With the film’s return to Woodsboro, there’s also a return to the simplicity of the original. The film is playing upon the groundbreaking nature of the original Scream by seeing it as the new norm which must be upended, twisted and reinvented. Some of the touches are small and unspoken, like the return of the creepy boyfriend, while others are blatant, such as Ghostface’s attempts to reinvent some of the setpieces of the original film.

As is discussed ad nauseam by the characters of the film, the revolution of one horror cycle becomes the standard to exceed by the next horror cycle. Or, as the tagline says: new decade, new rules. But when the entire point of Scream was to deconstruct the rules, the rules must be the new standard, right? Perhaps. The film twists and turns with audience expectations to the point that at some level it does become entirely unpredictable, devoid of any rules whatsoever.

And since a decade has passed since Scream 3, one would expect that some of the new trends of the horror genre would be addressed in Scream 4. The most notable shift would be the rise of the torture porn genre. While the film briefly addresses this, both with a mention of Saw, and a rather grotesque display of gore, for the most part, the film doesn’t actually factor in the increase of violence in the horror genre. If anything, the film is no more violent than the original Scream.

The other major shift in the horror genre has been the implementation of handheld, recovered footage as the basis for a horror film such as  [Rec] or Paranormal Activity. The film touches on this subject lightly, but in a rather obtuse way that should have been developed as one of the key shifts in the change in M.O. of this Ghostface from earlier in the film. Instead, it’s more of a revelation that provides a little light commentary for the film instead of a key point of departure from the original Scream.

One key depart from the original Scream 4 suffers from is ridiculous amount of exposition in this film. Not only are all the rules discussed at length, but the ending indulges in a killer explanation of such epic proportions that it’s almost satirical. The problem is that horror films don’t explain themselves anymore, so it seems to be making fun of a mode of horror film that has long since faded into history.

With a decade of distance and the return of writer Kevin Williamson, one hoped he would have come up with a way of challenging the horror genre again. The problem is that even though the film pushes some bounds, it feels far too familiar and safe. I still like it a lot, it might even be my second favorite Scream film, but only because it reminds me so much of the original. It lacks the well-defined rule usurping goals of the original, perhaps because, when it comes to horror, anything goes these days.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing