REVIEW: Cynical Scream 4 Revives Horror-Comedy For the Charlie Sheen Era
In his recent appreciation of Sidney Lumet, New York Times critic A.O. Scott gently rebuked some of the late, humanist filmmaker's contemporary detractors. "We are supposed to be too sophisticated to require stories that place their themes in the foreground," Scott wrote. "And also, perhaps, too jaded to be stirred by a dramatic universe built around increasingly battered beliefs in progress, solidarity and fair play." The implication is that acceptable movies today must embrace smugness and cynicism in equal measure, lest haters choke on their own humanity. If Scott is right -- and I do think he's on to something -- then modern audiences might find something like Scream 4 to be the most relevant film of the year, maybe even a generation.
Which isn't to say it's good, though common standards of quality rarely apply to any film with the number four appended to its title. To its credit, the Scream braintrust has always known this: In 1996, the ingenious first film in the blockbuster horror-comedy franchise sent up the "rules" of the slasher genre while hewing fastidiously close to them. A year later, screenwriter Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven reteamed to do the same for slasher sequels, their tongues burrowing far enough into their cheeks to leave bruises. Abandoning the haunted idylls of Woodsboro and Windsor College for Hollywood (not to mention swapping Williamson's meta flair for new scripter Ehren Kruger's ham-fisted inelegance) in 2000's Scream 3, the series folded in on itself to achieve its logical, terrible conclusion: A horror institution without ideas is like its masked killer Ghostface without victims. At some point you just have to put the knife down.
Or so we thought. From its first scenes dismissing the Saw series as a one-note torture-porn bloodbath, Scream 4 has more than a decade's worth of new flesh for the flaying. Back at their respective helms, Williamson and Craven do so with gusto -- literally and metaphorically, slaughtering modern horror's sacred, sequelized cows (including their own) while eviscerating an ensemble young enough to have still had baby teeth in 1996.
Once again at the center of it all, however, is Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), whose uncanny Ghostface-evading skills have resulted now in a memoir and a book tour that brings her home to Woodsboro. Sidney's uneasy return naturally coincides with a brutal double murder soon traced to Ghostface, which in turn leads to her reunion with the earlier films' hapless but good-hearted lawman Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and broadcast journalist turned bestselling true-horror author Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), who are now married. The Stab series of hit horror films based on Gale's oeuvre have spun off interminably since commencing in Scream 2 and 3, leaving Sidney in an existential lurch and Gale herself in a career funk. They meet with the weary knowing of two women locked to their pasts, or maybe it's just the spiritual vacuum of two actresses showing up for a paycheck.
Either way, Craven smartly plugs right into their languor -- particularly Campbell's. Her Sidney mopes through music cues and tells her teenaged niece Jill (Emma Roberts), who quickly becomes a target of Ghostface's wry homicidal threats, "I know how you feel." There is sincerity in her anguish. She has no such counsel for Jill's friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe) upon receiving the same tormenting phone calls, or for the cinema-club dorks (Rory Culkin and Erik Knusden) who fetishize Sidney's suffering as the rarest badge of genre honor. Their obsession with the Stab franchise gives Williamson yet further opportunities to protest horror's crimes against imagination, each jab a little more forcefully on the nose than the one before it. But exhibit A is Campbell, inhabiting Sidney as not just a victim but a kind of dirty, disused genre mascot.
Throughout, though, Scream 4 hints at even bigger thematic fish to fry. Community star Alison Brie appears as Sidney's publicist, a spotlight chaser whose interest in booking high-profile junk-media appearances supersedes reading even a page of her client's wrenching book. Webcams unavailable 15 years ago are now worn on heads, carried in hands and stowed in all-night Stab-athon screenings, documenting young Woodsboro's cavalier attitude toward life and death. Wanna talk like Ghostface? There's an app for that. "One generation's tragedy is the next one's joke," Dewey laments to a comely young deputy who may or may not have a heavily mediated Sidney fixation of her own. See where this is going?
Ultimately, explaining the film's real ambition risks spoiling not only its third act but all of its dumb, self-loathing, post-millennial fury -- an upshot that, unlike those of its more innocently ironic franchise predecessors, may be the only reason to subject oneself to yet another Scream film. It didn't have to be this way, either: The cast is game, with early cameos fitting in place like snug, doomed nesting dolls and Anthony Anderson of all people delivering one of the more affecting, darkly humorous bit parts in the Scream canon. Ace cinematographer Peter Deming dazzles as usual, bending raw shadows into mask-like illusions and painting the Stab-athon sequence with shades of red more intoxicating than any of the gallons of blood spilled in front of his camera. At least when the movie falls apart, it looks fantastic doing so.
But this isn't about watching an accident unfold before your eyes; the wheels would come off even the highest-performance racecar turning a corner this fast, let alone a sputtering vehicle with as much mileage on it as Scream 4. This is about that jaded moviegoing cohort I was telling you about, a group for whom nihilism and bald-faced condescension wash over like a narcotic rush. Beaten all their lives by a film culture with seemingly nowhere to go but down, they confuse such vicious abuse as this with getting the film they deserve. It's all disguised as commentary, of course, with misogyny-as-girl power and self-destruction-as-self-actualization larded in there with the one-liners. You almost wish you were watching Saw 4 at a certain point, if only because torture porn has the courage of no convictions. Meanwhile, Williamson and Craven have crafted the perfect Scream film for the Charlie Sheen age, a bloated, overhyped folly trading the intelligence of its origins for empty calories and dull platitudes -- or, as they call it in Hollywood, what the kidz want. #Winning, etc.
It's not hard to believe reports that the pair lost control of the project somewhere along the way (both Kruger and studio boss Bob Weinstein have been accused of various muckery), but the consistency of Scream 4's mean-spiritedness -- to its characters, fans and legacy alike -- implicates more than one or two people. It implicates more than a whole genre as well. It implicates the whole narcissistic era of which it's a product, yet is too myopic and ADD-addled and inbred to have any hope of self-diagnosis. It would have a very good shot at being entertaining were it not so outwardly concerned with being important.
Coincidentally, Lumet's Network remains a more shocking (and shockingly hilarious) treatment of these same subjects after 35 years, and it only needed one movie and one murder to accomplish it. Maybe someone back then had the right idea after all.