REVIEW: Cynical Scream 4 Revives Horror-Comedy For the Charlie Sheen Era

Movieline Score:

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.


  • Knew it. says:

    I knew Movieline was going to write a bad review. Helen Keller saw it coming. You, Movieline, are so obvious

  • lo says:

    you need to relax.
    I do take issue with the "Charlie Sheen era" tag. Let's not go crazy

  • Alex says:

    Seems like you disliked the movie but you gave it a 6 1/2 which for me is a positive score. So yeah I'm confused

  • First of all, these scores aren't an exact science. Second of all, if you got 65% on a test, you wouldn't pass. But more importantly, I think the film's redeeming factors are stated pretty explicitly, and it's not like we're talking about an epic failure of storytelling where the boom mic is in half the shots. I didn't really like _Scream 4_, but for specific reasons that don't make it any less functional a movie. Thus a 6.5.

  • joe says:

    Did this review give away the killer? seems like it may have at least heavily hinted at it- that sucks

  • Come on. Of course it doesn't.

  • Morgo says:

    You do n't pass tests with 65%? I pass tests with 50%! Must be some crazy difference in education systems. I also thought 6.5 was a high score. I liked the movie overall, it was a really good idea for continuing the series. But it didn't change the story enough that I'd want to see a 5th one. (whereas it could have)

  • huh? says:

    "It would have a very good shot at being entertaining were it not so outwardly concerned with being important."
    Kinda summarizes this review huh? All the reviews of this film for that matter. If you feel the need to compare Scream 4 to Network, it is perhaps time to take a look in the mirror. It was fun. I laughed from beginning to end. Sorry if you thought it was going to be some kind of award winning film.

  • Kathryn says:

    The film achieved exactly what it set out to, it had enough substance to satisfy fans of the franchise with references to the other Scream films and a plot independent of that for the new generation that will inevitably view it for the cast of young hollywood.
    Expecting it to live up to the original is a pedestrian approach to reviewing the film and lends to easy criticism, the first film was a revolution of the genre and cinematically perfected the slasher movie. In M.O the follow up films are brilliant because of the first film (but not compared to it).
    The new cast gave the film a different dimension, Hayden Panettiere and Adam Brody in particular were perfect castings (although they weren't really utilised to their fullest).
    I think this was a perfect offset to the trilogy and loved the return of the original cast. Loved it.

  • Emily says:

    The first Scream was a masterpiece in term of horror movies and a really great and memorable movie overall.
    Hey i have still a soft spot for Billy and Stuart..yeah i know i am kind of crazy but i own it. And to able to see again Sydney, Gale and Dewey (i really don't care about these CW teenagers) i will go watch this Scream 4, let's face it; we are well aware there will be never again a Scream.

  • Will says:

    I thought this film was around a 7/10 from the beginning to nearing the three quarter mark. It was just the ending(s) that gave me the decision to give this film a poor but fair 4-5/10...
    *Possible spoiler alert*
    ...Unless the director was trying to make this film a bad mindf**k, with a twist ending so uncalled for that it just ends with the viewer in hysterics, that's when I'd consider changing it to a generous 5-6.5/10.

  • jayman419 says:

    If you wanted more Scream but not like this, check out "The Rise of Leslie Vernon". Movieline didn't deem it worth a review back in '06 but I'd give it an 8 easy.