Sunday, July 5, 2015

Review: Scream 4 (2011)

And now, to wrap up my retrospective of the Scream series.

Scream 4 (2011)

Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some teen drinking

While Scream 4 doesn't live up to the standard set by the first two films, it still succeeds where the third movie failed by actually feeling like a Scream film again. It's bloody as hell, scary, and witty, and while it has some problems of its own, by and large it succeeds in its efforts to bring the Scream series into the 21st century horror movie world, commenting on remakes, found footage, torture porn, and above all, its own legacy. It's little more than fanservice and a nostalgia trip for those who had been waiting eleven years for a new Scream film, but it definitely gets the job done.

It's 2011, and the settling of Sidney Prescott's family drama in the third film has given her room to finally move on with her life. She's gotten her shit back together and written a bestselling memoir about her experiences, and is returning to her hometown of Woodsboro, California as part of the book tour, along with her bitchy publicist Rebecca. Dewey and Gale, who have married and become almost a second family to Sidney, are waiting for her; the former is now the sheriff of the town, the latter a successful author now struggling with writer's block. There's also Sidney's cousin Jill Roberts and her circle of friends (the tomboyish Kirby, the film geeks Robbie and Charlie, the ex-boyfriend Trevor, the hot chick Olivia) at Woodsboro High School, where the last generation's tragedy has become this one's joke, with people "celebrating" the 15th anniversary of the massacre by hanging Ghostface masks all over town and hosting a marathon of the Stab movies. At this point, just seeing the name of the film is enough to figure out that this tranquility won't last for long, and sure enough, about ten minutes in the bodies start hitting the floor -- and once again, whoever's doing it is targeting Sidney.

The way the plot of this film plays out, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Kevin Williamson, returning to the writer's chair, was apologizing for letting somebody else write the third film. Unlike that film, the focus of the mystery is once more squarely on who the killer is, and while Sidney's big screwed-up family does come into play (won't say how), it doesn't dominate the story at the expense of the whodunit plot like it did in Scream 3. And once again, we get a ton of potential killers and red herrings: Robbie and Charlie, the horror buffs who seem a bit too obsessed with the Stab films; Judy, a deputy on the police force who idolizes Dewey; Rebecca, who's way too gleeful at the idea of people dying again (it will help with the book sales, after all); and Trevor, the handsome "bad boy" who seems to be almost a copy of the first film's killer. Even Sidney herself is not immune from suspicion. While the killer did seem to come out of left field at first, watching the film again I noticed a number of subtle clues as to the killer's identity in the way that character acted, avoiding the ass-pull that the third film engaged in. Overall, it was probably my favorite killer reveal in the series since the original film, especially with the culprit's downright fucked-up motivation.

Said motivation brings me, of course, to the most famous element of Scream: the post-modern examination of horror cliches and stereotypes. This time around, Scream turns the focus on itself and its place in the horror "canon", and towards remakes and reboots that attempt to modernize stories for the new generation. The killer is attempting to carry out a remake of the original Woodsboro massacre, and as Robbie and Charlie explain, that means more blood, more gore, gimmicks like found footage and social media, and twists on the story so that viewers familiar with the original will still be surprised. It was also clear to Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson that, fifteen years after Casey was first asked who the killer was in Friday the 13th, the idea of horror movie characters knowing that the situation they're in is something straight out of a horror movie has become just as great a cliche as the old slashers they were mocking. This is made clear right from the blisteringly self-referential introduction, which features films-within-films-within-films, a host of cameos, mockery of the prior decade's big horror trends, and one character tearing into the Stab series (and, by extension, the Scream series itself) as a steaming pile of "self-aware, post-modern meta shit", telling its creators to "stick a fork in 1996 already." It's weird as hell, but it definitely gets the job done in letting you know exactly what this film is about. As Robbie and Charlie explain to the school's Cinema Club, the "rules" of horror have been upended in the last fifteen years thanks to everybody having seen Scream (or rather, Stab), to the point where they barely matter anymore and even subverting them has become cliche. Nowadays, being a goody-two-shoes virgin just puts a target on your head from a screenwriter who wants to shock the audience, whereas being gay has gone from a proverbial death sentence to a shield for the same reason. Like the poster says, "new decade, new rules."

When it comes to actually messing around with the new "rules" itself, this film is more hit-or-miss than the first two films were, though without spoiling anything, the ratio does skew towards hitting the mark. The killer's motivation in particular is extremely modern, reflecting on both horror remakes and the circa-2011 wave of reality TV creating celebrities with no real discernible talent. It makes for an utterly evil sack of shit for a killer who I loathed for all the right reasons, while also having the "remake" literally defiling the original film in its attempts to copy it. The performance from the actor playing the killer after the reveal wasn't quite up to par with the originals, but the sheer coldness of that performance made it work, painting the new killer as quite possibly the most utterly monstrous the series has ever had. This was not a deranged nutjob, but rather, a stone-cold sociopath who cares so little about others that he/she is willing to murder loved ones for fame and fortune. I said in my review of Scream 3 that this film gave its killer a very similar motivation and did it much better, and here I will briefly explain why (with as few spoilers as possible). Whereas in that film the twist came out of nowhere, feeling like little more than a twist for the sake of it, here it not only makes logical sense, having been hinted at throughout the film, it actually plays right into the satirical core of the film and the series. I would've liked to see a third killer as part of this film's team (not saying who; spoilers), partly because at least one attack makes me wonder how either of the killers could've been at the crime scene, and partly because this third killer would've taken the whole "remakes vs. the originals" theme even further, but hey, hindsight is 20/20. As it stood, the killers were imperfect, but still good.

With the characters, the "old guard" is as good as they've ever been, with David Arquette and Courteney Cox feeling like Dewey and Gale again after the derailment that was Scream 3, and Neve Campbell looking like she's more than happy to get back into Sidney's shoes. As for the new guys, though, they're more of a mixed bag. The best of the bunch is undoubtedly Hayden Panettiere as Kirby, the hot chick who the film initially portrays as the new version of Tatum from the original (in keeping with this being a remake in all but name) but who winds up proving herself a far craftier character than that. What she is, in fact, is the new version of Randy, a movie geek whose knowledge of the horror genre rivals that of Robbie and Charlie, backed up with a sharp tongue that provides some of the biggest laughs in the film. If Randy was a '90s geek, making up for his awkwardness with his intelligence and sense of humor, then Kirby is the modern image of geek culture: not only smart, but also attractive and genuinely cool. Alison Brie also stands out in her unfortunately tiny role as Rebecca, the "new" version of Gale who easily could have been annoying in lesser hands (especially with the stupid decisions that get her killed early on, something the franchise used to pride itself on mocking) but who Brie makes truly entertaining with her callousness towards the victims. Erik Knudsen and Rory Culkin were also having a good time as Robbie and Charlie, if not as memorable as Randy from the original, as did the woefully underused Marley Shelton as Deputy Judy. Not so good, however, was Nico Tortorella as Trevor, the new version of Billy. Tortorella tries to give off the aura of "this guy's probably the killer" that Skeet Ulrich did as Billy, but fails to make the character convincing or memorable. Emma Roberts also felt flat as Jill for much of the film, though fortunately, she does get better during a pivotal scene, showing off a very different side to the character.

It must also be said that this is probably the most outwardly comedic installment in the series. Even some of the kills are played as gags, like a cop whose final words before he drops dead are him bemoaning how Bruce Willis movies didn't prepare him for this (in far cruder terms). While much of the humor does work on its own, it also sometimes undercuts the real stakes and Ghostface's menace. The first two films knew where and when to draw the line between snarky and scary, while here, that line often gets uncomfortably blurry, making scenes that should be scary decidedly less so. There are moments when it manages the high-wire act, most notably an excellent scene homaging Casey's "trivia game" in the first film, but too often, it slips over one side. Roger Jackson still has it as the voice of Ghostface, even if he does sound a bit older now, but he's got more working against him than before. This isn't the least scary Scream movie -- a dubious honor that I still give to the third film -- but it is the one where the tone feels the least settled.

On the directing side, Wes Craven was competent, even if he felt somewhat tired; he did little here that he didn't do better in the first two. Shots are staged pretty well, while the kills have appropriate buildup and are probably the most gruesome the series has seen yet (appropriate for a remake-in-all-but-name that talks about how remakes are supposed to top the originals in violence). Unfortunately, everything is saturated in that ugly orange/blue contrast filter that seems to have afflicted every other Hollywood movie made in the last ten years, ever since film editors discovered the idea of complementary colors and realized that, with the push of a button, they could make the pinkish tint of Caucasian skin stand out against blue skies. It works especially poorly here, making the lighting look a lot worse than it probably is -- since most of the film takes place at night or otherwise inside, there's very little "blue" for the orange to contrast against. Even the clips of Stab that we see look noticeably worse than they did in the second film, driving home to me the idea that this ugly look was the result of editing decisions.

Score: 3 out of 5

This is a fairly insubstantial film that exists mainly as a treat for longtime fans, but it's a pretty good treat that's boosted by some standout moments that easily make up for the low points. It's nowhere near the caliber of the original or the second film, but it's bloody slasher goodness whether or not you're a Scream fan.

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