Wednesday, May 4, 2011
If you’re wondering what horror tropes are left for Wes Craven, Kevin Williamson, and blonde TV starlets to skewer with the resurrected corpse of the Scream franchise, Scream 4 isn’t much help. First there’s the old anything-goes rule that’s been trotted out for each sequel and politely put back in the cupboard by the unkillable Sidney, Dewey, and Gale who beg to differ. Next we have the central conceit of Scream 4, that VHS tapes and landlines have given way to iPhones and webcams, so a modern take on the Woodsboro murders would see the killer filming his crimes. Nevermind that Michael Powell was doing this fifty years ago. Finally we have the silliest rule: “Only surefire way to survive a modern horror, you pretty much have to be gay.” With no basis in American horror, it’s an obvious invention for the sole purpose of calling back to it later, art pretending to imitate life. Nothing gets murdered so thoroughly in Scream 4 as postmodernism.
And we’ve seen what happens when Scream abandons its vampire reliance on the lifeblood of postmodernism: the irrelevant cartoon of Scream 3 that wants to be William Castle but winds up with Chuck Jones. No, Scream isn’t Scream without obnoxious self-awareness, and Scream 4 is a welcome return. I won’t reveal its secrets, but the opening sets the stage with the usual horror deconstruction and surprise scares while not entirely satisfying either thirst. In fact, the film isn’t especially scary, though the iconic ringtone always heralds a thrilling phone-call (one of my favorite things about Scream is that if you’re clever enough, you can delay your murder with a little verbal sparring). Being a reboot, the parade of homages, reenactments, and twists on the Scream films plays like addiction—each high is a little more empty—and in the end, the wit can’t surmount the emptiness.
But I still had a blast watching Scream 4. For starters, just because some of its meta touches are tired doesn’t detract from the basic, if muted, thrill of self-awareness, and sometimes, as with the opening, they’re strokes of brilliance. As for horror references, Don’t Look Now and Suspiria are reduced to naked namedropping, but we also get fleeting allusions to contemporary horror (namely, splatter and torture-porn) and a more substantial homage to Black Christmas. Then there’s the Scream commitment to its victims: they may be blonde and bitchy, but they make quick, smart decisions, and they put up a good fight. The old generation are mostly lost by the screenplay, but my frustration with Neve Campbell’s woodenness vanished the second she threw herself at Ghostface. Most of all, the new kids on the block are commanding—forget whatever you think you know about Hayden Panettiere; she steals the movie—and whatever Scream 4 lacks in horror commentary it makes up for with a sharp take on world-weary millennials, who are currently too busy with adolescent cruelty and Twitter stardom to remember compassion. As we fade out with a helluva last line, Wes Craven had not only justified Scream 4. He’s got me drooling for Scream 5.