Scream 4 **1/2
2011, R, 111 minutes
Starring Neve Campbell (Sidney Prescott), David Arquette (Sheriff Dewey Riley), Courtney Cox (Gale Weathers), Emma Roberts (Jill Roberts), Hayden Panettiere (Kirby Reed), Rory Culkin (Charlie Walker), Erik Knudsen (Robbie Mercer), Nico Tortorella (Trevor Sheldon), Anthony Anderson (Deputy Perkins), Adam Brody (Detective Hoss), Marley Shelton (Deputy Judy Hicks), Mary McDonnell (Kate Roberts), Alison Brie (Rebecca Walters), Anna Paquin (Rachel) and Kristen Bell (Chloe). Produced by Wes Craven, Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein. Cinematography by Peter Deming. Editing by Peter McNulty. Music by Marco Beltrami. Written by Kevin Williamson. Directed by Wes Craven.
“What’s your favorite scary movie?” is the perennial and perpetual question asked by the serial killer Ghostface in the slasher comedy Scream 4. Getting the most important part of the review out of the way, Scream 4 is definitely not my favorite scary movie, and it probably won’t be yours, either. It’s the fourth installment in Wes Craven’s witty, satirical, often self-referential horror franchise and it comes nearly eleven years after the last installment, the not-so-well-received (and not very good) Scream 3. However, these films were conceived as a way of acknowledging the conventions of the horror genre, and playing with them, and with the chunk of time that has passed, Scream 4 has a lot to satirize in the wake of new horror icons such as the endearing Saw franchise and other horror entries like the Hostel series and the Paranormal Activity films. Scream 4 references and acknowledges the new wave of horror films, albeit briefly, but is more focused on serving as a commentary on the technological advancement of our society and the way youth culture lives their lives wanting to document every waking second. It makes fun of the characters that inhabit the world of the film, and that’s part of the fun, however Scream 4 is an imperfect balance between acknowledging what has come before and breaking ground on what will follow.
The story follows Sidney Prescott (Campbell), who returns to her hometown of Woodsboro several years after the killings, and has moved on with her life. She’s written an autobiographical memoir of her traumatic experiences and in clearly intentional serendipitous fashion, returns to Woodsboro on the anniversary of the original killings. It is there that we are reintroduced to Dewey Riley (Arquette), now sheriff, and his wife Gale Weathers (Cox) who is experiencing a bad case of writer’s block as a retired journalist. On top of that, we are introduced to a new set of characters, including Sidney’s cousin, Jill Roberts (Roberts), in a contrived and obviously obligatory familial connection in order to help bridge the old characters and the new. Jill is friends with genre buff and badass Kirby (Panetteire), and her nerdy circle of geeky film buff friends include Charlie (Culkin) and Robbie (Knudsen). There’s the obligatory moody ex-boyfriend named Trevor (Tortorella) and a bunch of other supporting characters that feel more filler than adding anything substantial or interesting to the plot. Since this is a Scream movie, people naturally have to start dying, and of course upon Sidney’s arrival exactly that happens.
Scream 4 tries to appear fresh and reverent by acknowledging Hollywood’s now standard trend of “rebooting” or “remaking” horror films (and films in general), however by admitting those conventions the film sort of becomes the very thing it is trying to satirize. Instead of acknowledging those conventions and breaking them, Scream 4 follows a very rigid, tired and familiar structure and consequently ends up appearing dated and tedious as a result. What’s worse is that the film tries to juggle all of its characters, both the existing ones from the first three films, and the handful of new ones, in an unsuccessful way that makes the film feel disjointed. Are we suppose to sympathize and follow the character journey of Sidney or instead get emotionally involved with the franchise’s apparent new lead, Jill? The film never really figures that out, and so neither does the audience. Even more so, the returning trio of characters don’t evolve or progress throughout the film, and their involvement in the story never quite clicks. They are introduced to the story in a very haphazard, pedestrian way and they are there because they are suppose to be there, but there’s never a compelling reason for why they are reunited. They are all sort of “just there”, and on top of that, none of the actors (besides maybe Cox, who feels energized throughout portions of the film) really seem to care and appear to be sleep-walking through their performances. Neve Campbell in particular seems to be medicated and gives a very cavalier and uninvolved performance.
In terms of the new characters, Emma Roberts is hardly the most inspired casting for the lead, and she never quite carries the movie the way we’re led to believe she’s intended to. Hayden Panetteire, on the other hand, actually excels in her role as Kirby, and gives the character a vivacious spunk that’s infectious and lights up every scene she’s in. At the end of the film, you’re going to wish we saw more of her as Kirby, and she’s involved in the film’s single most successful and suspenseful scene. The other supporting characters, such as Charlie and Robbie, feel like two halves of one whole. Out of the actors involved (Culkin and Knudsen) it is definitely Knudsen who delivers the more exciting and tangible performance. He imbues Robbie with that sort of moronic, sarcastic wit that makes the character very endearing and relatable. Culkin, on the other hand, feels sort of perfunctory and doesn’t quite stand-out like Panetteire and Knudsen. As a matter of fact, I probably would have preferred if Jill had been relegated to supporting cast or removed entirely, and Culkin’s character had been merged with Robbie (which also would have allowed other characters, who barely generate enough interest and come off as ciphers, more screentime to flourish). When you think about the film’s run-time, and the amount of characters we see (most of which have little to zero actual development), you wonder how a different kind of Scream 4 would have unfolded, one that kills off the existing franchise characters in the opening sequence and instead allows the new characters breathing room and time to expand and develop their own personalities and voice.
Scream 4 feels like it wants to have its cake and eat it too, by being a sequel and a reboot simultaneously, except the film feels rushed and the pacing uneven as a consequence. You don’t really “feel” for any of the characters, except a few, but by that time the film’s wrapped up and moved on. Even the characters that we’ve come to know and love don’t really “jive” like we expect them to, which results in a disappointing feeling and removes that nostalgic notion you felt when you saw them again. However, that doesn’t say that Scream 4 fails completely, because it doesn’t. The film’s screenplay, written by franchise scribe Kevin Williamson, has a few clever moments (including the opening sequence which starts off strong but sort of peters out by the end). The humor that’s been a strong and conscious element of the franchise is very present here, which makes the film entertaining when it could have been utterly boring. There are some genuine scares, as repetitive as some of them might seem, and there’s one moment in particular that works particularly well (if only the rest of the film worked as well as that single scene). Although there are a few moments that are a little eye-rolling, including the death of a character that makes very little sense and seems to veer very closely to self-parody. The Scream franchise has always relied on occasional self-referential humor, both genre-wise and within the continuity of the franchise itself, but there are some moments that feel outright silly and detract from the often tragic or scary nature of the series.
Overall, Scream 4 is an effective and solid horror comedy, however there’s a much better film hiding somewhere beneath the formulaic story, tired structure and lackluster characterization. What makes Scream 4 so frustrating, though, is that there are several elements that work in this picture. There are several characters, and actors, such as Panetteire as Kirby and Knudsen as Robbie, that really work and make the film worthwhile. However, there are even more actors that feel complacent in roles they’ve played several times before, like Campbell and Arquette, that bog the film’s potential down, including a story that seems more indecisive than confident. There have been reports and stories that Williamson’s script was rewritten during filming, and that even at one point director Wes Craven felt the film wasn’t his anymore. After watching the final product I can see how he could believe that. Scream 4 screams (no pun intended) of too many chiefs in the kitchen. The film has been messed around with too much and consequently the characters and the story suffer as a result. You’re not quite sure who you are rooting for, and the film never quite figures out what kind of story it is (Is it a reboot? A sequel?) nor which character is actually leading the story (Sidney? Jill? Kirkby…?). There’s also some missing potential to the effect of what Scream 4 could have been, and how it could have skewered with some of the conventions that it strictly adheres to. At the end of the day, you have a film that is more focused on acknowledging what came before, but being unwilling to take any risks. It feels safe, and the feeling of safety is never a good feeling to have when you’re watching a horror film.