20 April 2011

WHEN THE SCREAMING STOPS

The full disclosure part first: I am not a fan of Scream. I find it smug and appallingly cynical, how it attempts to paper over its failings as a slasher film and a horror movie with a hyper-awareness of generic tropes, serving up hackneyed clichés while it winks and snorts and chuckles, "boy oh boy, isn't it just damn funny how clichéd these clichés are?" as though by virtue of pointing out its own shortcomings, they ceased to therefore be shortcomings; or, god help us, become actual strengths. This is the sin common to most meta-movies.

All that said, I can understand why so many people loved Scream, making it and its first sequel the highest grossing slasher films of all time, not adjusted for inflation.Viewed strictly as a pop-culture object, it's tolerably smart and clever. So I'm willing to concede that my aversion to the film is largely one of taste (it's also been my observation that the people who like Scream the least tend to be devotees of '80s slashers, which, yeah). I will make no similar concessions about Scream 4, or Scre4m, depending if you follow the copyright or the onscreen title. Taste or not, this is a ramshackle failure as a slasher film and a satire of slasher films, an embarrassing and flailing continuation of a story that had been sealed up and resolved and done away with and boxed up and left for dead 11 years ago. It is better than Scream 3, but so are most things.

The film's problems become apparent fairly quickly. Remember how each of the previous 3 Screams opens with a famous or semi-famous person being killed off by a man wearing the famous Ghostface mask? So do director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson, teaming up once again after Williamson took the third movie off (though the filmmakers later collaborated on the well-forgotten werewolf picture Cursed). In this case, a pair of teen girls (Lucy Hale and Shenae Grimes) who get chased and savaged by a prank caller, just like the first Scream - and then it turns out to be the opening of Stab 6 (the series based, in-universe, on the events in the Scream "reality"), being watched by a pair of 20somethings (Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell). The one girl can't believe how fake and stupid Stab 6, which annoys the other girl, who proceeds to stab the first in the gut - and then this turns out to be the opening of Stab 7, which is being watched by two more incredulous girls (Aimee Teegarden and Brittany Robertson), who can't get their heads around how incredibly bad horror movies have gotten over the years. The rule of three tells us that this must be Scream 4 and not Stab 8, and so it is; a figure in the Ghostface outfit (Dane Farwell) kills the pair and sends us into our proper plot.

But let's stick around the teaser for a minute: whatever are Craven and Williamson trying to tell us? Two things, mostly: one is that horror movies in the last 15 years have grown self-devouring, using self-reflexive gags and in-jokes and parodies of iconic setpieces in a desperate attempt to remain fresh and effective - and what 15-year-old movie started that trend, I wonder? The second thing is that horror sequels have to do increasingly ludicrous things to avoid turning into simple, hateful rehashes of the first one over and over again. A fair point, and what's startling about Scream 4 - the only startling thing about it, really - is that Craven and Williamson don't merely make that point, they make it over and over again, putting self-conscious references about out-of-date sequels and pointless remakes into the mouths of seemingly half the cast. This goes far beyond Scream 1 jokingly saying, "Gosh, slashers are formulaic! See how formulaic we're being?" This is saying "Everything that is wrong with horror movies is present, right here, in Scream 4. It is symptomatic of all the terrible things that have made horror unendurable in the last ten years. Fuck you, Scream 4." I, personally, cannot recall the last time a film insisted on its own pointlessness with quite this much ferocity.

Anyway: the plot finds ways to bring back all the regulars: former Final Girl Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is back in Westboro to promote her book about surviving and thriving in the decade since she was at the epicenter of three murder sprees; Dewey Riley (David Arquette) is now the sheriff, and his wife, the former Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) is trying to write a book, but quickly gets more excited about helping out with the investigation into the new murders, fighting with her husband in the process; it's sort of eerie that a movie written before the Cox-Arquette's announced their separation manages to incorporate it so nicely as a metanarrative undertone. And then there are a huge fucking number of new kids and other expendable meat: Sidney's teenage cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), her friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe), her shithead ex Trevor (Nico Totorella), horror film buffs Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin), a pair of insufficiently bumbling deputies, Ross Hoss (Adam Brody) and Anthony Perkins (Anthony Anderson), or, as I like to call him, "Deputy Fuck You In The Face, Kevin Williamson". And Deputy Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton), trying to steal away Sheriff Dewey.

It wouldn't be sporting to give away the plot (many people die, a series record in fact, until the killer is stopped - and the killer's identity is awfully arbitrary, a twist ending solely for the sake of a twist); suffice it to say that Sidney goes absolutely bugshit when she finds out that there's another killer in her life, while the kids are all both scared and excited that the grand tradition of Westboro slashers, which they've only known from the Stab movies, has now come to life in their own time. But mostly, it's about Craven and Williamson being crabby, crusty old men, insisting that all these new horror pictures get off their damn lawn.

In the process, they reveal a complete lack of the one thing that made Scream work: there's simply no sense that they understand the horror landscape anymore. There's only one dismissive reference to torture porn, and the scene where the rules of horror films are explained - the most famous element of the Scream franchise - consists largely of things that the filmmakers seem to assume ought to be true about latter-day sequels and remakes, but aren't necessarily supported by the actual evidence of this or any other horror film ever made (e.g. gay people apparently can't die - since when?). The one good gag in the movie comes when Kirby, a horror buff (because In The '00s, girls can be horror fans! and just like boy horror fans in the '90s, they can have the most obvious fucking taste in horror movies possible!* is challenged by the raspy Ghostface to name the remake of the classic horror film that... leading her to desperately launch into a recital of some of the films from the past decade to do a more-or-less awful job of rebooting some iconic work or another, a 15-second wall of film titles spat out rapid-fire. It's an obvious but cutting joke at the expense of the collapse of even a pretense to originality found in contemporary horror, and a much subtler, perhaps accidental poke at Craven himself, who produced a significant number of the films named. Outside of that, though, neither Williamson nor Craven apparently knows or cares anything about the modern state of horror, nor even the classics: Peeping Tom is name-dropped in a manner that suggests the writer doesn't have quite as solid an understanding of horror history as he would like us to pretend (he would have it that slashers are slashers because they share the killer's POV, which is... not part of the standard definition). Watching Scream 4, you might not even get the sense that, in point of fact, there basically aren't any slashers nowadays, not according to anything even vaguely resembling the old model.

In short, it is a film made with little motivation other than to complain about how much everything sucks today, all these cash-in bullshit projects, like Scream 4; and really, at some point way back down the line, you'd have thought that somebody would question whether it was right to have people who clearly hated the mercenary nature of their project be in charge of that project just because of their history. 11 years is a very long time in pop culture, and it's resulted in a Scream 4 that is every bit as cynical and calculating as the worst moments in any of its forebears, but far more tossed-off, pointless, and uninteresting.

4/10


Reviews in this series
Scream (Craven, 1996)
Scream 2 (Craven, 1997)
Scream 3 (Craven, 2000)
Scream 4 (Craven, 2011)

5 comments:

james1511 said...

Can I take the liberty of posting this?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59R0x9vkdKI

This is a chat about Scream 4 recorded for a radio show I do, led by my friend Aaron who got to a preview here in Australia before it had even previewed in the US, and so wrote one of the first reviews of the film. He's more of a fan of the first three films than me (I've only seen number one), and was hugely disappointed by the new one. It's the bit about what happened when he started promoting the review that you might find interesting (and perhaps take as a warning of what you might face now that you too have dared to question the greatness of Scream 4).

Also Lizard in a Woman's Skin is great, obviously.

Troy Olson said...

I think the best thing about your review here is that you use your best grumpy old man "things were better in my day" tone to chastise Craven and Williamson on doing the same thing. Now THAT'S meta. (I should point out that I'd use the exact same tone -- I side with your view of the state of horror movies and not their version).

Which makes me think that someone COULD make a good movie in the SCREAM vein that shows why the majority of modern day horror isn't much fun to watch anymore. But it would need to be one that isn't so damn impressed with it's own wit (and I'm just working off the previous three films in the series with that observation) in order to pull it off successfully.

Tim said...

And that's exactly the thing. I want to like Scream. Or rather, I want to like a movie that does the things Scream sets out to do. And I think it makes me extra bitter because this is what I get in place of it.

The.Watcher said...

Just finished watching this abomination. I downloaded it in relatively bad quality, but in 720p so not THAT bad, I guess, because I wasn't under any pretense that this movie will be anything worth spending any amount of money on. Lo and behold - I was right. I fucking hated this movie with a dark passion that I only remember experiencing once before - when I watched Mortal Kombat: Annihilation in the cinema with my dad for the first time. Fuck you, Craven, for stealing 2 hours of my life. I will not watch any movie you make from now on, especially after paying for Craven Wants to Rape my Soul.

a famous historian said...

Good catch on the POV thing. I'd add that using the killer's POV as an establishing criterion for the slasher disqualifies, er, Scream 4 - and most of Craven's other films - from the fold, so maybe it's some sort of clever and subtle point. Or not.