Sharpening the Blade: A Return to Horror in Scream 4

Please welcome guest blogger and dear friend ElPeligro who comes to BookRain with a torrent of insight for those who savor the macabre.–Skye

Most moviegoers in the mid-1990s remember the first time they heard the chilling phone call that would be forever embedded in pop culture. I am talking, of course, about Wes Craven’s Scream, a contemporary spin on the slasher film genre.  With endless (tireless) film sequels to franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Child’s Play, and Halloween, Craven set out with writer Kevin Williamson to bring a fresh blood streak across the nation with Scream’s self-aware characters, horrifying deaths, and clever dialogue. The original is largely considered a classic horror film, and the first sight of killer Ghostface is certainly iconic (as is Tatum Riley’s death by garage door). Two sequels followed the first film ending in what was then considered to be a trilogy.

While horror films have rarely been taken seriously by the elite film critics, it cannot be denied that Scream contained a rarity in the genre, a brain. It also contained a highly talented cast led by the undeniably beautiful Neve Campbell, and supported by the equally talented Courtney Cox and David Arquette.The film franchise would also feature Hollywood stars Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jerry O’Connell, Jada Pinkett Smith, Drew Barrymore, Parker Posey, and Patrick Dempsey; yes Dr. McDreamy faced off against Ghostface in Scream 3. The writing was also clever, and the film even contained metaphors (final girl Sidney Prescott would be compared to Greek’s tragic Cassandra in Scream 2; a concept revisited in Scream 4) a rarity in slasher films.

The series was largely considered to have ended with Scream 3, and the character Sidney Prescott was given closure at the film’s final moments.  Ten years would pass with the series largely forgotten by the mainstream media, though reports of a Scream 4 would occasionally appear on fansites.  Scream 4 was even satirized in the film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back when Shannon Doherty’s character on the fictional film reveals the killer to be a monkey and storms off due to its lack of creativity.  Reports finally emerged that the Scream franchise would slash its way back into movie theaters in 2010, later confirmed for 2011.  Fans of the series were ecstatic to learn that all three main cast members would return for the fourth film, intended to be the first film in a new trilogy.

After viewing Scream 4 it is clear that Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson are sending out another commentary on the horror genre.  It’s been eleven years since Scream 3 premiered, and in that time span several horror films have hit the theaters.  The current trend of horror films is the modern-day remake, which has affected nearly every slasher film of the 1970s and 1980s.  While the initial idea of remakes seemed appealing, they have gone on to ruin a franchise’s continuity, since logically we can never revisit the old film canon with new films, and since remakes rarely make it past two films in a franchise, the franchise dies.  Remakes have become something of a bad word amongst horror fans.

Scream 4 brings this issue to the forefront with a new generation of kids whom we are led to believe will take the torch passed to them by series star Neve Campbell.  As a life-long fan of the Scream franchise I went into the theater expecting to see Campbell’s Sidney be brutally killed in the opening scene. This stemmed from repeated reports of Campbell having declined to appear in film, as well as her reported short filming schedule for Scream 3.  What I got instead was something of a false narrator (if we are to consider Ghostface’s threatening voice as the narrator). Ghostface gives the audience what they expect: this new film is not about Sidney Prescott, but about her cousin and her cousin’s group of teenaged friends, all of whom could be considered to be the new faces of the franchise (since like the original, this is young Hollywood’s elite players). By the end of the film we find out that Sidney has been the target all along, and the film’s events are all about her.

Scream 4 makes a commentary on today’s youthful generation as well.  The film explores the technology-savy teenagers and the increasingly prevalent “give me” attitudes of this desensitized generation. The killer’s big reveal feels like a knife wound to the back. The disgust and disbelief in Sidney’s face reflects our own. The killer’s identify was a shockingly unexpected twist, and on second viewing, as with the other Scream films, it makes perfect sense. We can empathize with Sidney, and when she is delivered the intended coup de grace (“Don’t tell me you didn’t know this day would come” mocked the killer), I was angry and disgusted. In fact, I noticed that many of the audience felt the same way during the entire film.  Anytime Sidney, Gale or Dewey were targeted there was high tension in the theatre, the audience did not want these characters to be harmed. It is as if these characters have come under our protection. After surviving through so much pain, we do not want these characters dead, showing that horror fans do have hearts.This same pain extends to the new cast, who are so likeable that their deaths make us cringe for the loss. Also seeing the highly talented Mary McDonnell meet her demise is incredibly sad, and when the climax reveals its context, it truly is salt on the wound.

The film’s climax also differs from the original trilogy’s climaxes in that we see the aftermath of the party scene, and the killers are not shot in the head by any of the main characters. Instead this film’s killers get it in the heart. The new cast of characters is delightfully entertaining with Hayden Panettiere being the best addition to the cast.The film also brings back violence to high school aged characters. Since school shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech horror films have been stepping on egg shells when it comes to the age of characters.

The horror film remake Prom Night is a perfect example of this since we never actually see a high school character get killed on screen by a killer who is targeting high school kids.  Even the original Scream 3 script was rewritten after Columbine to take place on a Hollywood movie set as opposed to Woodsboro High School (which Scream 4 does).

The film returns to its roots, and ends on a high note.  While Scream 2 is still my favorite amongst the Scream films, I have to admit that Scream 4 has taken the number two spot away from the original.The return of the film franchise is highly welcome after a decade of sad excuses by movie studios. Scream 4 contains great horror film techniques, excellent acting, clever dialogue, and enough action sequences to satisfy most moviegoers.

Since Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson have both returned to the film, the character development is consistent with the previous sequels. We get to see the effects of the previous attacks, and the moving on phase we prayed for. Sidney is the writer of a New York Times Best Seller, Out of Darkness, and Dewey is in a somewhat strained marriage with Gale. We see that Sidney is no longer the victim and Campbell plays to this strength by going toe-to-toe with the killer without a moment’s hesitation as the newbies simply watched their friend get attacked from the safety of their home. Sidney also shares her knowledge with Panettiere’s character, Kirby, but the advice goes unheeded, and Kirby is fatally betrayed. Sidney delivers a foot-to-the-face-kick for final girls of all decades to the killer, and even manages to send the killer flying down the stairs with a single kick.

Sidney has developed into a cunning and crafty survivor, and despite typical horror genre’s typical final girls, Sidney never slips up to allow the killer to gain a victory over her (she is humorously compared to Michael Myers from Halloween, and the comparison shows the role reversal of typical horror films). Due to her track record of killing the wearer of the Ghostface costume, one may have to wonder why the killers always go after her, since that is the true death wish of the film (if Campbell declines to be involved in a possible Scream 5, maybe the writers will use the logic that the killers knew they’d die if they faced her). But for now, Sidney finds that she cannot escape her tormenters. In the current film, Sidney is more like Cassandra than ever. The killer states that Sidney “can only watch” as a new group of victims’ blood stains the knife thus making the metaphor more prevalent and Sidney’s life more tragic than ever.One could argue that Sidney’s drama professor sealed her fate with his speech on the role of Cassandra being Sidney’s destiny, much like Campbell’s destined role is Sidney. In fact, she answers the phone with an immediate challenge, and to movie goers it was, in a very morbid way, like hearing an old friend.

The character development continues with Gale Weathers-Riley, who is after all these years, still the proud title holder of Bitch of the Year. Gale finds that without the killings she is in a kind of purgatory.The only thing she seems to be good at is reporting, and she has to continually remind her husband that she’s the one that helped solve the killings all three times in the past. It is her enthusiasm that actually makes the audience wonder why Dewey didn’t listen to her, because if he had, the movie would have ended a lot sooner since Gale was right. Instead we see the sad reality of a wife not being taken seriously, and being brutally attacked for it. Dewey is as reminiscent of Barney Fife as ever; it’s amazing how he got the position of sheriff with his track record. However, Dewey does share a very touching scene with Sidney where the two have a moment of mostly unspoken understanding of the nightmare they are living.

At the heart of any horror film is human emotion. A horror film is successful if it can stir up our emotions and deliver a meaningful message.Scream 4 takes us back to a time when the horror genre was not simply remaking its classics. Even if the film does not follow up with a fifth, Craven, Williamson, and Campbell have shot a bullet into the heart of remakes or the tradition of “passing the torch” to a new generation.The message delivered by Scream 4 can be interpreted in many different ways. But to sum it up in Sidney’s now iconic words, “You don’t f**k with the original.”

I rate Scream 4 five nostalgic popcorn buckets out of five.

Gosh, thanks to ElPeligro for his awesome take on Scream 4. I hope he visits more often. Also, check out The Best of Retro Slice and Dice over at uncoolghoul’s site. Stay safe, folks.

5 comments

  1. I stumbled upon the SCRE4M review today, Oct. 8, 2011. Funny because I just re-watched this sequel on Blue Ray this morning. I must say, ElPeligro you wrote a wonderful review here that goes beyond the normal thumbs up and thumbs down review. Your insight is well written and so much appreciated. I agree with almost 100% with what you wrote. I must also agree that Scream 2 is among the best in the series if not one of the best sequels in the horror genre. Thank you so much for writing a review with such details. I am taking the review for my own use in teaching and using it as an example of how reviews on any subject matter should be written.
    Thank you very much again for your prolific use of words and language and for being a fan of the Scream series.

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