Although I have a personal qualm with calling director Wes Craven the “Master of Suspense” (everyone knows that that title belongs to Alfred Hitchcock), I will contend to the idea of calling him the Master of Horror. Although John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween started the 1980’s slasher craze, Craven had already been steeped in exploitative horror movies like The Last House on the Left (a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring) and The Hills Have Eyes. He was slowly but surely making a name for himself with these low budget, graphic horror movies. He then kind of transitioned to the other subgenre of horror, the slasher film, and joined that 1980’s craze. His nightmarish masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street is commonly known as “The House that Freddy Built”, for it was New Line Cinema’s first foray into the horror genre, with dozens of others to follow the trend.
And then Craven and the slasher genre itself disappeared for a little bit. Craven continued to make films, but they were, for the most part, under the radar and not nearly as successful as Nightmare had been. 1996 came and the guy who redefined horror…redefined it again, with the “if Pulp Fiction were a horror film” classic Scream. Just as with Pulp Fiction, the film set out to explore the clichés and conventions in a genre not many people cared about anymore. Not only do that, but twist them on their head and rub them in the audience’s face. Scream worked as a comedy and as a horror film, but also as a relatively insightful exploration into the dissection of a genre and its fallacies and strengths. Craven asks, “What makes horror work? Why were the 1980’s films so ubiquitous? Why did people go see them? And why, underneath all of that, are they so profoundly stupid?” Yes, ladies and gentlemen, 1980’s slasher flicks aren’t exactly the most strenuous things to watch. Scream is memorable and fun (you gotta love that Drew Barrymore scene) and smart. Yay self referential humor! I may be wrong, but Scream may have been one of the first mainstream genre films to acknowledge its conventions and make humor out of it. (Please correct me if I am wrong.)
After making two successful sequels, Wes Craven and his motley crew (Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette) are back with Scream 4. The story and its cast has evolved much like popular culture, and its meta-ness is even more meta. (Let’s just say that in the first five minutes, Anna Paquin complains about “all this self referential horses**t and meta humor”…that’s right folks! The already meta humor just got meta on itself! They’re satirizing themselves!) Anna Paquin wittily says at the beginning that the “whole self aware, post modern meta s***” “has been done to death”. People have smartphones; social networking and blogging are being acknowledged as key points. Even internet fame plays a key role. Not only has Kevin Williamson (who wrote the first two films, as well as Dawson’s Creek) had the technology itself evolve in its role in the story, but so has the humor. The culture itself is important, where characters make note that the ever changing film industry is concentrating on “reboots and remakes” and “torture porn”. (Ironic, since Craven’s Last House on the Left and Hills Have Eyes were both remade in the last decade.) Yes, people, those who have missed the brilliance of the Scream humor, dialogue, and fun are in for a treat.
Sidney (Campbell) comes back to Woodsboro to promote her new book and just as she comes back, the murders begin to happen again! Dewey (Arquette) is now Sheriff and Gale (Cox) has left the industry to write, but suffers from writer’s block. Admittedly, getting back into the groove of seeing these characters in a slightly “where are they now?”-esque way is jarring. However, once we get into the swing of things, so to speak, all is well and the chemistry seems completely natural. The introduction of new characters is certainly welcome, as we meet Sidney’s timid cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), on whom the story revolves. We meet Jill’s best friend Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), an attractive, acerbic closeted horror buff (she makes me want to cry); Charlie (Rory Culkin) the resident film geek; Robbie (Erik Knudsen), who runs the Cinema Club with Charlie; and Trevor (Nico Tortorella) Jill’s ex. While each of the new additions are winning in their own way, my hat goes off to Panettiere, not only causing me to set a standard for girls that they will probably never be able to meet, but also for getting the cleverest dialogue and bringing pretty great acting to all of it.
The most interesting aspect, as I discussed earlier, is how the characters have evolved and how the culture has as well. This is a universe where there are seven Stab movies, only the first three being based off the events from the Scream films. Characters talk about how franchises are killing the originality by not knowing “when to stop” and that “they keep recycling the same s***”. The new subgenre “torture porn” is talked about and we the audience get insight into how the horror film industry is again changing gears. However, if you’ve stayed with the Scream franchise at all, the most exciting self referential part is “the rules”. Coined by Jamie Kennedy in the first film, the Rules are “The Rules One Must Abide By in Order to Survive a Horror Movie”. The meaning, however, changes a little as a rule set to be able to predict what kind of movie you’re in. As with the poster tagline for Scream 4, “New Decade, New Rules.” Williamson and Craven take this rule in and of itself to heart, introducing new clichés that build upon the old ones. We get “main cast bloodbath”, making Sidney “expendable”. These days, “the unexpected is the new cliché”. As the film continues to examine these conventions of these new horror films, the idea of a remake or reboot becomes essential, and the characters acknowledge that “remakes are all the studios ever greenlight anymore”. Charlie continues, “Modern audiences get savvy to the rules of the originals; so the reversals become the new standard”. The killer is trying to, much like remakes themselves, one up the original. Make it bloodier, gutsier, and more shocking. Top everything the original did. While Craven certainly tries to make this point, he also tries to make another one: “Don’t mess with the original.” This is Craven’s gentle reminder that, while Scream 4 is good, maybe even great, it will never be as good as the first one, and he knows it. What does that all mean? Craven is again utilizing self aware humor to satirize exactly what he’s doing, in a way; and that’s fine by me.
Technology plays a strong part in the film. The way people communicate, while it’s not really helpful (to the characters, at least), it is interesting. Smartphones, streaming, and social networking all work themselves in. Robbie is a constant blogger who always wears a headset with a webcam on it, reflecting that our generation, Gen-Y, is always on the internet and always updating people on our personal lives. He introduces the idea that in order to beat the original, “the killer should be filming the murders and then uploading them to the internet in real time, making your art as immortal as you”. And, much like the awesome shout out to Michael Powell’s 1966 film Peeping Tom, the killer does indeed use a camera and (kind of) give the audience a first person point of view. However, what does all this use of technology mean? As this generation has a chronic need to stay connected, making yourself famous via the internet plays a pivotal role. And in a bizarrely Social Network-ish way, the film manages to make a light social commentary on our obsession with the internet and using it as a medium to get our 15 minutes of fame. No longer is it a snarl in the face of watchdog groups who think that “people who watch too many scary movies are bound to commit the same crimes” (which was the first one), but more of a slight warning to how culture is becoming so homogenous and fame becoming so attainable that people will do some horrible things to get there.
Kevin Williamson’s screenplay is, of course, top notch. (If you disliked Scream 3, there’s a reason for that: he didn’t write it.) It’s not perfect, of course, but the melding of the same lingo and popular culture works out magnificently. The dialogue is witty and funny. Best of all, the film is genuinely scary. Without having to strain for the same “torture porn” clichés it condemns, Scream 4’s smart screenplay keeps you guessing at every turn. But it does use the typical conventions it satirizes, probably to accentuate that, while as bombastic and stupid as they may sound when you talk about them and analyze them, they do work.
Scream 4 is a very welcome treat and something that I’ve been waiting for personally for nearly a decade. When I had first heard it was going to be made, I was obviously wary. Sequels are not good, as a rule. This franchise, however, has managed to be the exception to that rule (even if Scream 3 was kind of ridiculous). While it certainly may not be as good as the original, at least it isn’t trying to. If anything, it’s merely trying to reintroduce that same illuminating examination into the genre for new audiences, but making it just as fun. (Kind of like when you update a history textbook.) For the record, it’s not as good as one, as good as two, and better than three. Wes Craven brings back all the thrills and chills, with a great, smart horror film. But, as he says, don’t mess with the original.