Thursday 1 December 2011

Screaming bloody murder

I left Scream 4 (or Scre4m, as the poster would have you believe) feeling mostly confused. I can't quite figure out why Wes Craven thought Scream needed a third sequel eleven years on. Sure, Craven's directorial pace had slowed to a crawl while hacks were remaking some of his best works.

Making another hip slasher deconstruction was a wrong move artistically: there's no better way for a rightly celebrated horror filmmaker to seem like a grumpy old man with axes to grind. Scream 4 is emphatically no cash-grab. Craven intends to comment on the state of horror cinema at the beginning of the 2010s, but mostly reveals how out of touch he's become.

Scream 4 demands no previous familiarity with the series: exposition helpfully establishes that it's been ten or so years since Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) survived the last attack by the Ghostface Killer (Dane Farwell), an ordeal about which she's just written a book. Dewey (David Arquette) has become sheriff, while his wife Gale (Courteney Cox-Arquette, with the Arquette half barely hanging on at the time of filming) is trying to write fiction. Since the film aims its ire at remakes, however, most of the cast is in high school: there's Sidney's cousin Jill (Emma Roberts); her insufferable ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella); her friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe); as well as the requisite film geeks Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin). That's barely half the named cast, I reckon: if nothing else, Scream 4 has a shedload of expendable meat.

Anyway, Ghostface returns for some stabbing action, slaughtering Olivia as well as Sidney's publicist Rebecca (Alison Brie) before beginning to decimate the rest of the cast. Our savvy heroes determine the killer is likely to strike at a big, rowdy teen party - and as luck would have it, Charlie and Robbie are just about to hold the annual Stabathon, a screening of all seven Stab films (the in-universe franchise based on the Woodsboro murders) at a secret location, which turns out to be a barn that dialogue declares abandoned, blatantly contradicting the fresh straw stored there. Gale snoops around and is injured by Ghostface for her troubles, but it turns out - unsurprisingly, as less than an hour has passed - that the feared barn bloodbath was a false ending. Instead, all hell breaks loose at the afterparty.

Scream 4 is ostensibly about the concept of remakes, and this Ghostface Killer is supposedly 'remaking' the original Woodsboro murders. That concept is a little difficult to swallow in a third sequel, but let's give Craven the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that some of the nods to the original are genuinely well done. At the same time, though, the 'rules' of remakes ring false: 'the kills gotta be way more extreme'? Really? In Rob Zombie's Halloween, maybe, but it's hardly a general rule; and the same goes for playing on audience expectations of the original.

Craven and Williamson's grasp of slasher lore is surprisingly shaky, anyway: Scream 4 identifies Peeping Tom as the first slasher film since it used the killer's point of view, a criterion that would disqualify, er, Scream 4 and indeed most Craven films from the fold; and the true first slasher, 1974's Black Christmas, doesn't get so much as a nod. The feeling that the filmmakers don't know what they're talking about isn't confined to cinema history. Frankly, the film's foregrounding of vlogging and reality entertainment feels a little passé: indeed, although we'd all rather forget about it, Halloween: Resurrection centred on live video streaming all the way back in 2002, so the concept isn't even new to slasher-world.

Laying out 'the rules' and poking fun at the inanities of the subgenre has always been my least favourite part of the Scream franchise. I liked the first two films despite their  indulgence of Williamson's hip sneering because they were terrific slasher films; Scream 3 and 4 fail as horror films before everything else. The postmodern, 'everything sucks' irony that has infected pop culture since the nineties is for cowards: it allows people to like stupid things but pretend they don't. The slasher may be ragged and ugly and idiotic, but I love it with a deep sincerity and get a little irritated by critics' praise for deconstructions of it.

Anyway, for an eleven-years-later sequel Scream 4 feels an awful lot like more of the same: like all of its predecessors, there's much mystery over the identity of the killer, and that sort of plot gets tired quickly when done in every instalment. There are phone calls and false opening scenes (two false opening scenes, in fact, and then there's the 'real' opening scene, which we're watching, in infinite regression, or whatever), and Ghostface, too, is mostly the same, which is good: the killer has always been the best thing about Scream, the total antithesis of slow, implacable villains by being fast and dextrous, and the costume is as good as ever. He deserved a better film; but really, this franchise needed to be laid to rest after Scream 2, all the way back in 1997.

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