One Last Scare, by David Bax
It’s been over a decade since the most recent entry in the Scream franchise (2000’s underwhelming Scream 3 was the last) and plenty has changed in the interim. For one thing, the overused term “torture porn” has entered the lexicon, even though my impression is that most who use it have no idea what the hell they’re talking about. Also, the perpetual motion machine that is the Saw franchise has one-upped the already exhausting nature of the horror sequels by releasing them like clockwork once a year.
These ten years have given geeks some time to contemplate Scream’s place in film history and I think the movie has come out on top. Not only is the original a very clever, if not especially deep, deconstruction of the genre, it developed a tone of its own, which was carried over well into the second film and attempted admirably in the third one. That movie can be blamed almost entirely on one element or, more accurately, the absence of one element. Kevin Williamson, who wrote the first two and whose voice came to define 1990’s pop irony, was absent for that one and it suffered terribly for it.
Fortunately, Williamson has returned for this new, excellent installment. Those new additions to horror cinema mentioned above provide plenty of fuel for him to jump back into the world of Woodsboro and Ghostface and explore not only how much things have changed but also how much Scream is responsible for those changes. That first movie came out in 1996 and so expertly shone a light on the trappings of the genre that they largely had to be abandoned in order to keep audiences interested. A lack of predictability became the name of the game. Viewers had to believe that anything could happen to any of the characters. While that led to a lot of preposterous storylines, Scream 4 turns it into a great deal of fun. The Scream movies have always carried a strong element of who-done-it with a gotcha twist or two, this one ramps these facets up to a point that is laughable, but never unintentionally so. It’s a credit both to Williamson and director Wes Craven, who has never seemed more at home than in this franchise, that it stays on the rails. It does, though, and mostly through sheer forward momentum.
The other traits of a Scream film are all on display here too. The sardonic cheekiness of the prematurely jaded teenagers is once again hilarious and once again juxtaposed with an unexpectedly high level of brutality and sadism. The film eschews the creatively grisly kills of torture porn (again with that stupid term!) in favor of a sickening realism, complete with close-ups of knives penetrating skin, the spilling of viscera and believably, disturbingly slow, painful deaths. What makes the slayings more disturbing is just how nonchalant the teenagers are about what’s happening around them. That is, until it’s happening to them.
Williamson’s brilliance in this film, and in the first two, is the way he Trojan horses his social commentary into the project. He makes a point about the insensitive, callous and selfish nature of the American teenager by dressing that point up as an insensitive, callous American teen movie. Meanwhile, he insists that hope is not lost and that empathy comes with age. The adult characters – the returning Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette, all wonderful – are caring and engaged members of society. Yes, even Cox’s Gale Weathers is a better person than when we last saw her. (By the way, that’s all the story points you’ll get out of me. Almost any mention of this movie’s plot could qualify as a spoiler).
Scream 4 succeeds (and then some) by being impressively and not at all embarrassingly up-to-date while also recognizing and building upon horror’s history in a respectful and delightful way. The remarkable thing is it also solidifies that fact that, despite its dependence on all that came before, these movies have developed their own tone, one that is exciting and endlessly watchable. Here’s to more Scream films to come. As long as Craven and Williamson are involved.