The Last Picture Show: Wes Craven’s Scream 4, by Craig Schroeder
The Last Picture Show is a recurring Battleship Pretension column that reviews and examines the last films of a given director, actor, cinematographer, etc. as a means of exploring their filmography as a whole.
Wes Craven’s career is a strange odyssey: With his first few films, including The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, Craven established himself as a preeminent leader in a new fraternity of horror directors. His early films were ruthless, sadistic and outright ugly. As a teenager discovering horror films, I loved both; as an adult I find them difficult to revisit. Though films like The Last House on the Left are canon to horror hounds, it’s when Craven began turning the camera on the genre itself that he cemented his status as an auteur. With 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven began to conduct meta experiments with the trappings of the genre, playing with the sexual politics of horror films and creating a horror icon that exists only to the teenagers who believe in horror icons. When Craven returned to Elm Street in 1994 with New Nightmare, he dismantled the genre so as to examine its machinations. It wasn’t until 1996’s Scream that Craven finally realized his masterpiece of genre dissection, reassembling horror films into the manner he saw fit.
Scream 4 would be Craven’s final film, returning to the suburbs of Woodsboro for the first time since the initial installment (Scream 2 was set at the fictional Windsor College and Scream 3—the only out and out failure of the franchise—took place on a movie set in Hollywood). Though the novelty of the franchise had worn off, the film is a definitive reflection on the series’ effect on meta-horror and Craven’s career as a whole. Fifteen years after the events of Scream, Sydney Prescott returns to Woodsboro to promote her new book, a memoir of her life as a perpetual victim of the Ghostface killer (Wu-Tang unaffiliated). When a similar series of murders begin, both Sydney and Wes Craven himself, find they must confront the genesis of their legacy.
Much of the Scream series’ success (and nearly all of its failures) can be attributed to Kevin Williamson’s screenplay. The first is a smart deconstruction of horror tropes. By the franchise’s third film, Craven became lost in the weeds of his own creation with a ham-fisted satirization of Hollywood (seemingly unaware that the first two films had done so brilliantly). But by the fourth installment—Craven’s last film and his first good outing since his string of mid to late ought stinkers like Cursed and My Soul to Take—Williamson’s screenplay is reminiscent of the first film’s blend of clever and scary (a tall order at the time, considering the degraded quality of Williamson’s television work—including Stalker and The Following—during this era) and Craven’s inventive direction revitalized the series (including a somehow invigorating “found footage” style sequence).
But Scream 4 is a reflection of Craven’s own filmography. The infamous first scene of Scream (“What’s your favorite scary movie?”) is sent up in the film’s opening moments, announcing Scream 4 as a modern assessment, not just of Hollywood’s most notorious horror tropes or of the franchise’s own motifs, but of the audience’s expectations. Just as Drew Barrymore is slaughtered in 1996, a number of recognizable Hollywood starlets (Aimee Teegarden, Kristen Bell, Lucy Hale, Anna Paquin) are stalked by a masked killer—each killing revealed to be a film within a film within a film—setting the tone by acknowledging the film’s legacy and the series’ history, inviting the audience to be a part of the joke (something the third installment could never manage). Scream 4 isn’t perfect and is at its worst when stomping over well-worn territory without commenting on the fact it’s doing so (Kieran Culkin’s one-for-one retread of Timothy Olyphant and Jamie Kennedy’s discussion of horror sequels from Scream 2 is particularly irksome). But Scream 4 is one of Craven’s most unsettling films, milking thrills by a combination of taught chase scenes (when Sydney first encounters Ghostface) and horrific imagery (the character of Olivia meets a particularly gruesome end). Knowing audiences have memorized the formula, Craven uses every trick in his repertoire to churn out thrills within a ubiquitous blueprint. Making Ghostface an unpredictable enigma once again, the aforementioned Olivia-kill showcases Craven’s ability to put the viewer in the film, showing most of the home-invasion attack through a window across the street, melding the viewer and the characters within the film into a single horrified onlooker.
Craven’s career can be divided into three periods: horror provocateur (The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes), supernatural fabulist (Shocker, Nightmare on Elm Street, The People Under the Stairs) and meta-horror auteur (New Nightmare and Scream). Of course, there are films that break from this mold (2005’s thriller Red Eye and 1999’s drama Music of the Heart, don’t quite fit into these designations) and others that blend them. Craven’s legacy as an elder statesman of horror was forged in the fires of the seventies horror revolution and solidified by his iconic creations of the eighties. But Craven’s filmography became easier to embrace and more personal once he traded brutalism for introspection. Scream 4 is an exciting romp, but just an echo of Craven’s visionary accomplishments. But in true Craven fashion, when the film’s central mystery is resolved (one of the franchise’s more predictable twists), it becomes obvious that the story within Scream 4 isn’t as essential as what the film represents: A delightful eulogy to Craven’s career, assessing the groundwork that got him there and not letting audiences forget what they love about the director’s instincts.