The second movie I reviewed for my college newspaper was Wes Craven’s “Vampire in Brooklyn.” I still have to apologize to the friends who accompanied me to that particular screening.
As horrible as “Vampire in Brooklyn” was — it’s one of those disasters you can’t even justify as a guilty pleasure — it set me up perfectly for a press screening of “Scream” the next year. At that moment, there was no buzz at all for “Scream.” It was a little horror movie that appeared to star Drew Barrymore and one of the frequently crying actresses from “Party of Five.” I had no expectations regarding the plot or the tone and nobody had begun to suggest that there were surprises or twists to be spoiled or kept secret. And after “Vampire in Brooklyn,” I’d have been astounded if Craven still knew how to keep images in proper focus, much less cut together a scene of cinematic suspense.
“Scream” worked for me on every level and I spent a couple weeks preaching the gospel of what felt very much like a slasher movie that had been made specifically for me and my friends. When “Scream” premiered to only $6 million, I was disappointed, but the movie went on to follow a nearly unprecedented box office pattern on the way to $100 million.
The sequel wasn’t quite as smart and funny, but I actually thought “Scream 2” was more consistently scary than the original.
Then “Scream 3” came along and sucked all of the joy out of the franchise, draining it of its life-blood like some sort of vampire in or from Brooklyn.
It took more than a decade for anybody (and everybody, including Craven and writer Kevin Williamson) to get desperate enough to make a fourth “Scream” film and the resulting sequel, which opens on Friday (April 15) is better than “Scream 3,” but I don’t know if I’m prepared to call it a return-to-form for the franchise.
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Thanks to the Barrymore opening to the first film, probably the most perfectly calibrated scene of Craven’s career, “Scream” movies are somewhat defined by their pre-credit sequences, not that I have any real memories of the pre-credit bits from “Scream 2” — Something with Omar Epps? — or “Scream 3.”
In that respect, “Scream 4” is aptly established with an extended pre-credit sequence that keeps its tongue firmly in cheek throughout, but never delivers any kind of real jolt or pathos. It’s silly to say, but I actually cared about Barrymore in that “Scream” opening and when she died, it set the anything-goes tone for the rest of the film. Yes, there was all of that meta stuff about her favorite scary movie and not knowing the killer in the first “Friday the 13th” movie and all of that, but that sequence’s M.O. was fright. “Scream 4” begins with glibness, superficiality and a slew of guest stars whose characters might as well all be named “Disposable TV-Friendly Bimbo.” You’ll chuckle, but unless you’re an easy touch, you won’t jump in your seat.
The actual plot picks up in Woodsboro as Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is making her semi-triumphant return to the town where an awful lot of her friends and family were butchered. With the help of her ultra-ambitious publicist (Alison Brie), Sidney is pimping her new self-help tome, something about how you don’t need to be a victim (unless, apparently, the Dimension coffers need re-filling). Sidney is flying high, which is more than can be said for writers-blocked Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), who has been neutered since last we saw her, suddenly a directionless housewife to Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette).
When a new run of murders hit Woodsboro, it becomes clear that Ghostface is back, targeting Sidney and those closest to her, including niece Jill (Emma Roberts) and her assortment of nubile and nerdy teenage associates.
The first “Scream” film had the appealingly post-modern take on the totality of the horror genre. “Scream 2” got away with tackling the fairly ripe-for-satire world of horror sequels. “Scream 3” tried to pretend that there were rules to trilogies, but fell on its face when trying to fabricate a new set of rules.
Thankfully, Williamson’s “Scream 4” script doesn’t attempt to make its tag line, “Somebody has taken their love of long-delayed quadrilogies too far.” Williamson and Craven are smart enough to know that the brand of slasher films resurrected by the first “Scream” movie has long-since gone out of style. There’s an acknowledgement of the dispatched vogue of torture porn before Williamson adjusts his focus to the rash of horror remakes and reboots. The flaw to his logic is that “Scream 4” isn’t really either a remake or a reboot and even though obligatory AV geeks Charlie and Robbie (Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen) go through a perfunctory list of rules, I never felt like “Scream 4” or Ghostface were adhering to said rules, or that the rules were necessarily an apt reflection of the trend. The first two “Scream” movies were as smart as they thought they were, but “Scream 4” is not.
One of the remake/reboot rules that “Scream 4” fails at most dismally is raising the ante on the kills (and yes, I think that was also a rule of sequels). In the pre-credit sequence, one of the proto-corpses references Jigsaw and admitted that while the “Saw” movies suck, Jigsaw is a really creative killer. Ghostface, while he has his merits, is maybe the least creative killer in the annals of slasherdom. He stabs people. Repeatedly. And that’s about it. Sometimes he stabs them through other things. Sometimes he guts them or slashes their throats. But his weapon of choice and methodology never wavers. He calls. He harasses. He pops out of doorways or closets (or crashes through windows, when the spirit really moves him). He stabs. He departs. And Craven orchestrates all of the killings in the exact same way, accompanied by virtually identical musical stings courtesy of the franchise’s regular composer Marco Beltrami.
Ghostface has had to make a couple accommodations for the passing of a decade, but the new technological era has only made life more cumbersome for a crank-calling serial killer. The amount of time Williamson’s screenplay wastes on Caller ID-related contortions does no favors to anybody. Ghostface uses at least a half-dozen different cell phones, but given the likelihood that Dewey and his officers could perform a trace, I’m not sure why he didn’t just buy a burner and instruct each of his potential victims to give him a cheeky ring-tone. Williamson and Craven make a half-hearted effort to nod at a generation raised online and prone to broadcasting their every thought or life experience via Facebook or webcam. It’s an OK idea — assuming you ignore that movies like “Pulse” have already mined the territory — but it’s only useful at the very end. At least we should be relieved Ghostface wasn’t on Twitter? “Oh No! @Ghostface says he’s going to stub us all! Stub? Oh, that Ghostface and his auto-correct typos. Wait. According to geolocator, he’s tweeting FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE.” [Yes, “When a Stranger Tweets” would be funnier than 90 percent of this season’s “SNL” skits.]
Somebody somewhere must have been sitting around going, “Geez, I wonder what Sidney, Gail and Dewey are up to 10 years later.” The answer is, “They’re a bit mopey and the actors playing them are a bit complacent.” In my version of “Scream 4,” the returning characters get to make their appearances, but Ghostface kills them almost immediately. That way, the new crop of kids gets to actually carry the movie. Why not trust that Roberts, while not exactly a dynamic performer, is capable of providing a comparable level of earnest spunkiness to what Campbell brought to the original trilogy? Roberts is fine, while Knudsen and Culkin add up to something less than a single Jamie Kennedy from the first two movies, they deliver meta-slasher analysis acceptably. Marley Shelton is fantastically crazy-eyed as Dewey’s adoring deputy, even if fellow officers-of-the-law Adam Brody and Anthony Anderson aren’t utilized to the fullest of their potential.
Although Cox is easily the most engaged of the returning co-stars, her tart-tongued capacity could have been more-than-filled by Brie, whose giddy performance suggests what might happen to Little Annie Adderall if her idealism were replaced by ambition. It wasn’t surprising that Brie fared this well, but the biggest “Scream 4” stand-out may be Hayden Panettiere, who uses her new ultra-severe Midgitte Nielsen look as the foundation for a bad girl who’s actually a lot of fun to watch. This is the first time I’ve ever felt like Panettiere was enjoying herself on-screen and the devilish glint in her eyes sparks her every appearance.
But Craven and Williamson can’t let go of the original stars and their sullen characters and cruise control performances add a layer of dullness on top of the by-the-numbers scares. Williamson’s script provides enough amusement that “Scream 4” never feels like a chore to sit through, but Williamson’s work as one of the creators of The CW’s “Vampire Diaries” hasn’t left him rejuvenated when it comes to the surprises and twists necessary to entirely reanimate this franchise.
“Scream 4” is now in theaters.