Scream 4 (2011) would have been a better film if it had been Scream 3 (2000). Okay so that’s not the only problem with the belated entry into the Scream franchise, but it’s definitely one of the bigger issues with a film where the whole doesn’t end up being greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s hard to over-estimate the impact of Scream (1996) when it was released in the mid-1990s. The film’s self-aware, meta-based humour lovingly jabbed at all the slasher film tropes while simultaneously re-invigorating the subgenre for a new generation of horror fans. More generally, Wes Craven gave the overall horror genre a much needed jolt at a time when general interest was at a low. Make a list of memorable horror films released between 1990 and 1996; it will be a relatively small list. And no, Doctor Giggles does not count. Scream was one of the rare horror films that struck a never becoming a crossover hit with traditionally non-genre fans. I was in university when it was released and I can still vividly remember having a Scream movie night with friends, most of whom would typically avoid this type of film.
Released only a year after the box office success of Scream, the first sequel managed to catch lightning in a bottle, delivering a largely satisfying follow-up. Most importantly, Scream 2 (1997) had a reason to exist, perfectly satirizing the rules of slasher film sequels. Aside from its overly convoluted plot and hit-or-miss humour, Scream 3’s major problem was that it lacked a true reason for existing outside of profit. While Scream 2 explored the convections of horror film sequels, Scream 3 (2000) purported to satirize the tropes of Hollywood trilogies. The only problem with this conceit is that there are actually few true trilogies and no actual horror film trilogies. If you define a trilogy as three films with internal stand-alone stories connected by an overarching narrative, the list of actual trilogies is pretty small (The Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, Star Wars, The Dark Knight, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films). Most Hollywood franchises just endlessly produce films until the box office receipts no longer justify it; franchises with only three films are accidental rather than by design or story demands. There are certainly no true horror film trilogies and the only discernible rules of ongoing horror sequels is a higher body count, increasingly improbable ways of bringing the killer back to life, and the potential jettisoning of the series to outer space (see Hellraiser, Leprechaun, Friday the 13th).
When Scream 4 was released over a decade after the last film in the franchise the horror genre had gone through considerable changes. From the brief J-horror craze of the early 2000s, to ‘torture porn’ and an onslaught of remakes in the mid-2000s, to the popularity of found-footage in the later half of the decade, the horror genre was arguably ripe for Wes Craven to pick it apart with a new Scream film. Unlike Scream 3, the fourth film had a reason to exist and plenty of new material and ideas to explore. With its bold tag line,”New Rules”, Craven and promised to once again subvert the genre’s rules and Kevin Williamson’s screenplay does indeed set up some clever parallels to the 1996 original that serve to poke fun at Hollywood’s obsession with remaking old horror films.
The major problem of Scream 4 is that it doesn’t go far enough in re-writing its own rules. By the film’s conclusion, all of the series’ major characters are still alive and what you’re left with is actually kind of just loose remake of the original Scream. The film’s multiple, ‘movie-within-a-movie’s’ fake openings was clever but it also presented a missed opportunity. How subversive would it have been to begin Scream 4 by killing Dewey and Gale Weathers? Imagine if Craven had then opted to kill Sydney Prescott at the film’s halfway point thereby opening a wide range of possibilities for the third and final act. Instead Craven and Williamson leave all possible new directions and ideas dead making Scream 4 what it had originally set out to skewer.
The first Scream poked fun at slasher film conventions while improving upon and breathing new life into them. Craven riffs on ‘torture porn’ films, like Saw, and the newly emerging ‘celebrity-obsessed, selfie generation of social media but this time around he seems to have less to say and Williamson’s screenplay never really embraces the commentary. While Scream 4 is a bloodier affair than its predecessors, it’s downright tame compared to any of the ‘New French Extremity’ films or Eli Roth or Rob Zombie-helmed films that characterized the ‘torture porn’ era of the 2000s. Craven’s commentary on our celebrity-starved culture never quite hits the mark and almost feels tacked on to the film’s climax.
Part of the problems also seems to be a basic misconception or lack of understanding of how social media works – perhaps a generation gap. While the cellphone phone technology in the original Scream films is obviously outdated by today’s standards it has no detrimental impact on the overall quality of the original Scream; it is still as effective and entertaining as it was in 1996. The Ring is nearly 16 years old and centred around a long outdated technology, but its message about our media consumption and fascination with watching and spreading other’s tragedies is still poignant. Scream 4 is only seven years old and it has aged considerably less well particularly with its use of technology. There are several films and television shows that have done a much better job exploring the dark side of our celebrity and social media-infused culture.
None of this is to suggest that Scream 4 is a terrible film; by all accounts, it’s an entertaining slasher film with several clever ideas and set-pieces to distinguish it from most VOD films. Craven and Williamson are certainly more focused in this Scream entry than what we saw in Scream 3. Unfortunately, Scream 4 never delivers on the promise of its premise or the opportunity to critique a decade of lazy horror film tropes.