Film Review: “Scream 4”

by Jason LeRoy on April 13, 2011

Neve Campbell and Emma Roberts in SCREAM 4. © 2011 - The Weinstein Company

starring: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Alison Brie, Marley Shelton, Rory Culkin, Mary McDonnell, Adam Brody, Anthony Anderson, Aimee Teegarden, Shenae Grimes, Kristen Bell, Anna Paquin, Nico Tortorella, Erik Knudsen, Marielle Jaffe, Brittany Robertson, Lucy Hale

written by: Kevin Williamson

directed by: Wes Craven

MPAA: Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some teen drinking.

First of all: I take the Scream films very seriously. I cannot overstate that. I love, love, love them. I was 13 when the first film came out, and my obsession with it knew no bounds. I had a similar love affair with part two, despite the screaming match my mother got into with the pimply box office attendant when he informed her she’d have to accompany me to the screening (I was 15; no, she didn’t like it). I even have love for the frequently maligned third installment, despite its shortcomings (Sidney’s murdered mother as a scary ghost = bad idea).

These films are three of the most precious and formative cultural artifacts from my teen years, bookending and punctuating my life from ages 13 to 18. So, this will not be a review where I sit back and say, “Oh, who cares about Scream? I barely even remember the first one!” For a review like that, perhaps you can consult some of the other critics at my screening, who drew glares from me with such exchanges as: “I never even saw part two or three.” “What? There was a third one?” BLASPHEMY! The tragic, bloody ballad of Sidney Prescott is one of the most compelling in the entire horror genre.

That ballad now continues in Scream 4. It’s been eleven bloodless, peaceful years since the events of Scream 3, and Sidney (Neve Campbell) has finally begun to experience closure about the dozens of murders she’s survived. So, she’s done what any person who becomes famous for “having fucked-up shit happen to them” does: she’s penned a memoir. Her unscrupulous publicist (the delicious Alison Brie) decides it would be fantastic for her book tour to end back in Woodsboro, where it all began.

And so, Sidney returns to Woodsboro. Some are excited to see her, like her old pals and partners-in-survival Dewey (David Arquette) and Gale (Courteney Cox). Dewey and Gale are living in wedded bliss — or at least Dewey, who is now the sheriff, thinks so. Gale has retired to a quiet life of fiction-writing, but her ambition is making her restless. When Sidney’s homecoming coincides with a new crop of murders bloodying the knife-stocked homes of Woodsboro, she starts getting back to her old tricks.

Less excited to see Sidney is her family, specifically her cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), the daughter of her Aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell, wasted in a too-brief role). For Jill, Sidney is “the angel of death”: everyone around her dies. Of course Sidney is only too aware of this, but Jill isn’t concerned with Sidney’s feelings. She’s got her own drama, like her cheating boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella), and film nerds Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin), who are obsessed with Sidney and the Stab films which tell her story. But at least she’s got her girlfriends, Kirby (Hayden Panettiere, inexplicably styled to resemble Tammy Lynn Michaels at her butchest) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe).

And I think that’s probably all I can say about what happens. We’ve all been repeatedly warned about the sensitive nature of Scream 4 and its plot. And it seems like they’ve actually been pretty successful (as of the moment that I’m typing this) at keeping spoilers off the Internet. I knew virtually nothing about the opening sequence until I saw it, and ditto the identity of the killer(s?). Nor did I know of any characters who definitely died, despite this photo which was released a few weeks ago:

Having now seen the film, I can officially say that this scene is not in the movie (or I blinked if it was). Granted, due to the film’s well-chronicled rewrites and reshoots, it’s entirely possibly that this was in the film at some point. It’s also possible that this was just intended to stir up some buzz, which it did. Anyway, my point is that I knew virtually nothing about the film going into it, and I recommend you do the same.

So, without giving anything away, what can I say about Scream 4? Well, it mostly gets the tone right. For one thing, it is extremely funny. The script, credited to series creator Kevin Williamson but with some additional work by Scream 3 screenwriter Ehren Kruger, is loaded with self-aware zingers. Like the first and third installments (the second was generally a somber affair), this is a film that makes fun of itself as it goes. Of course, not making fun of itself isn’t really an option, especially considering a little film called Scary Movie that came out a few months after Scream 3. Scary Movie skewered Scream with such dagger-edged precision, the two films have now merged in the cultural consciousness. But Williamson was making fun of Scream before Scream even properly existed, so he gets the original credit.

If I had to criticize one thing about Scream 4, it would be that it lacks the dramatic momentum of the first films. One of the incredible things about the Scream films is that they always made you feel the human impact of the murders, right from the legendary first murder, when Drew Barrymore’s Casey was harrowingly discovered by her parents. We experienced each subsequent death through Sidney, and Neve Campbell’s pitch-perfect performances have always registered the horrific toll of each killing, as well as her ever-growing guilt as the survivor (and cause?). But Scream 4 introduces an entirely new cast of characters (minus the original three), and then promptly starts killing them off before we can become attached to them.

The bodies fall fast and furious, and after a while the death scenes induce shrugs rather than shrieks. Ironically, this is almost exactly what one of the characters in the opening scene says in criticism of the Saw films: that they’re just random people being brutally butchered before we have any interest in them as characters. But I will also say that this is by far the bloodiest and most brutal of the Scream films. Also, it finds yet another way to help kill someone with a garage door (TATUM NEVER 4-GET).

Another drawback is that the new young cast is painfully lacking in charisma, especially compared to the impeccably cast original film. They’re a dour and odd-looking bunch, with only one standout performance (Emma Roberts as Sidney 2.0) and one regulation hottie (Marielle Jaffe). Fortunately, they have the old-timers around to keep things anchored. Campbell, who’s mostly been working in theater since the last film, is as tremulous and steely as ever. It is truly a joy to see her on the big screen again. Cox is a bitchy delight as the irrepressible Gale Weathers, and Arquette hits the right notes while dutifully donning his mustache and beige uniform.

Scream 4 is a bit too strained, flailing, and overstuffed for me to comfortably qualify it as “good.” But it is still absolutely worth seeing for any Scream fan. Of course, the real fans wouldn’t need anyone to tell them that.

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