Let’s be perfectly honest here right off the bat — in recent years, it’s become almost de riguer for so-called “serious” horror fans to slag off Wes Craven’s Scream franchise, and to be honest this critical re-appraisal — because more or less everybody liked ‘em at the time, regardless of whether or not they admit to it now — isn’t entirely unwarranted.
After all, the shtick did kind of wear itself out a bit by the third installment, and even though every segment in the original trilogy kept you guessing and was a decent enough way to burn 90 minutes, the whole idea of a horror film that was so self-aware that it not only flaunted its standard conventions but essentially based its entire plot around them went from feeling kinda cool to seeming downright smug (if still more fun than we liked to admit) in pretty short order.
By the time it ended (or so we thought), even though it hadn’t run out of gas creatively speaking, it seemed like it might be smart to bury it before it played itself out. We know the rules, you (the figurative “you” here being Craven and his various and sundry cohorts) know the rules, we know you know the rules, and you know we know you know the rules. that kind of setup goes from being (or, to be totally fair, seeming) revolutionary to feeling kind of tired pretty quickly, and the brains behind Scream, to their credit, knew when to stop.
Still, you gotta admire the ingeniously simple hustle they perpetrated — don’t come up with anything new, just reveal your hand from the outset and therefore make your self-admittedly derivative plot set-up seem relatively fresh and exciting. No originality needed — just awareness of what you’re doing and a willingness to construct a film (or as events unfolded, a series of films) around the knowledge that the audience knows the rules going in every bit as well as you do yourself.
Just over ten years later, Scream 4‘s tag line promises us “New Decade. New rules.” I guess that’s partially true, but the set-up remains essentially the same — the so-called “new rules” are laid bare not just in deeds but in words, to make sure we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet, and then the film itself proceeds to play by those “new rules” pretty much to the letter while still keeping us guessing throughout.
This may all sound a whole lot less than inspired — and frankly it is — but damn if it’s not a lot of fun to piece thing out along the way, as usual. And to be perfectly blunt, this may well be the most successful of all the Scream films in terms of genuinely keeping you off-guard while sticking strictly to its self-aware formula yet. There’s nothing especially groundbreaking going on here — old Ghostface is back and this time he’s not just calling his victims, he’s texting them and messaging them on facebook as well, so what? — but its not so much about the genre trappings as it is about their execution, and Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson are obviously having a blast leading us along their oh-so-clearly-delineated map.
We begin with the metafilm elements of the “Stab” film series that Craven played with some in the original trilogy (and that he in truth first experimented with in the criminally underrated New Nightmare, his last — and best — take on the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise) and after some mind-fucking there we go right into the meat and bones of the ‘actual” story — Sidney Prescott (Never Campbell, who I swear to God doesn’t age) is back in her hometown of Woodsboro on the tenth anniversary of the original killings as part of her nationwide tour promoting a best-selling “survivor’s story”-type tell-all that she’s written. Meanwhile, Gale Weathers (now Gale Weathers-Riley, as she’s married to Dewy Riley, who’s now the sheriff — the two roles still being portrayed, as you’d expect, by Courtney Cox and her real-life ex-husband, David Arquette) has risen to prominence by writing salacious “true crime”-style potboilers about the crimes which became the basis of the “Stab” (meta)film series. Sidney’s staying with her cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) and Jill’s mother Kate (Mary McDonnell) while she’s in town, and soon the calls start coming (and texts, and facebook messages — but mostly calls) and the bodies start piling up. No doubt about it, Ghostface is back at work, and as more and more people close to Sidney start to die (and the deaths are substantially more gruesome in this one), it becomes apparent that he’s circling the drain, so to speak, and saving her murder for the very end — or is he?
Honestly, that’s about all the plot recap you need to know going in, since anything more is just gonna give some crucial shit away, and probably inadvertently at that, so I’ll shut up about all that now. The less you know at the outset the better, even though as all the so-called “new” rules are revealed, you’ll realize you know them already. We’ve got a “new generation” of teen horror stars having their coming-out party here (Rory Culkin, Erik Knudsen, Kristen Bell, Hayden Panettiere, etc.) and brief-but-fun turns from established vets like Anna Paquin and Heather Graham (starring in a quick “Stab” segment directed by Robert Rodriguez), but there’s really nothing new under the sun here — even if it seems like it for a minute.
And therein lies the essential genius, I think, of the entire Scream ouevre — to take what’s old and make it seem new again — at least until you leave the theater — just by pointing it all out so brazenly. In the hands of a lesser director, this would come off as being a hopeless cop-out perpetrated by a hack who’s run out of anything to say. But with Wes Craven running the show (and I’m pleased to say he’s back in top from here after the travesty that was My Soul To Take), it plays out like exactly what it is — essentially a violent and sorta-gory Whodunnit that leaves you kicking yourself for not having figured the whole thing out earlier because, shit, the clues were all there — they even said so. I even stopped worrying about ever seeing Courtney Cox get killed (I’m hoping she’ll suffer a spectacularly graphic demise at some point here — sorry folks, always hated her, always will) about halfway through the flick and just relaxed and enjoyed the ride — hell, I enjoyed it thoroughly, at that.And for a cynical, grizzled horror fan like me (albeit one that sees plenty of rancid horror flicks and frankly expects them to be nothing but derivative, uninspired junk going on), that’s not an easy mindset to achieve, I assure you. I therefore duly salute Mr. Craven for delivering a product so goddamned fun that even the “seen it all before”-types in the audience will enjoy it.
Because he knows we’ve seen it all before. And we know he knows. And he knows we know he knows. And — ahhh shit, we’ve been through all that already.
And so everything old isn’t new again, but it seems new again for as long as our butts are parked in the seats, and frankly, that’s more than enough in this day and age. Maybe the time has finally come to admit, as has begun to happen with The Blair Witch Project, that’s the mainstream-crossover success of the Scream series — these films that have escaped the ghetto and achieved some modicum of actual respectability — didn’t appeal to such a wide audience because they were stupid, or because they were sellouts, or even because the vast majority of the American moviegoing public are brainless idiots with no taste whatsoever (well, okay, they are, but that’s another matter for another time), but because they flat-out deserved it. I know, I know, it’s a radical concept for horror aficionados to get their heads around — but it’s one worth considering.
Barring any unforeseen miracle, Scream 4 will surely go down — with people honest enough with themselves to admit it — as the good-time horror film of the year. I’ll hate it — and hate myself for ever having liked it — later. For now, screw it, let’s party.