½*/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring David Arquette, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Emma Roberts
screenplay by Kevin Williamson
directed by Wes Craven
by Walter Chaw It seemed like a neat idea, didn't it, to offer a riff on horror movies while making a horror movie? To prove smarter than the genre while producing an effective genre product just the same--something Wes Craven couldn't quite pull off with his New Nightmare (though it was a good try). He did pretty well with the first Scream film, however, which not only gave faint, and ultimately false, hope that Craven was back, but also launched Kevin Williamson as a geek flavour of the month in the Joss Whedon mold. But looking back, Scream is the proverbial slippery slope, pulling off a neat trick at the cost of a couple of sequels (the underestimated first, the godawful second) that require that this deconstructionist urge be carried through to its only logical end: the destruction of the subject. What made Craven interesting initially, with stuff like Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, wasn't the lo-fi, kitchen sink aspect of his films (the lousiness of them, truth be told), but that they understood essential horror. Fear for your children, mainly--the thing that really moves A Nightmare on Elm Street, and powerful enough that even Craven's shitty sense of humour and timing (remember the banjo music in Last House?) couldn't undermine it. The problem with the long-postponed fourth instalment of the Scream franchise, Scre4m, is that it doesn't have anything essential about it. Built on a specious concept and the backs of films that actually have something at their centres, it's a smug, arch, irritating thing that hates its audience, hates genre films, and, curiously, hates itself most of all.
Everyone's back, though I promise you no one cares as retired reporter Gail (Courteney Cox), now married to ineffectual Deputy Dewey (David Arquette), welcomes the return of weepy Final Girl Sidney (Neve Campbell) to beleaguered Woodsboro on the anniversary (horror buffs, take note: an anniversary film!) of the events of the first Scream. In the proud tradition of Walking Tall 3, the "Woodsboro Murders" have inspired a series of Stab movies--seven as the film begins--that proceed in a triple-blind opening to take the piss out of the safe homogeneity of movies just like this. The one idea Scre4m introduces that's sort of interesting is the odd claim that gay people are the only safe characters in modern slashers...which forgets the brilliant Hellbent entirely, as well as the order of kills in Eli Roth's Hostel. Oh yes, Roth has been verbal about his dislike of the superior air of the Scream franchise (although he recently tweeted his admiration for this latest chapter), and, right-o, Scre4m makes sure to take a meaningless swipe at "torture porn," which briefly raises the faint hope that it will have some torture porn in it. Instead, it's more polite stabbing and sting notes wrapped up in a thick slab of too-cool-for-school riffing that doesn't feel hip so much as elderly. A feeling that adding hot little "it" girl Emma Roberts to the cast as Sidney's cousin (and Rory Culkin as the requisite film dork) merely exacerbates, I'm afraid, since the various contortions that Craven, Williamson, and the distinctly not-good Ehren Kruger (brought in for uncredited rewrites after Williamson resumed work on the distinctly not-good "The Vampire Diaries") go through to make their dead franchise current again are covered with dust and cobwebs.
The most curious thing about it all is that Craven seems to know he's obsolete--that the future of horror is in the hands of stylists like Matt Reeves; genuine artists like Pascal Laugier, the team of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, and Kim Jee-woon; and humanists like Rob Zombie (see the H2 poster hanging on a character's door?), who also hates the shit out of Scream. In the one scene that's a little visually interesting--an afterschool gathering of the Cinema Club where Sidney finds herself the reluctant guest of honour--there's lip service paid to the idea of new media changing the way we look at horror. Posters for the old-school likes of Vertigo, The Thing (1982), and Rear Window surround a bunch of kids streaming and recording live video on their handheld devices. It should be the fulcrum of the picture, but nothing's made of it--because, one suspects, no one behind the camera had the chops to make anything of it. Later, when fly girl Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) name-checks Suspiria and Don't Look Now, the atrocity of it is that Craven has already shown scorn for the genre pictures that buttered his bread and is now name-dropping movies he would do best not to engage in any kind of conversation. New media has been addressed with brilliance in films as varied as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield; meta-flicks have been carried off with respect, smarts, and something like real joy by Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. What Scre4m does is act like the grouchy old guy crashing the party, too demented to know that he's pissed his pants.
Apart from establishing a bankrupt philosophy and misdirected self-loathing, Scre4m demonstrates a complete inability to manufacture tension or surprise. Its jump scares come with such lockstep regularity that they're more exhausting than startling and, eventually, it becomes clear that the entire exercise is designed to elicit that weariness and contempt. The film's thesis, see, is that movies like this are deadening, reductive, repetitive, enervating, and lacking in inspiration, and so, in proper meta-fashion, it proceeds to be that devalued product. Its citing of other, great films in the pantheon is probably meant to further criticize the genre's modern instinct to build upon itself rather than any real foundation, to maybe inspire a bored and contemptuous audience to seek out better movies than this more of the same. Yet I can't help but think it does harm to Argento, Hitchcock, Roeg, Zombie, and, yeah, even old Craven (whose Hills Have Eyes crops up in the form of a one-sheet) to be mentioned in a movie that hates movies. The irony is lost--all that remains is condescension, and why in hell would anyone want to watch anything that this piece of shit would recommend? Scre4m is a disaster, a creaky old antique all of dull outrage at things already formulated and pinioned by sharper minds and more elegant hands than Craven's. It says too much that the only moment of the film that doesn't suck is a throwaway line that seems to reference Cox's and Arquette's real-life marriage and its dissolution. There's potential here; a shame they didn't get someone with a pulse to bring it off.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Although Lionsgate released the Scream trilogy on Blu-ray earlier this year, Anchor Bay handles distribution of Scre4m, perhaps ruling out an anthology set for the time being. Still, the disc's layout and array of special features are fairly consistent with those of the Lionsgate platters. Start with a movie-length commentary from director Wes Craven and actresses Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, and Neve Campbell (who, via telephone, enters late and exits early). Craven doesn't delve much into the producer interference that plagued the production but does credit/blame Bob Weinstein--you can practically hear Craven's ass pucker every time he utters his name--with the numerous reshoots touched on throughout. Of interest is the cited original prologue of Kevin Williamson's script, which had Ghostface showing up at a dinner party in Sidney's honour and stabbing her nearly to death; Weinstein vetoed this tantalizing-sounding teaser because he had abstract issues with the time jump required to reintroduce Sidney into the narrative. Craven's co-commentators seem to feel the new intro--itself extensively retooled in post--is better anyhow, but I'm skeptical of genre opinions that come from the stars of Aquamarine and I Love You, Beth Cooper. Incidentally, Panettiere, whose close-cropped '80s 'do is almost the best thing about this movie, claims that the filmmakers were contractually prevented from killing her on screen. No reason is given and Craven doesn't press, but that's why her Kirby is last seen spasming with life after getting repeatedly stabbed in the stomach. (I reckon the fading "Heroes" heroine won't have that kind of clout for much longer, cute haircut or no.) At any rate, it's a listenable yakker, but many of Craven's attempts to discuss Scre4m in all but the most superficial terms are met with a stony silence that suggests he would've been better paired with a behind-the-scenes collaborator, as he was on the previous entries.
Curiously, with the exception of startup trailers for The Zombie Diaries 2: The World of the Dead, Children of the Corn (remake), and the other Scream BDs, the video-based extras are in standard-definition. Kicking things off is a "Gag Reel" (9 mins.) that runs too long but features a running gag of masked stuntmen scaring the living shit out of the cast that never gets old. "The Making of Scre4m" (10 mins.) is a subdued but no less hype-driven piece in which Craven seems to have a senior moment in crediting Peter Deming with the cinematography of all four Screams. In fact, David Cronenberg's former DP Mark Irwin shot the original and in so doing really established the series' SteadiCam-driven aesthetic.
Lastly, a 26-minute selection of "Deleted Scenes" (20 in total) with optional Craven commentary reveals some interesting footage, such as a different version of the "real" opening that's scarier but definitely somewhat anaemic, several callbacks to Scream that fans might've appreciated (like the obligatory bit where the leads pool their theories as to whodunit the day the first killings become public knowledge), and an alternate take on the publicist's murder that ends with the lovely Alison Brie having a reaction to being knifed I can only describe as orgasmic. Though the majority of these elisions were made due to pacing considerations, I having a feeling that last one hit the floor for daring to introduce an erotic component into the antiseptic world of Sidney Prescott and co. As for the 2.35:1, 1080p transfer of Scre4m proper, it's beautiful. Once again shooting a Scream sequel in anamorphic Panavision, Deming nevertheless goes for a porous look that I suppose translates to a more modern or current approach in eschewing the harsher detail and contrast of the movie's predecessors. The image here has supple grain, excellent dynamic range, and bold but organic colours--I wish the first three Screams had been brought to the format with this level of care. If the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is comparatively underwhelming, it's only because the mix itself doesn't break any molds in its steady delivery of subwoofer stings and rear-channel clatter.
The Blu-ray comes with a combination DVD/Digital Copy. Scre4m is also available for digital download on multiple platforms, including iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Xbox, and Playstation. For what it's worth, I found the film played better the second time; think of it as a perverse remake of All About Eve. Originally published: October 12, 2011.