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Scream 4 (revisited)

As I mentioned in my SCREAM VI review and elsewhere, I consider Wes Craven’s SCREAM (1996) to be one of the great horror films of the ‘90s, and since then I have dutifully watched each of the sequels as they were released and enjoyed at least parts of them. SCREAM 2 seemed quite good in 1997, but my attachment to it has faded over the years. SCREAM 3 was disappointing in 2000, and hasn’t much grown on me. That seemed to be the end of it, and it seemed questionable when a SCREAM 4 came along 11 years later.

I remember I saw it at a preview screening. After the debacle of CURSED and the (enjoyable) mess of MY SOUL TO TAKE, I didn’t necessarily believe that Craven would be able to pull off the difficult task of a decade-plus-later part 4 that few had asked for. I also remember there was a guy sitting near the front talking to himself and the screen throughout the movie, being pretty annoying, but when it was over and he was leaving he made direct eye contact with me and said, “That was great!” with so much more enthusiasm than I had for the movie that I forgave him.

But I didn’t hate it. In my review at the time I concluded it was “surprisingly okay” and “kind of works on the unambitious level of ‘hey, I remember these characters’,” though not on the level of “this completely justifies going back to the well again.” I still like the first half of my review, which does a good job of describing how it did and did not fit in to the state of horror at the time.

Twelve years passed without me ever watching it again. New generations of horror fans have sprouted up. There’s a podcast I enjoy called Aughtsterion that “chronicles and canonizes the horror films released around the turn of the new millennium.” Co-hosts Jordan Crucchiola and Sam Wineman are funny and have interesting tastes and obsessions, and since they’re I believe at least ten years younger than me they’re coming at them from a different perspective just by having come to them at a different stage in their lives than I did. They don’t have the same hangups I have as a guy who was in his twenties having kneejerk reactions against remakes, new cinematic styles and popular music of the time. They’re proponents of many widely hated movies, like BLACK XMAS, which I share their enthusiasm for. More than once they’ve praised a maligned-at-the-time movie that I remember liking more than others, and I feel proud of myself but then I go back to my review and realize I was more cynical and less enlightened than I remembered. (JENNIFER’S BODY comes to mind.) Maybe I wasn’t as bad as some of the other assholes, but I had plenty to learn. So if Aughtsterion flips for a movie that I don’t remember too well it’s often worth revisiting.

Their episode on SCREAM 3 got me to watch it again last year. Clearly it had been a while because I didn’t remember the horrific backstory of Lance Henriksen’s Hollywood producer character coercing and raping aspiring actresses, including Sidney’s mother. At the time I didn’t know how much this villainous character had in common with one of the producers of the movie, Harvey Weinstein. It’s weird, right?

As interesting as it was to watch that movie with that new context, it did not win me over. It had all the weaknesses I remembered and more, and I’m not sure I’ll ever feel the need to watch it again. So I was surprised when I rewatched SCREAM 4 the other night and enjoyed it much more than I did upon release. There are many reasons for that: I can watch it as a time capsule now instead of the new thing, I can separate it from my original expectations or feelings about what horror needed at the time, it’s in the context of there having been two more SCREAM sequels since, not to mention all the other developments in the genre.

Most importantly, there’s this whole aspect of a character livestreaming everything and the killers recording their murders and seeking internet fame, that I really thought was laughable at the time, some out of touch rehash of NATURAL BORN KILLERS ideas of violence and celebrity. In my review I wrote, “I detect the scent of old people trying too hard to show they understand young people.”

But either they had their fingers on the pulse, or they made a real lucky guess. When Sidney questions a kid named Robbie Mercer (Erik Knudsen, SAW II, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD) having a camera attached to his head to vlog his whole life he explains, “Everybody’ll be doing it some day, Sid.” It seemed so stupid at the time. But twelve years of social media evolution later… whoops, yeah, that was exactly right. Wow. So that doesn’t take me out of the story anymore.

I remember liking the opening, and I still do. Like KILLER PARTY it’s a series of movie-within-a-movie fake outs: a scary/funny what’s-your-favorite-scary-movie cold open, but then the title comes up as STAB 6, which we see is being watched on video by guest stars Kristen Bell (ROMAN) and Anna Paquin (THE IRISHMAN). Paquin’s character complains about movies where “a bunch of articulate teens sit around and deconstruct horror movies until Ghostface kills them one by one” the way Sidney once complained about “some stupid killer stalking some big breasted girl who can’t act.” But Bell upends her claim that there are no surprises in sequels by suddenly stabbing her. That scene is revealed to be the opening of STAB 7, which is being watched by Marnie (Britt Robertson, TOMORROWLAND) and Jenny (Aimee Teegarden, RINGS), who discuss whether or not it makes any sense as a movie-within-a-movie before they become the actual first victims of SCREAM 4.

What I love about that Russian nesting doll of an opening is that it’s basically pouring meta absurdity onto the floor in a big pile, and has some genuine laughs in its dialogue and surprises, but it’s very serious about trying to turn it into real scares. When Jenny tells the voice on the phone (Roger L. Jackson) that “it’s not funny,” he yells with that trademark acidic menace, “This isn’t a comedy, it’s a horror film. People live, people die – and you’d better start running!” A mission statement for the whole series, really.

The story kicks off with now-author Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell, WILD THINGS) returning to Woodsboro on the 15th anniversary of the murders to promote her inspirational memoir. It’s a crass stunt orchestrated by her book publicist Rebecca (Alison Brie, THE KINGS OF SUMMER), but Sid doesn’t mind because she wrote the book to prove to herself she’s a survivor, not a victim. She’s even surprisingly unfazed by somebody decorating the light poles with oversized Ghostface masks. “Kids,” she says. She’s ready for “Ghostface” to not control her life.

But before the book signing is even over she’s back on that bullshit. Dewey (David Arquette, NEVER DIE ALONE), who’s now the sheriff, storms into the bookstore tracking a phone associated with the murders of Marnie and Jenny. They find it in the trunk of Sidney’s rental car with a blood-splattered mask and threat letter. Sidney is brought in for questioning and told she can’t leave town. A media circus pops up again and one reporter describes her as a “local celebrity victim.”

Gale (Courteney Cox, THE TRIPPER) was at the book signing and is on good terms with Sidney (but not with Deputy Judy [Marley Shelton, WARRIORS OF VIRTUE], who she thinks is trying to steal her husband, Dewey). She has sworn off true crime and is struggling to write fiction, but the murders reignite the ol’ investigative reporter bug.

SCREAM (2022) of course follows the FORCE AWAKENS format of introducing a new set of younger characters who have echoes of and connections to the original characters, and then meet and get help from the original characters. SCREAM 4 differs by treating the original cast as the leads who then go meet the young people as part of their investigation, but it prefigures the “legacy sequel” approach by having this new generation of characters loosely resemble the original lineup.

In the Sidney slot is Sidney’s young cousin Jill (Emma Roberts, EMPIRE STATE). Her and her friend Olivia (Marielle Jaffe, PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF) start getting those threatening phone calls, so they and their friend Kirby (Hayden Panettiere, DINOSAUR) are questioned by Dewey and Sidney. Kirby says, “It was the killer’s voice from STAB… or, you know, from your life.”

Sidney stays with Jill and Aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell, INDEPENDENCE DAY). There’s an ELM STREET type set up where Jill is in the upstairs bedroom and Olivia lives across the street. Friends climb through the window and hang out even though the house is supposedly being watched by deputies Perkins (Anthony Anderson, ROMEO MUST DIE) and Hoss (Adam Brody, COP OUT).

HORROR TRIVIA DEEP CUT ALERT: The character named “Anthony Perkins” is most likely a reference to the actor Anthony Perkins from the famous horror movie PSYCHO!!!!

Ghostface attacks, with a trademark Wes Craven helplessly-watching-from-a-window-across-the-street element. Olivia has her intestines yanked out in what I believe is the most graphic death in a SCREAM movie up to that point. (Those millennials weren’t fuckin around.) When the Ghostface tries to get Sidney she busts out the kickboxing, which is fun. Knocks him down, but he disappears when she turns her head.

When Sidney realizes her publicist Rebecca is excited to capitalize on the murders she asks “Did you even read my book?” and fires her on the spot. Rebecca seems to be there to boost the body count, but I was amused to see this sort of unethical sleazeball archetype in the business of promoting books. For reading. Seems so quaint now. Anyway her death provides a great moment in the movie because just as Sheriff Dewey is announcing to the press that he’s “very close to getting this whole situation under control” she is thrown screaming off a building and onto a news van, right in front of everybody.

Gale comes up with this idea to talk to Woodsboro High’s biggest film fans to figure out what the killers are thinking. (Her best moment will be when someone balks at her using the term “meta” and she says, “I don’t know, I heard them say it.”) She finds out that vlogger kid Robbie and his friend Charlie (Rory Culkin, Young Richie, RICHIE RICH) run a school cinema club, which seems to be mainly about horror. They let her come to the club if she brings Sidney, who they think of as a celebrity because of STAB. That Sidney agrees to this… we just have to suspend our disbelief there. But she gets into the mystery solving spirit.

So Charlie and/or Robbie are the Randy character. They theorize that the new murders are a remake of the original murders (or the original STAB). Since the climax of SCREAM/STAB was at the party where they watched HALLOWEEN, the next target may be a high school party… maybe even Charlie and Robbie’s annual “Stabathon,” where they screen all seven STAB movies on the anniversary. It isn’t so much a party as a rowdy horror marathon, with a screen and projector set up in a barn (strewn with hay, like the original Alamo Drafthouse). I think Culkin is really good in this – the way he strolls up with his red plastic cup and introduces the movie with a drinking game is a very accurate, non-judgmental portrayal of a specific type of film guy. Regardless of my anti-Randy agenda, I think Culkin’s delivery of his film nerd shit makes him more believable than the series’ previous incarnations of this type of character.

(That reminds me, I like that Dewey quotes a line from Sidney’s book to her, then says “Out of Darkness by Sidney Prescott, page 220,” just like characters in other chapters quote a movie and then name it. Citations are very important to the world of SCREAM.)

Just like at the original party, Gale sets up cameras to spy from a vehicle outside, sees the killer on camera, tries to intervene. This comes earlier in the movie than the party in SCREAM, and it’s explained that because it’s a remake they have to up the ante. So the stabathon movies from the Stabathon to an after party at Kirby’s house.

I had forgotten about this, but it was reported at the time that after test screenings the fuckin Weinsteins made Craven do reshoots written by Ehren Krueger (SCREAM 3, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN) and Paul Harris Boardman (HELLRAISER: INFERNO). Williamson confirmed having “a massive fight” with Bob Weinstein, but says he had to leave to work on The Vampire Diaries. I guess I was looking for evidence of a mess at the time, this time I was not, but both times I didn’t notice one. In fact, this time I was even more impressed by the twists at the end, which make the whole thing seem cleverly constructed in how it sets us up for the expected and gives us something better.

In a not-so good whodunit the solution to the mystery is a let down – you were enjoying yourself when you were imagining the possibilities, but now that it’s settled it doesn’t seem like as good of a story. In a good whodunit the solution is satisfying and ties things together. This is a rare case where the reveal of the killers is the best part, and makes the story better.

Like I mentioned, this movie is pretty old now, so I’m gonna SPOIL it. There are two killers: Charlie and Jill. The laziest thing meta-movies do is just do the thing they’re supposedly making fun of and point it out, to prove they’re above it. I admire that SCREAM 4 is not just a remake, because an actual remake could never say “What if Sidney turned out to be a crazy psychotic asshole and Randy turned out to be a total creep?” So we’re not just doing a straight remake-within-a-sequel, and the sequel itself is not just a rehash.

Charlie stabbing Kirby after she rescues him from being duct-taped to a chair is a good twist. I guess it must be Jill who’s on the phone giving Kirby a (very basic, also unfair, see rant in my previous review, but it doesn’t bother me now) horror trivia quiz, but I wanted it to be Charlie speaking through a microphone under the tape. I think that would be a good touch, the male horror gatekeeper – who was surprised Kirby owned SUSPIRIA and DON’T LOOK NOW earlier – trying to revoke her horror fan bonafides. Even without that, I think there’s a very recognizable form of misogyny here. After he stabs her he says, “Four years of classes together and you notice me now? You stupid bitch! It’s too late!”

By the way, Kirby – with her short hair and unique fashion – is a particularly cool character within the world of SCREAM, and if I’m not mistaken the first female SCREAM character to proudly identify as a horror fan (though many enjoy putting on “scary movies”). And Panettiere is so good she doesn’t break the “this isn’t a comedy, it’s a horror film” spell when she tearfully spits out the titles of sixteen recent horror remakes in answer to a Ghostface trivia question.

Her stabber (not killer, we learn in recent sequels) Charlie is the dark variation of Randy, not just because they both deliver the horror rules, but because they’re consumed with their unrequited crushes, the type of dudes who see the world in terms of “getting” or not getting “the girl.” Charlie is the much more hateful version of that archetype, and I like that although we have heard popular girls talking about him dismissively we’ve also seen him in his environment of the Stabathon, being charming and popular. He’s not an oppressed long-haired nerd, he absolutely could get a girlfriend. Kirby almost made out with him earlier and she’s the coolest person he knows! But he sucks so he still doesn’t “get the girl.” Jill betrays him as soon as she doesn’t need him. (Completely on theme, he sees her coming toward him on the screen of his phone before he sees it with his own eyes.)

Jill reveals herself to Sidney so she can enjoy seeing her reaction (a poor choice), and she and Charlie openly discuss that they’ve been filming the murders (until now) to edit and “make traceable” to Jill’s ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella, The Walking Dead: The World Beyond). She wants to be famous like her “local celebrity victim” cousin, and she’s willing to kill her friends for it because “What world are you living in? I don’t need friends. I need fans.”

The part that I already considered a classic scene before I fully appreciated the movie is when Jill goes through the process of injuring herself to make it believable that she’s the sole survivor. It includes scraping Trevor’s fingernails across her face, tearing out a clump of her her with his hand, propping a knife against the wall and leaning into it, and dropping backwards onto a glass coffee table as if she’s getting beat up by an invisible person. The combination of the cold open(s) and this self-injury scene give the movie a heightened feeling that really made me think wow, I didn’t think they’d take it this far. It’s those moments that move the sequel needle from satisfying to thrilling.

I like that in this one we know the “rules” speech is an accurate explanation of what the killers think they’re doing, because the guy giving it turns out to be one of them. But Jill and Charlie’s “remake” is by definition a soul-less one. They’ve replaced the heroes of the original with murderers (themselves), changed the goal from survival to empty celebrity. Jill underlines Sidney’s strength of character, because Sidney (despite writing this book) has always rejected attention and others dwelling on all the traumas in her life, while Jill was only faking being that type of person and in fact prioritizes fame over all else.

I wrote in my original review that “Just ’cause you mention a bunch of modern shit doesn’t mean you’re saying something about it,” and that’s true. But I think one reason horror fans tend to be more open to certain slasher sequels when they’re old than when they first come out is that that “modern shit” seems like desperate trend-chasing at first and eventually becomes a time capsule. Just as the soundtracks to Freddy movies evolve to follow popular music trends, the SCREAM movies form a timeline of changes in communication technology and pop culture references. Here we’ve graduated to texting, there’s mention of a Facebook stalker and catfishing (but referred to as “being punk’d”), Channing Tatum, J.K. Rowling, “torture porn,” J-horror. Most of these references have held up, though the phones themselves haven’t. There’s also a self-referential joke about the way contemporary references date movies: Paquin’s character scoffs at “a fucking Facebook killer” in STAB 6, and Bell admits that “I guess now it would be Twitter, that’d make more sense.”

SCREAM 4, oddly, is a movie that makes more sense now than it did then. Craven died four years later, so I guess he had to be ahead of his time to get the message out. Man, I miss that guy. Such a unique combination of imagination, horror chops, and thoughtfulness. And it was specifically Freddy that turned me into a horror movie fan so without him I don’t know that I’d be sitting here picking these things apart for you. For better or worse. I’m sorry he had to spend his last years working with fucking Dimension, who treated him so horribly, but I’m glad to now understand that his last film wasn’t a bust, but in fact the best of his SCREAM sequels. Thank you Professor Craven.

post-script – things that have changed since review #1:

There is a remake (or remaquel, at least) of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN
HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION is not the last HALLOWEEN movie (but is still the worst)
Laurie Strode did her own version of the “really chase down this new Ghostface and fuck him up” I requested of Sidney
Sidney did in fact “pull out a gun and clip” her attacker in SCREAM (2022)


This entry was posted on Friday, March 17th, 2023 at 1:48 pm and is filed under Reviews, Horror. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

4 Responses to “Scream 4 (revisited)”

  1. I remember at the time wishing they had delved further into the found footage/livestreaming aspect. I did see that becoming a thing, and now here we are, people livestreaming shooting sprees. I was like wouldn’t it have been great if there were security cameras in the house at the end, but the killers knew where they were so you saw how they staged everything around them. Like if they had “accidentally” knocked one over but later you find out it was so they could do the climax out of costume.

    This was the first movie since the OG that everything clicked when the killers are revealed. In part 2 it could have been anyone, but this one was more detailed, you see how Jill did stuff with the phones, the setups, it all makes real logical sense later. So that was nice.

    I kind of wish they had kept the original opening idea where it looked like Sydney is killed (which they seem to have recycled for 5 but a new character). It would have been really shocking. But I do like the opening as it, it’s really clever and funny. I love Alison Brie, she’s adept at everything so I like that she wanted to get killed in a Scream movie.

  2. Also interesting that Williamson had a whole new trilogy planned with part 4 but then it didn’t do that well. But I guess Jill was supposed to be alive and a new killer is stalking HER and she’s trying to keep things a secret. Of course that wouldn’t have worked because with the reshot ending everyone knew. But they needed that ending, stopping with a cliffhanger of Jill winning and Sydney possibly dead would have sucked worst than the hospital stuff.

  3. I agree it holds up more in retrospect than it did in 2011. When I revisited it last year I picked up on the same things that only work because they happened to be prescient. In 2011 it felt like “you’re just mentioning new things but not saying anything about them” but then social media happened.

    Also the remake cycle flamed out and this does seem a fairly observant time capsule of that period. Anyway, glad Craven’s last movie turned out to be a good one.

  4. The “Jill winning” ending sounds pretty close to All The Boys Love Mandy Lane (as does, well, the entire plot–not bad for a barely released movie to get ‘homaged’ by the biggest slasher franchise still going in America).

    I don’t know if it would work; you have to wait a whole sequel, maybe a whole trilogy, for her to get her comeuppance? I recall that sort of thing being pretty frustrating to me in Saw’s heyday, though it’s not like those movies were flops. Maybe if you made an original movie about a Final Girl who was really a slasher, and set it *after* the first killing spree, so we can get right into the meat of the subversion instead of eating up the audience’s time with a maddening two-hour-long prologue.

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