Scream 4 Has Killer Appeal That’s Slow to Surface
With the scar tissue from the old Scream trilogy well healed and maybe even fading a little, Scream 4 attempts to cut deep again with satire sharp enough and wit whetted enough for another bloody good time. The thing is, Scream 4 takes stabs at where it left its last mark with butter knives before remembering to rummage for something a little more butcher-y, resulting in a film that feels strangely dull before it commits to leaving a deeper impression at the last minute.
Even its pre-title sequence, admittedly burdened with the famous precedent of the original’s Drew Barrymore intro and the riveting cold opens of 2 and 3, is inexcusably clumsy in conceit and execution given the creative expertise behind it. With so much riding on the first few minutes to tease the thrill ride to come and justify the franchise’s return, director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson seem to cave under the pressure and opt for tongue-in-cheek chuckle moments over genuine chills, forcing one too many comedic twists on the viewers that undercut the horror they supposedly build toward.
Afterward, the film acquaints us with the original’s survivors and the young cast charged with giving the Scream series a facelift. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the central target of the previous slaughterthons, returns to her hometown of Woodsboro to wrap up a tour promoting her self-help book, which focuses on her path to peace once her friends stopped getting stabbed to death every couple of years.
While the decade that’s passed since the last string of murders has given Sidney time to cope, it’s taken a toll on Sherriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and his wife Gale Weathers-Riley (Courtney Cox), who got serious about their long-brewing romance at the end of the last flick and settled down in Woodsboro for the long haul. Unfortunately, small town life doesn’t compare to the rush of Gale’s former one as a reporter, causing her boredom to eat away at her marriage. Although Dewey and Gale’s relationship issues play out as an endearing callback to and continuation of their romance in the first few films, Scream 4 settles for retreading familiar ground with the couple without nudging them to evolve one bit since their last appearance.
Thankfully, Sidney’s growth rewards longtime fans with a sign of visible character progress since her last run-in with a Ghostface killer. Once a new series of murders inevitably begins again, Sidney responds with a refreshingly proactive prowess not quite as prominent during her past adventures, resulting in some truly compelling sequences that show her either cleverly shepherding newbies from harm or confronting Ghostface head-on.
Another sign of the series’ step forward, at least in theory, is the involvement of a fresh crop of young kids ripe for the cutting. Marked with their modern knowledge of horror trends, the new crew seems both tailored to represent the current generation of filmgoers and groomed to take over from Sidney and co. for the following sequel. However, like the original returning cast, only one of the characters earns any real interest.
And as the film gets going, that character surprisingly doesn’t turn out to be Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts), Sidney’s young cousin and potential heir to the mayhem that follows Sid around. While Jill acts as a mildly suitable torch bearer in the making, Hayden Penetierre steals her scenes with Roberts as the sharp, charismatic horror movie buff and close friend Kirby Reed, keeping the time dedicated to Scream’s freshmen class buoyant with liveliness above otherwise drab waters.
The presence of newfangled technology that comes with Scream 4’s younger, hipper package is acknowledged early and often with characters that discuss Facebook, cell phone texts and video blogs. But the wireless world seems mentioned more for the sake of artificial relevance than the actual advancement of story. For all the characters’ dialogue on how the internet would impact the killer’s methodology, the web factors very little into Ghostface’s M.O., rendering a score of edgy new possibilities unexpectedly impotent. Other than one scene involving a web cam for a brief “Look out behind you!” moment, Scream 4 barely uses the 2.0 angle it touts with such repetition. What, no tweets taunting the Woodsboro police about getting away with the last murder? No image upload of the next victim on the kill list? No streaming “Ghostface Cam” that approaches the house the character watching it occupies? Presenting more tech-savvy ideas could have paved the way to innovative scares, and it’s strange that Scream 4 presents virtually none.
What seems to put the nail in the coffin is that, even by internet-free standards, the kills prior to the final act are largely less suspenseful than in past installments. The dread and adrenaline of scenes like the garage attack in the first Scream, the cop car crawl-out in the second, or the sound stage chase in the third are conspicuously missing from the fourth’s buildup. Instead, the cat and mouse mischief behind the trilogy’s old school kills is for the most part reduced to a hollowness that fails to measure up.
But as the film closes in on its final push, Craven suddenly seems to remember what made his own creation such a delight in the first place. Characters begin to die a smidge more unexpectedly. The predator/prey dance is invigorated with a slightly more panicky pulse. And—most importantly—the plot drops surprises that actively subvert some of the most important “rules” the film parodies. Craven works harder in the last 20 minutes than in the film’s whole two hours to remind us of the satirical flair and juicy scares that made the original Scream a success, and by the time he brings them out of retirement, they are welcome and redeeming polishes to a sequel that skims the edge of rusty redundancy.
Viewed in completion, Scream 4 (barely) delivers all the same goods it did back in its heyday: plucky pokes at the industry it comes from, jokes to lighten the mood between bump-offs, and shockers that both excite and enthrall. It just happens to take its sweet time in proving that this wrinkled geezer of a franchise has, after a decade of retirement, still got it. If you’re a Scream fan, you might more willingly bear this film’s crinkly-stiff beginning and middle to get to the rejuvinating climax you deserve. But if you’re a newcomer, be warned: you’ll have to endure Scream 4’s early signs of being over the hill before discovering the series hasn’t necessarily gone down one.
Photo courtesy of IGN Movies.
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