Sunday, April 17, 2011

'Scream' Should Have Stayed a Trilogy

Here's my main problem with Scream 4 - acknowledging the cliches of a genre or summarizing its current state is not the same thing as satirizing or commenting on it. 

This is a film that uses a couple of lines of dialogue to take shots at the Saw franchise (and torture porn in general) and denounce Hollywood's recent affinity for horror remakes and reboots, but brings absolutely nothing new to the table itself. Scream 4 utilizes the same bag of tricks as the past three films, believing that what worked a decade ago will still work today. It doesn't. Not for me. It has a few jump scares that manage to catch you off guard, but the sad fact is that this movie has nothing resembling genuine suspense or terror.

Now - some might argue that this series was never that frightening and always placed its emphasis on humor, but I'd have to disagree. It's certainly been diluted by how many times it's been ripped off, but the opening of the original Scream was legitimately horrifying in 1996. In fact, that first scene was so strong that it was enough to keep you on the edge of your seat for the rest of the film - despite the fact that the next murder doesn't occur until right before the final act kicks into gear.

I also think Scream 2 boasts some incredibly successful sequences including Sidney & Hallie trapped in the cop car and Gale being pursued through the dubbing stage. Those scenes showcase Wes Craven at the top of his game. Nothing in Scream 4 ever feels as remotely dangerous or inventive. You can see the story beats coming from a mile away and not only has Ghostface chasing someone become slightly stale, but when he ultimately makes his kills you probably don't know enough about the character getting cut up to even care - an attribute of recent horror films that Scream 4 actually has the gall to make fun of in its opening scene. And I don't buy for one second that's exactly what they were going for. I think to purport that the filmmakers purposely made a bad movie is an incredibly lazy excuse with unbelievably questionable logic.

Let me be honest for a second - just in case someone wants to make the argument that we're in Indiana Jones or Star Wars territory here and that my nostalgia for the earlier films set impossible standards for its belated follow-up. I re-watched all of the previous Scream movies last week and I have to say... I think in some ways we give them more credit than they deserve.

The first Scream proclaimed to be a deconstruction of the horror genre. And yes, it featured characters that were aware of many of its conventions - but the film was sold under the premise that you needed to follow the rules of these films in order to survive. However, Randy's famous speech about said rules doesn't even occur until right before the climax. Look, I'm not saying that the movie doesn't work - just that it's not exactly as sharp as some of us may choose to remember it.

It was a welcome change of pace and a revitalization of the slasher genre - but Scream doesn't truly earn its "social commentary" points until after the killers reveal their identities. I think it starts with a bang and packs a similar punch with its ending - but everything in between didn't hold up all that well for me. Obviously, I'm more jaded now than I was upon its release, but that's not really the point - the point is that I haven't elevated the status of the first three movies because I loved them when I was a teenager (well... I never loved Scream 3 actually) - if anything, all of their flaws are that much more apparent to me now. Having said that, Scream 4 is still easily the weakest of the bunch.

For me, the single most intelligent moment in the entire franchise is the opening scene of Scream 2. It may not be as scary as Casey Becker's death in Scream, but I think it's infinitely more interesting. Not only is the set-up fantastic with the film-within-a-film (which I'd argue says more about the horror genre than the first movie's snappy dialogue did), but it has an absolute gut punch of a payoff. It isn't just another death scene. When Maureen dies in front of a cheering crowd that suddenly goes deathly silent, Craven has you by the throat. You know exactly what he's saying and for a moment you almost feel bad for sitting down to enjoy the rest of the film. That's powerful stuff - and nothing else in any of the movies even comes close to approaching that level of sophistication. That's the best example of how the Scream movies can have their cake and eat it too. It was a pitch-perfect balance of humor and scares that proved you can satirize horror films while simultaneously unnerving your audience.

So... here's how all of that ties into my disappointment with Scream 4.  Please be warned that I can't discuss a lot of this stuff without revealing spoilers. So if you haven't seen the film and plan to - you might want to stop reading now.

Like I said in the beginning - this films expresses a lot of thesis statements about other horror franchises and the current state of the genre, but doesn't really explore any of those ideas. It doesn't even really address the fact that this type of slasher film is pretty much passe at this point. Randy once mentioned that Jason & Freddy can't possibly be scary after they've been diluted through endless sequels. The same is true of Ghostface and I wish the film had acknowledged that.

Rather than have a new generation of kids who still worship him via an annual marathon of all the Stab movies, why not have them react to his reappearance with apathy or even laughs? Why not have these kids look at him the same way Sidney and her friends viewed slashers in the original Scream? The way that real life audiences look at Ghostface now? Because you know what? I'd be willing to bet that most kids today who grew up with Saw and Hostel view the Scream franchise as a little bit silly, mild, and dated.

That puts pressure on the new killer(s) to step up their game and make Ghostface scary again. But like I said before, this dog doesn't have any new tricks. It doesn't account for the fact that audiences in this decade are slightly more savvy than audiences were in the 90s. Just like audiences in the 90s were hip to all of the cliches from the 80s. If Scream 4 wanted to make this series relevant again, it should have done more to turn the series inside out rather than regurgitate moments we've already seen on three other occasions. 

Let's talk about the idea that this a quasi-reboot of the series or that someone has set out to remake the original Scream. My problem with this is that Scream 2 and Scream 3 already did more with this idea than Scream 4 does. In Scream 2, Ghostface begins by patterning himself after the original murders. This is not a new idea - and it isn't exactly as intriguing the second time around. Now, Scream 2 never really follows through on that premise (at a certain point they just mention that the killer has broken his pattern and now everyone's fair game again), but the fact is someone else set out to repeat The Woodsboro Murders already. 

In Scream 3, the production of Stab 3 re-creates iconic settings and moments from the original film. I don't care what anyone says, having Sidney walk through her old home and eventually re-create her first encounter with Ghostface is a more effective re-visitation of Scream than anything that appears in Scream 4. The production of Stab 3 already essentially looked like a remake of the events from Scream. Hell, it was subtitled Return to Woodsboro - we've seen all of this before. Sidney's already been forced to come to terms with her past TWICE. 

Which leads into another huge problem I have with Scream 4 - Sidney is a static character. She's almost irrelevant. When the film ends, she's no different than when it began. She doesn't learn anything new about herself and she doesn't grow in any way. That's not the case with the other three films. Scream 3 is widely regarded as the worst in the series, but Sidney's character arc is incredibly well-defined. She goes from being a paranoid recluse hiding out in the middle of nowhere to someone who has faced her demons and has learned to live without fear. The final shot of Scream 3 was the end of her story. That one quick moment communicated all that was left to be said about Sidney Prescott. 

"But, wait!" You might be thinking, "Scream 4 wasn't about Sidney! It was about Jill! That was the whole point!" That may be the case, but why then does the film still choose to make Sidney the protagonist? The story doesn't follow Jill - it follows Sidney, Dewey, and Gale again. Three characters who all had their loose ends tied up in Scream 3. Sidney never passes the torch to Jill or to a new generation. It's still all about her, even when the film proclaims that it's not. Had Sidney been offed halfway through, the point would have been driven home and it would have created an uneasy atmosphere where no one was safe and anything could happen. But nope - it was just the same old Scream formula right up to the end with almost everyone dying except our original trio. The film never really nails the juggling act between the old and new cast and the result is that we can't really get invested in anybody.

Scream 3 had the chance to do something ballsy by killing off one of the three remaining central characters, but it chickened out. It didn't really have a moment that you were still reeling from as you left the theater. Scream 4 also drops the ball in this regard. Imagine for a moment that the third act had ended with Sidney bleeding out on the floor, Jill waking up in the hospital with Dewey, smiling when she realizes that her plan played out exactly as she expected, then fading out on all of the reporters outside proclaiming her to be a hero. Cue the end credits, the lights come up, and you can almost picture all of the "What the fuck?!" expressions as the audience files out.

I like Jill's motive. I really do. I think it's probably the most effective one since Billy & Stu's in the original. It says more about our culture than anything else in the film and if they had the balls to really run with it we would have had the first truly shocking ending to a Scream film since the original. Wasn't that one of the cornerstones of Scream? Taking audience expectations and manipulating them? The one thing these copycat Ghostfaces never acknowledge is that Sidney always gets away - and yet they all assume that their poorly devised plans will pan out differently than the last guy's. Well, what if this time Jill was right? What if this time the movie didn't end exactly the way we were all expecting it to? 

Talk about being able to set up future sequels that really leave you with the sense that the franchise is headed into uncharted waters. Alas, Sidney saves the day again. Dewey and Gale survive again. And Scream 3's satisfying conclusion for these characters is uprooted by an insignificant footnote to Sidney's story that doesn't have the same stakes or provide a remotely meaningful emotional journey for her.

Sure, the opening scene is cute and sort of clever - but once we finally land in the actual reality of the film it just immediately regresses to the same old schtick. Despite what it wants you to think, Scream 4 ultimately has nothing new to say or offer.

Scream 3 may have had a curious lack of blood and too much goofy humor, but in my opinion this one is the real black sheep of the franchise. It should have stayed a trilogy.


Post a Comment