In 1996 director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson gave us the first SCREAM movie. The concept behind the film was to produce what was essentially a slasher movie, only one that played off of the formulaic conventions of slasher movies in general, thereby becoming almost a satire of the genre. For the most part it worked. They gave us a strong heroine in the form of Sidney Prescott (played by Neve Campbell), and memorable supporting characters like Deputy Dewey (played by David Arquette) and overzealous reporter Gale Weathers (played by Courteney Cox). Even the supporting casts for the franchise’s trilogy consisted of recognizable faces, such as Drew Barrymore (who would become the first victim of the Ghostface killer), Jamie Kennedy, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liev Schreiber, Heather Graham, Scott Foley, Lance Henriksen, and Patrick Dempsey… to name a few. But as the films continued, the originality of the first one began to wane. The second and especially the third film started getting bogged down with too many side roles, and a few too many red herrings. There were questions of logic and proper motive behind the killers’ actions. As with most horror franchises, audiences were simply getting bored of the same old thing. It probably didn’t help that the successful SCARY MOVIE films, which essentially started by spoofing the SCREAM films in almost every way, kind of made the thought of continuing a serious take on the Ghostface killer almost pointless. After SCREAM 3 came out to big box office but poor reviews in 2000, it looked like the franchise might finally be done. But now, in 2011, Williamson and Craven are back together again in the same capacity they started with, and are delivering SCREAM 4, or as the studio has chosen to market it SCRE4M. But can the once clever horror franchise show us anything worth truly ressurrecting itself for?
If for some strange reason you’re reading this and you haven’t seen SCREAM 1-3, skip this paragraph entirely. Just to do a quick recap of the previous films’ events (spoilers to those who haven’t seen 1-3), Sidney (Campbell) began her slasher adventure when her boyfriend went nuts and plotted revenge killings with his best friend to create panic using this Ghostface killer persona, and get back at Sidney for the destructive sexual acts of her mother. They failed in their mission. In the second outing, one of Sidney’s mother’s lovers, Cotton Weary (Schreiber), is thought to be the killer, but it turns out Sindey’s former crazy boyfriend’s mom and beau are behind the killings this time. They fail in their mission of revenge as well. In the third movie, things get really messy as the killings take place on a film set for the movie within the movie STAB, based on Sidney’s life. That time the killer turned out to be the director of the newest STAB film, who was coincidentally Sidney’s estranged brother she never knew existed. In short, he dies, Gale and Dewey get engaged, and the (at the time intended to be) trilogy comes to an end with Sidney believing in her safety now… of course all of this comes as the result of a rather convoluted and farfetched plot, and is wrapped up in a sequel that had definitely lost the magic of its predecessors.
The fourth installment opens with a few audience misdirects, using the movie within a movie gag to full effect, and giving us more than enough cameos of Hollywood’s hot young female talent. Once we get back to Sidney’s hometown of Woodsboro, we’re introduced to a whole new class of high school students, all familiar with their town’s murderous past, but too young and dumb to care it seems. Dewey and Gale are still there, living out their married life in what appears to be extreme tedium, while Dewey is now the town Sheriff. His enthusiastic Deputy Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton) seems more than a little taken with him, and Gale is apparently out of the reporting game and just plain bored. Sidney comes back to town for the last stop on her autobiographical book tour, and it isn’t long before ol’ Ghostface shows up and starts wreaking havoc. So many troubled teens (a.k.a. red herrings) are thrown our way it’s hard to keep up, each one feeling less important than the other. The murders this time are very graphic, and highly random. As things get more and more tense, Gale sees a chance to reinvent herself using some of the high school’s more knowledgeable horror philes. Sidney finds herself bonding with and trying to protect her estranged niece Jill Roberts (played by Emma Roberts), though even under home protection it seems Ghostface has no trouble getting to them both. The big unanswered question, of course, is why after all these years is this happening again? Why with Sindey’s return has someone seized an opportunity to reopen old woulds… and open lots of new ones too?
There is a message behind SCRE4M, not unlike the message behind the first SCREAM. Where the innaugural effort strived to turn formulaic slasher fare on its head, the fourth outing plays off of a more common and more modern issue… Hollywood’s obsession with remakes and reboots. The concept of not messing with what works is a big part of the Craven/Williamson effort here, but it’s sadly lost for the most part in a rather messy and ineffective script. While it’s somewhat fun to see the old favorites back in familiar territory, Williamson misses the mark in giving them anything new and different to do. Sidney, Dewey and Gale have become such cookie cutter characters in their own franchise, it’s almost like they’re just there to be there, for the familiarity and nothing more. And the new characters, while fairly varied and potentially interesting, end up being little more than knife fodder for Ghostface. Certain characters, such as Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin) who are the school’s resident film geeks, feel pretty much like a replacement to Jamie Kennedy’s character from the original trilogy. Other roles like Sidney’s niece Jill (Emma Roberts) and her cocky ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella) are so under-developed, it feels like laziness on the part of the filmmakers. Hayden Panetierre (HEROES) has the most chance of being a memorable part, especially when we the audience discover her private obsession with horror films, but in the end it serves no real purpose or point. SCRE4M sadly suffers many of the problems SCREAM 3 had, in that it’s lost the charm that made the first film fun, and is too complicated for its own good. Even the overly long ending misses the mark in its potential for audience satisfaction. It looks like Craven intends this not as a final nail in the coffin for his franchise, but rather a potential new beginning. But in either case it just doesn’t work. I hope the younger audience this is likely intended for will see through the sloppy way in which it’s put together, and demand more from their horror fare. In the new film’s defense, it does manage to be somewhat entertaining, and the scares did seems to work on the audience, but I left feeling cold and unimpressed. It’s not a terrible movie, just so far from being the great franchise revival that it could have been.