17 April 2011

The Meta Remains the Same

I've written before about my fondness for Scream, which was my favourite film for a number of years. Its sequel, Scream 2, was OK, and the Kevin Williamson-less Scream 3 was pretty dire. I've therefore been rather apprehensive about the release of Scream 4; after all, the film barely warranted a sequel, let alone a fourth part. However, I read that director Wes Craven only agreed to return if there was a decent script so I thought there was some hope, especially with the three main actors from the original trilogy -- Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox-Arquette and David Arquette -- reprising their roles of victim-in-chief, nosy reporter and bumbling police chief, respectively. I don't intend to reveal the ending in this post but as ever, some spoilers may follow.

I'll start by saying that I enjoyed Scream 4. It was the first film in the series that I watched in a cinema -- not least because I wasn't old enough to see the others (which were all rated 18) when they released. That Scream 4 is gorier than the others and is only rated 15 in the UK says a lot about how film classification has changed during the 11 years since Scream 3 came out. I was a little nervous about watching the film in public as I didn't really want to embarrass myself by shrieking or otherwise being a wuss. I needn't have worried; partly because I'm less wussy than I was in the 1990s and partly because watching the first three Scream films gives you a lot of clues as to when you need to brace yourself for impending fright.

The film is set ten years after Scream 3 and Sidney Prescott (Campbell) has returned to her hometown of Woodsboro to promote her new book about how she survived and came to terms with having been nearly murdered on multiple occasions. She is staying with her cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) and her aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell) and of course, pretty much as soon as she returns, a new wave of anonymous phone calls from movie-loving, ghostface killers, followed by brutal stabbings, begins. Dewey Riley (Arquette) is now Woodsboro sheriff and is married to Gale Weathers (Cox), who is becoming bored with small-time life, having hung up her reporter's notebook and having run out of inspiration for any more books.

As ever, there are plenty of potential suspects ("everyone's a suspect," as Randy put it in the original Scream). There's the deputy sheriff, who has the hots for Dewey and seems to be bitter because Sidney wasn't her buddy at school; there's Jill's Billy Loomis-esque ex-boyfriend Trevor, who sneaks in through open windows, skulks around, and generally acts suspicious; there's Sidney's greedy PR, Rebecca Walters (played by Alison Brie, AKA Trudy in Mad Men); oh, and of course, the new generation of film geeks, Charlie (played by a Culkin) and Robbie, who run the film club ("one rung up from the glee club") and host the Stabathon, an annual movie event/party where they play all the films in the Stab franchise (the first three of these films within films are based on Weathers's books about the events in the first three Scream movies; the latter four are pure fiction). Robbie also walks around with a video headset, live-streaming his life to the internet. Because we've got beyond the point where it is no longer suspicious for a 17-year-old boy to have a cell phone.

But Scream 4 is all about meta. There are plenty of callbacks to the earlier films, especially the first one, but because this new generation of teens have all watched the Stab movies, they know the rules for surviving a horror movie. The characters sometimes point out the similarities -- oh, hey, because this person was murdered at this point, if we do X next, we'll be safe. Other times, these repetitions of dialogue or action are just left for the viewer's enjoyment. And I do think that unless you've seen at least the first Scream (and preferably also the second film), you probably won't be interested in Scream 4. The whole premise of the film is based around in-jokes -- of course, it was years after I watched Scream that I first saw most of the horror movies it was poking fun at and I still loved it, but I do think this sequel, or "reboot" ("Screamake," as one of the characters puts it) is different. It's still fun, it's still clever but it's really not that scary. The killings haven't evolved very much and the teens aren't that interesting.

The middle portion definitely dragged but the opening and ending were great, particularly the opening scene. Two pretty girls (including Aria from Pretty Little Liars; I guess Mr Fitz was grading papers that night) are sitting around watching TV; one of them is complaining about a Facebook stalker and then they get a phone call from Ghostface asking to whom he is speaking. After a little back and forth, they are both murdered. But then we pan out to see that these events are the opening scene of Stab 6, which is being watched by another pair of pretty girls, who complain about ridiculous horror film franchises with pointless, endless sequels and zero originality. Then one girl stabs the other. Oh, but wait, this is the opening of Stab 7, which is being watched by two more pretty girls, who are summarily killed by Ghostface. And yes, they are killed for real in this crazy Woodsboro world -- Ghostface's first victims in Scream 4. As Gale Weathers-Riley puts it, "How meta can you get?" The unmasking of the killer(s) is also nice, with more comparisons made by the Scream 3 characters to the final "bloodbath" in Scream ("if I'm character X from Stab, that makes you character Y").

Without the return of Sidney, Gale and Dewey, Scream 4 would have been pretty crappy. The characters in the opening sequence (both those in the Stab films and in the "real" Woodsboro) talk about the Saw franchise, among others, complaining that you don't get any character development before the torture porn commences. Of course, this is also true for them, but it's also true for the other teenage characters in Scream 4. You don't really get to root for them like you rooted for Sidney and you don't really care when they get bumped off. Apparently, if Scream 4 continues to do well at the box office, there will also be a Scream 5 and Scream 6. Whether they'll be any more creative than the, er, Facebook/Twitter killers of Stab 6 and the time travel of Stab 5 is another matter altogether...

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