SCRE4M: Just stop. Please.

Here’s my latest review. The edited version is here, but there are some edits that, um, don’t work, so I’ve past my version here:

“Scream for them to stop”

Scream 4 (aka Scre4m)

Directed by Wes Craven
Written by Kevin Williamson
Starring Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex

I’ve never liked horror movies or slasher films. As a genre, they’re usually exploitative; they go for the basest emotions, the simplest reactions, using buckets of blood to gross you out, gratuitous sex to get a rise out of you, and the lamest of surprises to get you jump out of your seat. The villains are usually cartoonish boogey men in masks, actually scary only to children or people who haven’t discovered that the true terror is in the collapsing world economy, the security of former Soviet nuclear arms, or the popularity of torture porn like Saw. These movies are all id, and it’s rare to find in them any art, emotion, or lasting resonance. For every brilliantly terrifying movie like Psycho, 28 Days Later, or The Descent, there are five movies like Hostel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Final Destination, and the never-ending string of their sequels.

That’s why the original Scream, now 15 years old, was such a breath of fresh air, or, rather, a whiff of fresh blood. Sure, it’s a high-body-count slasher film, but it’s also, and more importantly, a hilarious, almost high-brow commentary on slasher films. In his script, Kevin Williamson (gay and out) had his characters dissecting the misogynistic gender politics and silly genre conventions of movies like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street, which was directed by Scream’s director, Wes Craven. But Scream was more than a critique. Williamson and Craven refused to play to the audience’s expectations, and in doing so redefined and rebooted the genre.

Scream’s gender politics were progressive; the female heroes played by Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox weren’t virgins, they kicked ass, and they survived. The male hero, played by David Arquette, was a bumbling, nervous cop who often needed to be saved by a woman. Ghostface, the killer, was not an evil demon like Freddy or a violent halfwit like Jason; he was a smart, bitchy sociopath with a real grudge. While Williamson and Craven embraced some of the conventions of the genre – it was a slasher film, after all – you never knew which ones they’d keep and which they were going to turn on their head. That’s what made it so thrilling.

And that’s why Scream 4 isn’t thrilling. After two sequels that tried to do the same thing as the first film, to be witty and bloody at the same time, everything is expected. After Drew Barrymore’s star-remaking slaughter in the opening of the first film, quick and bloody cameos by famous actresses are predictable, and in 4, we have, uh, four: Aimee Teegarden, Shenae Grimes, Anna Paquin, and Kristen Bell. After seeing Campbell, Cox, and Arquette survive every massacre, you know they’ll survive this new Ghostface rampage. After three previous “And the killer is…!” revelations, you should see a pattern. Who’s the least expected? Oh, the killer, that’s who.

After Jamie Kennedy’s high geek monologues about the slasher genre in the original movie, you can only wait for the requisite film school commentary, this time coming from Erik Knudsen, Rory Culkin, and Hayden Panettiere. This time, they’re talking about reboots and sequels. But unlike in the first film, they aren’t merciless. If they were, they’d point out the desperation of reboots and sequels, that they’re done for the money. Neve Campbell hasn’t had a hit film since Scream 3 ten years ago, and while Courtney Cox is in a successful sitcom (Cougar Town), her soon-to-be-ex-husband David Arquette is hardly a sought-after commodity. Craven can sit on his laurels, but Williamson peaked at the same time as Campbell. The Scream franchise has become everything that was mocked in the first movie.

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3 comments

Wonderful.  Now I know enough about slasher films to talk about at cocktail parties, without ever having to see one, ever. 

The first movie really never made any significant revisions to genre expectations. It didn’t revise so much as elaborate upon, and very mildly at that. The genius of it was in pointing out the conventions and then still following them, with only the most minor of changes.  They didn’t turn things on their heads so much as use the meta-commentary on the genre as a way of distracting from just how much they followed those conventions. The changes, where they occur, are superficial at most. (Two killers instead of one!)
It’s wrong to say that previous slasher killers didn’t have legitimate complaints, or at least as legitimate as Billy & Stu’s complaints. They did; they just completely overreacted. Freddie was murdered by a mob, for instance. And what was Billy’s real complaint, anyway? That his mom had an affair…so naturally, he had to slaughter a half dozen people, because who could deal with divorce? But, I digress. This gets into the genre, which you’ve already stated you don’t like.
The first movie retained far more than it changed–Sydney’s not specifically, physically threatened until she has sex; the promiscuous blondes die the expected, gruesome and sexualized deaths; the sexually nullified geek is cast as an innocent and saved–and that includes, among the adults, Dewey.
You’re dead on in your exhaustion at the most recent, but missing a great deal about the genre, and the first film. IMO, YMMV–and does–of course.

I don’t disagree that Scream retains more than it changed, but my experience of watching it was that the meta-commentary of the genre confused and diffused the expectations that I had because of the film’s genre. I would argue that this change is not at all superficial; to me, Scream is a very different movie than the movies it comments on. And after Scream, slasher films were different, or at least they were for a while. I’ll admit to some unclear writing here. I should have said that Scream has “comparatively progressive gender politics” (ha!) and I didn’t mean to imply that Billy and Stu’s complaints were valid, but rather that by being human sociopaths, they seemed more “real” that Freddy or Jason.

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