Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (2011)

23. Scream 4

The original “Scream” was an unexpected game-changer, a film few had any expectations for that went on to become a huge hit and have an immediate effect on the genre. “Scream” was motivated by a love of the genre and a desire to do something new and different. “Scream 4,” the fifteen years later reunion, was motivated purely by commerce. The Weinsteins, desperate for a hit for their struggling new studio, decided reviving a successful past franchise was the way to go. Considering Wes Craven, Kevin Williamson, and its central cast hadn’t had a decent hit since leaving the series, “Scream 4” was doubtlessly an attractive proposition for all involved.

Like all entries in the series, “Scream 4” features an opening that sets the tone. The first scene attempts to bring the series into the twenty-first century. Ghostface threatens the girls via text message, something that seems ridiculous on the surface but makes sense once you think about it. Following an extra-wet gut-stab and threat-slashing, the worm turns. The opening is revealed to be fiction within fiction, as special guest victims Kristen Bell and Anna Paquinn openly declare “self-aware, post-modern” horror to be played out. But wait, “Scream 4” goes triple-meta, featuring a movie within a movie within a movie! After all that screwing around, the movie finally gets down to business, having two new teenage girls bring any newcomers up to speed while going on about cell phones and apps. Finally, the carnage comes, some decent tension building as the killer pursues a victim through an unfinished basement, the wounded girl dragging herself down a flight of stairs. This is the whole film in close-up. “Scream 4” attempts to update its usual tricks for a new decade, serving as little besides set-dressings for some okay thrills and some above-average slasher gore.

“Scream 4” is only so interested in moving forward. It does, after all, focus mainly on the central returning trio, taking the story back to Woodsborough. Sydney is a best-selling author, Dewey has advanced to sheriff, and Gale is a little washed-up. At first, while talking about her life as a survivor, Neve Campbell seems a little more invested in the material. Once Syd has to go through the motions again of running from Ghostface and clothslining him, Neve returns to her boring old self. Courtney Cox is still probably the liveliest of the returning cast, having some fun when interacting with the new members, attempting to seduce the young movie nerds in a funny way or sniping at Marley Shelton. Cox seems much less interested when interacting with David Arquette. The acidic barbs between the characters sting a little too much, considering the couple would soon break up in real life. For his part, Arquette mostly goes about his business, neither impressing or boring.

What about the new characters that the new trilogy was presumably going to revolve around? Having acquired an aunt at some point, Sydney’s cousin Jill is ostensibly the main character. Neither Emma Roberts’ Jill nor her friend Olivia, played by Marielle Jaffe, make much of an impression. Roberts plays Jill mostly as a traumatized teen while Jaffe’s Olivia is an indistinguishable high school pretty girl. The only one of three friends that has any personality is Kirby, as played by Hayden Panettiere. I wasn’t a fan of Panettiere going into this but she won me over. The only genuine adaptation to the modern age the film makes is having a female horror buff, a once rare personality that is very common now. Panettiere gets several funny lines throughout and has solid chemistry with her co-stars, especially Rory Culkin.

Erik Knudsen plays Robbie, who is our Randy 4.0. This character represents “Scream 4’s” most blatant attempt to appear modern. The character has a live-stream camera attached to his head and uploads everything he does to the internet. Never mind that no school in the country would allow a kid to wear that because, you know those wacky millennials, always tweeting and Facebooking and such. Knudsen honestly does okay in the part. Towards the end, when the character gets drunk and loosens up, he becomes a little more likable. One of the more interesting characters in the film isn’t one of the teens at all. Allison Brie plays Rebecca, Sydney’s agent. The character is a thin stereotype but Brie brings her innate likability to the part. She makes the over-the-top swearing seem natural and makes talking about teenage girls dying in a light-hearted fashion funny. Marley Shelton isn’t given much to do besides flirt with Arquette and provide a red herring but she’s charming enough.

Since “Scream” has always been on top of what’s hot and current in horror, you’d expect “Scream 4” to comment on the genre conventions that arose in the previous decade. Not really. Oh, the movie postures about it. Randy 4.0 naturally has a monologue discussing what he considers the New Rules for the New Decade. These conventions exist mostly inside the screenwriter’s head. If anything, they comment more on what “Scream 4” itself does. Torture porn and J-horror all get brief, curt dismissal, without discussing the effect those movements had on horror as a whole. While the subplot of modern teens uploading everything to the internet might present an opportunity to comment on the found footage genre, it’s not explore in any way. “Final Destination” and “Shaun of the Dead” both get blatantly name-dropped but, unlike the name-drops in the original series, it in no way reflects what this film is doing. “Scream 4” fancies itself a deconstruction of 21st century remakes and reboots but Williamson’s brain is still stuck in the nineties. “Scream 4” is mostly up its own ass, especially during a sequence where crowds of people are dressing up as characters from the “Stab” series or shouting dialogue at the screen.

About the only thing “Scream 4” gets right about naughts is that cell phones are everywhere. When news of the murdered girls hits the school, all the students whip out their phones. The teens know more about the crimes before the cops do. Information moves a lot faster these days. The only modern clichés that is featured is the much-deployed “no signal.” This is presented without irony or comment. Honestly, the most entertaining post-modern moment in the film has nothing to do with horror. A pair of cops sitting in their cruiser discussing the clichés of cop movies is refreshing and funny. The closing comment about Bruce Willis is terrible but, oh, I laughed anyway.

“Scream 4” works best when functioning as a straight-forward slasher flick. The first major murder scene builds up nicely. Even if Ghostface’s sudden appearance is expected, it works decently. As does the brutal stabbing that follows. The sequel doubles down on the giblets and blood. One of the best sequence is actually nearly bloodless, an extended stalk through a parking garage. Another notable difference is that Ghostface 4.0 is awfully verbose, carrying long conversation with his victims before striking. The horror trivia quiz OF DEATH, a somewhat overstated element of the original series, makes a strong comeback here. That scene is another genuinely suspenseful moment, even if the payoff is easily seen and expected. Not all the attempted suspense works. A chase across a roof top doesn’t generate any tension and the extended barn set-piece goes on much too long. The audience also figures out the killer’s identity by process of elimination around the hour-nineteen minute mark. At least I did.

By the second act’s end, “Scream 4” actually starts to get really interesting. Emma Roberts begins to show some amusing evil glee and the film reveals itself as a critique on reality television, of all things. Williamson sees the modern youth culture as entitled little shits, craving fame they haven’t earned. Easily the highlight of the film is seeing a crime recreated inside out. It’s darkly funny and highly energetic. If “Scream 4” had committed to this new direction, ending with the villain on a gurney, flashbulbs bursting in the air, it might have sent the series in an exciting new direction. The film had the opportunity to truly be ground-breaking. Instead, “Scream 4” continues on with an unnecessarily extended third act. The hospital set finale isn’t terrible but feels tagged on. The final gives us a taste of what “Scream 4” could had been had it followed its muse instead of retracing steps laid out long before it.

“Scream 4” wasn’t the huge hit the Weinsteins were expecting. No new trilogy is forthcoming. This was somewhat deserving. While the original “Scream” was fresh and exciting in 1996, “Scream 4” couldn’t help but feel old hat in 2011. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad film. My thoughts haven’t changed much from my original review. If you’re looking for gory slasher kills and some okay thrills, it delivers. At the very least, it’s an improvement over “Scream 3.” Still, I understand where any disappointed fans might be coming from. After all, the movie is the only in the series not feature “Red Right Hand.” Now that’s a major oversight! [Grade: B-]

The failure of "Scream 4" seems to have stuck Wes' career into remission again. Though IMDb links him with the proposed "Scream" TV series, there's been no serious movement with that. At his age, I don't know if he has another peak in him. It would be a bummer if he ends his career on a disappointing sequel but, then again, that seems to be the fate of most seventies horror masters.

Even though this didn't take as long as my John Carpenter Report Card, watching and reviewing all of Wes Craven's movies still took a lot longer then I wanted. I was hoping to squeeze another report card in this month, a non-horror related one, but that's not going to happen. Odds are good, aside from assorted Bangers n' Mash episodes, you're not going to see me again until the end of the month. Long time readers should know what that means... So, anyway, watch out for that.


Jack Thursby said...

Congrats on finishing the Wes Craven write-ups. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts. Looking forward to your next Report Card.

Bonehead XL said...

Thanks! Starting at the end of this month and continuing through October, I'll be doing my Halloween Horrorfest Blog-a-thon so the next Report Card won't come until November, at the earliest.