The Scream films work from a brilliant cheat that allows its lazy screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, to appear clever, when in fact he has no actual new ideas. He can recycle and rehash, and he can follow the bouncing ball as it travels down its well-worn groove, but as long as he announces his intentions before he follows through on them, the world (and audiences) will celebrate his ingenuity. It’s like Babe Ruth standing at the plate and announcing to the crowd that he’s about to strike out, and being roundly applauded when he follows through on the promise.
Having gutted the conventions of both the slasher films and the slasher sequels in the earlier Scream films, Kevin Williamson is left only to tackle the trends that have come along since the last Scream movie over a decade ago, namely torture porn and remakes. In the film’s best scene (actually, a scene within a scene within a scene), in an exchange between Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell, Williamson rebukes the Saw and Hostel films and their ilk, dismissing them as misogyny disguised as feminism, providing the film’s only real intelligent commentary, before dismissing the subgenre and moving on to the more box-office friendly matters, like remakes.
And again, Williamson announces his intentions early on: “The unexpected is the new cliche,” declares the Woodsbro high-school film club president. The implication being that new ideas are dead. All that’s left is to remake the old ones. Expected is the new unexpected! And that’s what Scream 4 amounts to, a remake within a sequel, a meta joke inside a meta joke. It’s a real-life motherfucking reborquel, people. It’s not just satirizing the conventions of slasher films; it’s satirizing the satirized conventions of the Scream films. Hell, there’s more layers to Scream 4 than Inception, but has all the intelligence of a shallow pool of Karo Syrup.
After seven Stab films, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) has again returned to Woodsbro, this time as an author with a publicist in tow (Alison Brie) doing a book-signing tour for an autobiography about her life after the Ghostface Killer. Dewey (David Arquette) is now sheriff, married to Gail Weathers (Courteney Cox), who has “given up her career for love.” Within the structure of the old Scream movies, a new generation is spawned, centered around Sidney’s cousin, Jill Roberts (Emma Robertson), an ex-boyfriend who stole her flower, and a couple of best friends slash fresh meat, Hayden Panettiere and Marielle Jaffe. Plus, of course, the Jamie Kennedy role, which has been split into two, film geeks played by Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen. Oh, and Dewey has a new deputy, who is sweet on him, played by Marley Shelton.
Because it is essentially a remake plus the requisite YouTube, Twitter, Facebook elements that all the remakes now incorporate. Once the honest-to-goodness clever opening is disposed with, Scream 4 falls into a similar, predictable, and, by now, banal pattern. It’s the same Scream beats, plus one: The victims aren’t attacked when they cross a doorway - they’re attacked after they close the door. The climax doesn’t take place at the party - it’s at the after-party (and I’d announce spoilers here if the film didn’t announce them all ahead of itself). Sidney runs from the Ghostface killer; Sidney’s cousin runs from the Ghostface killer; and most everyone else is picked off in typical Scream fashion, give or take an extra slammed door or an additional pint of fake blood (Scream 4 bonus: Intestines!)
But when it comes to the identity or identities of the Ghostface Killer, Kevin Williamson can still work his mystery magic, and that’s where the fun in the Scream films exists, both in the opening cameo kills and the climactic reveal. I don’t want to give anything away about that reveal, except to say that it’s the one thing that director Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson do not announce ahead of time, and that it’s hard to tell if it’s an overblown, overwrought, overlong ridiculous ending or if it’s satirizing overblown, overwrought, overlong ridiculous endings. The effect is the same, the question is whether to give the filmmakers extra points for intent.
In Scream 4, everything old is new again. Only it doesn’t feel very fresh. It’s the same ideas, just a few new identities, fresh faces for the gristle mill. The only thing that the Scream franchise hasn’t given us yet, as one of the film geeks rues, is full frontal nudity. But where there’s cash to be made, you have to hold something back for the next movie, the three-hour 5cream: Live! Nude! 3D Musical.