Scream 4 Review: Revenge of the Remake
After writing my previous retrospective of the original Scream trilogy, I had to see Scream 4 on opening weekend so I could determine if it fit with the other three films. Thankfully, it does and it does so very well. Scream is one of the smartest movie franchises out there, and Scream 4 maintains that level of quality. Continue reading for my complete, largely spoiler-free review, although I'll warn you that it's hard to discuss the subtexts and themes of Scream 4 without making at least some references (albeit oblique references) to the ending. The short version of the review is that even though Scream 4 is not without its problems, it's a great addition to the Scream franchise and is a must-see if you enjoyed--and understood--the original trilogy in its entirety. Furthermore, the killer in Scream 4 is a worthy successor to both the previous Ghostface killers and to the late Maureen Prescott herself. Read on ...
In Scream 4, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to Woodsboro as part of her promotion of a self-help book that she wrote in the aftermath of the previous waves of Ghostface killings. As she arrives, a new killer wearing the Ghostface costume begins another Woodsboro killing spree with the intent of "remaking" the original. The subject of horror remakes permeates Scream 4, both in its plot structure and in its satirical jabs.
In terms of themes and narrative trajectory, Scream 4 is a very direct continuation of Scream 3. Scream 3 focused on the production of the second sequel of the slasher-franchise-within-the-slasher-franchise Stab, Stab 3: Return to Woodsboro; in contrast, Scream 4 actually returns to Woodsboro, the first time Woodsboro has been seen since the first Scream movie. Scream 3 was about remaking Woodsboro inside a Hollywood studio for the sake of continuing a movie franchise, while Scream 4 is about returning to Woodsboro to "remake" a movie franchise. There is also a subtheme of cinematic (mis)direction that echoes the motives and methods of Roman Bridger (Scott Foley), Scream 3’s Ghostface. Curiously, in spite of this obvious connection, neither Bridger nor the other Ghostface killers other than Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and Stuart "Stu" Macher (Matthew Lillard) are mentioned during Scream 4.
Another theme that's prevalent in Scream 4--one that runs parallel to the theme of remakes--is that of role reversal. Most notable is the role reversal between Sidney and Gale Weathers-Riley (Courteney Cox). Sidney and Gale have always been two sides of the same figurative coin throughout the Scream movies, and in Scream 4 their roles have almost completely reversed from what they were in the beginning. Sidney was the resident of Woodsboro and Gale was the celebrity outsider in Scream while in Scream 4, Gale has claimed Woodsboro as her home and Sidney has become the celebrity outsider. There are other role reversals at work throughout this sequel, but you'll have to see them for yourself.
Because Scream 4 operates under the premise of examining and poking fun at horror movie remakes, it sets up the characters from the original movie--Sidney, Gale, and Dewey (David Arquette)--acting alongside a new set of teenage characters who are supposed to represent a Scream/Stab remake of sorts. Imagine if you will what the remakes of Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street would have been like if key characters of the original films were somehow written into the remakes as adults alongside their teenage counterparts and you sort of get the idea. (With the sequel's focus on the subject of remakes, I can't help but to grin at film critics who can't figure out whether to call Scream 4 a sequel or a remake.)
While this duality between the old/original and new/"remake" Scream characters pays off in the end, it's not without its drawbacks. The end result of such an ambitious story is a film that has so much narrative ground to cover during its slightly under 2 hour running time that it never seems to find the right mood of tension and unease one would normally expect from a slasher film. Further complicating this problem is Scream 4's opening. The previous three Scream films opened with some very shocking and inventive kill scenes, but Scream 4 instead opens with not just one but two false beginnings before the story really starts. These two false openings serve as clever parodies of the ridiculous lengths to which overlong slasher franchises (such as Friday the 13th) resort in order to keep the series going, but they water down the impact of when the real killer finally arrives to kill the first real victims.
With so much going on in Scream 4, I came away from this film feeling like certain background details are missing. For example, Sidney's aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell) makes a reference to her sister/Sidney's mom Maureen, but it's never made clear if Kate (or anyone else in Woodsboro) understands how much of a role Maureen played in inspiring the Ghostface killings. Then again, these omissions could be the result of the scenes that were deliberately cut (such as the aftermath of the first kill, as seen in the still picture below) for later inclusion in the unrated DVD release of Scream 4. For all of the jokes about horror movies, sequels and remakes there are in Scream 4, there isn't a single quip about Hollywood's recent tendency boost DVD sales by cutting footage from movies during their initial theatrical releases and then reinserting the footage later as "unrated" versions.
(Speaking of missing details, I could've sworn that I saw a bronze memorial bust of Arthur Himbry (Henry Winkler), the principal who was killed in Scream, in one of the halls in Woodsboro High School but I couldn't get a close enough look.)
Perhaps the most important consistency between the original Scream trilogy and Scream 4 is the ongoing examination of the series' true focal point, which not the self-aware deconstruction of the slasher genre but instead the media's exploitation of "true crime" stories as part of "infotainment". In fact, the killer's methods and motive in Scream 4 don't really make much sense without this theme. There's a somewhat wordy, heavy-handed speech given towards the end of the film that explicitly calls out this theme, although that speech is outdone by the final scene of the film just before the end credits roll.
Along the lines of the true crime theme in the Scream movies, I noted the relationship between the real-world serial killer Ed Gein and his cinematic counterparts in Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs in my provious essay. While there are hints of this kind of relationship existing between the "real" and "fake" Ghostfaces in the Stab franchise in Scream 2 and 3, Scream 4 really drives the point home in the relationship between older and younger citizens of Woodsboro. For those who remember and experienced the original killings, Ghostface is an all-too-real threat. On the other hand, for the current generation students in Woodsboro, Ghostface is a character from an overlong series of cheap and increasingly absurd slasher movies that have something to do with Woodsboro's ancient past.
I wish I could say more about Scream 4, but to do so would give away too much. I will say that given how this sequel ends, I really don't see how another Scream film could be made. Also, while I was writing my Scream trilogy retrospective, I mused over what an alternate version Scream 2 would be like (say, in the form of a "what if" graphic novel). This would be a Scream 2 where Billy and Stu got away with their plan in Scream and its implications: how it would affect other Scream characters (such as Billy's mom, Cotton Weary, and Roman Bridger), how Billy and Stu would interact with the Stab franchise and, most importantly, how they'd react to being stalked by a Ghostface copycat killer. While Scream 4 doesn't do this, it does in its own way sort of answer some of the questions that this alternate narrative would raise. That alone makes Scream 4 a great slasher film in its own right and a fitting epilogue to this intelligent slasher series.