WE CAN FIX IT: ‘Scream 4’

Scream 4 may have been better than Scream 3, but that's not saying much. It's broke. Here's how we'd fix it.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Welcome back to We Can Fix It, where it’s always Halloween… because our digital calendar is broken. This bi-week on everyone’s favorite exercise in futility we’re looking at a recent horror film that everyone knew was coming out but not everyone actually saw. It’s the latest in a series of popular Slashers (we capitalize the “S” because we care) that has gone steadily downhill, until now. Yes, Scream 4 is better than Scream 3. That’s not say much though. It’s an orgy of missed opportunities that failed to revitalize the franchise.

Let’s take the WABAC Machine to 1996, when a once-acclaimed director named Wes Craven made a little throwaway Slasher called Scream that nobody thought would amount to much. This, after all, was the latest film from the man who had recently brought you A Vampire in Brooklyn and Shocker, disappointing horror genre efforts that had little in common with his early classics, like The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street. (That he’d more recently directed one of his best films, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, had gone largely unnoticed at that point.) Craven had always been a hit-or-miss filmmaker despite an early string of obvious horror classics, but a little film about teenagers getting murdered by a psycho in a cheap mask seemed unlikely to turn into one of his best films. But guess what? It did.

There are some horror fans and critics out there who find Scream to be at best an above-average thriller, and at worst a frustratingly surface parody of a genre it claims to be legitimately satirizing. I myself will agree that it’s largely responsible for the painful “Irony Boom” of the late 1990’s, which still persists to an annoying degree today. Scream was a fairly straightforward story about a group of kids who, like every member of the movie’s audience, had seen a lot of movies and used them as a reference when placed in a movie-like situations themselves. Taken at face value it barely seems like a gimmick, and it certainly led to a grating number of fictional stories in which characters failed to take their own circumstances seriously by acknowledging their fakeness, which diminished both dramatic tension and audience involvement in the interest of being “hip.”
 


But like many movies that spawned a trend which eventually turned annoying, Scream actually worked, damn it. It had a large cast of potential suspects and victims who were clearly defined, a protagonist (Sidney Prescott, played by Neve Campbell) on an actual journey towards maturity, a series of memorable suspense sequences and a twist ending that actually blew audiences minds with its simplicity. It seems weird to call a SPOILER ALERT on a movie fifteen years old, but having two killers was a genuine novelty when Scream came out. More than sheer craftsmanship, however (not that it’s the greatest movie ever made, or even the greatest Slasher), it had cultural significance. The cast of Scream was actually a reasonably accurate depiction of 1990s youths, who were defined (en masse, it seems) less by their own personal tragedies and struggles and more by the tragedies and struggles in the fiction that they consumed. It could be argued that Scream is the defining movie of a generation of teenagers, like The Breakfast Club before it, but that’s a separate argument best defended in a different article altogether.
 


 

The two rapidly produced Scream sequels of the 1990s didn’t live up to their predecessor, but how could they? They didn’t trigger a zeitgeist… they just ran with it. Scream 2 holds up better today than most people realize, with yet another strong cast of characters struggling through intense life-or-death situations, but Scream 3 doesn’t pass muster anymore. At the time it was a fairly entertaining romp but the film’s tiresome self-reflexivity – it took place on the set of a movie based on the events of Scream after all – led to a jokey tone which undermined any sense of dramatic weight. Moreover, the decision to shift the focus of the story to the comic relief characters Dewey (David Arquette) and Gail (Courtney Cox) gave the film an unfortunate Scooby Doo vibe, with overly caricatured protagonists running around goofily trying to figure out that they love each other while solving a big mystery at the same time.
 


 

With Scream 3, the franchise essentially died for fifteen years until a radical shift in the horror movie landscape freed original series writer Kevin Williamson from the shackles of referencing the Scream movies more than the horror movies Scream was supposed to be based on. At least, that was the idea. Scream 4 introduced a new cast of characters, brought back the old favorites and killed a lot of people off, but although it’s somewhat entertaining and still easier to enjoy than Scream 3, it’s an uninspired sequel that fails to capitalize on any of its inherent strengths and continues to wallow in many of the old weaknesses. So get ready for another long-ass episode of We Can Fix It, because Scream 4 is has lost its voice.

Fair warning: here there be SPOILERS.

 

1. USE THE ORIGINAL OPENING

The Scream movies have a history of memorable opening scares. The first movie set the stage for the entire franchise by establishing the movie’s theme of reenacting events from horror movies in a “real world” setting and killing off the biggest young actor in the film, Drew Barrymore, in the first scene (itself a nod to Psycho). Scream 2 moved the horror to a public setting – a movie theater – and contrasted the popularity of the bloodlust of hardcore horror fans with the actual horror of a real-life murder, as a throng of cheering onlookers fail to recognize the difference to fatal effect. Scream 3… Um… Killed off Liev Schreiber. It was suspenseful but relatively meaningless beyond establishing that existing characters in the franchise could die (which the series had already made clear in Scream 2; R.I.P. Randy).

Scream 4 had a lot to live up to, what with fifteen years of reverence for the first film’s opening sequence, in particular, setting a high standard of excellence. So it had to start with a bang: Scream 4 opens with two hot young ingénues experiencing a similar taunting/murdering scenario to the first film and dying quickly. It’s poorly acted, poorly written, and makes you seriously afraid that Scream 4 is nothing more than an ill-considered cash grab. But then – Surprise! – it turns out to be one of the Stab movies, which over the years have lost creative steam and turned both bland and silly. (The fifth Stab even had time travel.) So far, so-so amusing. We then cut to Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell watching said movie and commenting on its ridiculousness, before Kristen Bell nonchalantly murders her viewing companion for overanalyzing it, revealing this to be the opening to yet another Stab. Bizarre, but still vaguely amusing.

But what these sequences do, more than anything else, is set Scream 4’s opening up for total failure more than the first three movies ever could. By opening with ridiculous parodies of how bad Scream 4 could have begun, they’ve irrevocably raised the expectations for how the movie will actually begin once screenwriter Kevin Williamson starts telling the story proper. How interesting can it possibly be, we ask ourselves? Well… Not very, as it turns out. The actual, “real life” murders that begin the film are as ho-hum as the first Stab movie opening we see, with teenagers played by Aimee Teegarden and Brittany Robertson commenting on the silliness of the Stab movies and then getting slaughtered by Ghostface in an uninspired and pointless fashion. When the title credit Scream 4 comes up, we’ere actually disappointed. It feels like we’re still in Stab territory.

But… it was not always thus.

The special features on the Scream 4 DVD/Blu-Ray include an alternate opening with a commentary by Wes Craven, in which he reveals that the version you saw in theaters was reshot at the producers’ behest to make it “scarier.” But in the process, the actual point was lost. In the original version, the sequence still involves two sisters criticizing the Stab movies, then faking each other out with Ghostface voices and false deaths. But then Ghostface quietly enters the room and neither of them think anything of him. He even stabs Aimee Teegarden multiple times before Brittany Robertson realizes what’s actually going on. The point is clear: the Stab movies, and by extension the Scream movies, have become a part of the cultural firmament and are now dismissed by the same demographic that originally gave them power. From the new target demographic’s perspective, they aren’t scary… they’re silly. But they are scary, you see, and as our heroines soon learn, the actual brutality and terror represented by Ghostface’s killing sprees are not to be taken lightly… or worse, ignored.

It’s a bold statement that summarily wraps up the opening’s early wackiness with a note of shock and genuine dread, and it announces a mission statement for Scream 4: to return to its roots and become relevant once again to a new generation. That the rest of the movie fails to achieve this would not change the fact that this opening, by itself, is light years better than the version we saw in theaters.

 

NEXT: How to give 'Scream 4' an actual point and how to treat your returning cast members (preferably badly)…


2. COMMIT TO YOUR CONCEPT

The point of the original Scream was to revitalize the Slasher genre by simultaneously acknowledging the genre conventions that seemingly limited it and taking them seriously enough that they once again become dramatically effective. The point of Scream 2 was to do basically the same thing for sequels, particularly horror sequels, and legitimize the demonized movie type by commenting on their weaknesses and exploiting their potential strengths at the same time. The point of Scream 3, flawed though it is, was to turn that same critical eye on the Scream franchise itself, and to a lesser extent movie trilogies as a whole. It failed to do so in a particularly intelligent fashion, but at least it was committed to the idea.

The point of Scream 4 is confused, at best. On one hand, the movie geek characters state – repeatedly – that the events of this particular bloodbath are defined by their absolute lack of rules, which might seem like a clever spin on the usual Scream gimmick of having Randy (Jamie Kennedy) clearly define the rules of the genre and then watching as the movie follows them to the letter. But without any cogent system to follow, Scream 4 doesn’t have any sense of direction, and despite an interesting twist at the end (which has problems of its own that we will get to) it doesn’t seem liberated by this “Get Out of Jail Free” card. The kills are fairly standard and by-and-large the film trods familiar territory from the previous movies. There’s an added element of recording the killings on the internet, but this is a largely unexplored idea that mostly exists to justify a minor and fairly forgettable suspense sequence featuring Courtney Cox.

Oh, but perhaps that is the point: despite the declaration that “There Are No Rules,” the killers in Scream 4 are also repeatedly observed to be producing their own “real life” horror remake. The problem there is that horror remakes have their own rules in this day and age: the killers get more backstory than in the original film, the murders themselves are either grossly overplayed versions of the classics or tame PG-13 updates, and so on. You can’t have it both ways, Scream 4. You have to pick one.

Either way, Scream 4 seems to imply that Kevin Williamson – and his uncredited co-writer (read: re-writer) Ehren Krueger – haven’t paid much attention to the recent horror cycle. Whereas the original Scream paid homage to horror classics like Halloween and Suspiria, the opportunity to mine newer horror films is, here, completely neglected. It would have been fascinating to watch the Scream franchise’s take on the elaborate deathtraps of the Saw series, or the psychobabble that seems to infect the works of Rob Zombie. Scream 4 went back to the well of the original movies when it should have spent more time digging a whole new well, and the result is a film that claims in the opening sequence and in dialogue throughout its running time to be free to explore new avenues in horror and instead wallows in familiar offerings from its own damned franchise. Boo. No, not a horror movie “boo.” Just boo.

 

3. LET YOUR OLD CHARACTERS DIE, OR AT LEAST CHANGE

At this point in the Scream franchise, three characters – Sidney, Dewey and Gail – have survived all three horrific life and death situations with serial killers and lived to tell the tale. The odds against this are pretty danged high, particularly since after the first one they all had targets on the backs of their heads for obsessed maniacs (hell, Sidney had one ever since the first Scream). At the beginning of Scream 4 we learn that Sidney has finally turned her life around, decided to stop playing the victim and has even written a self-help book about her experiences. Meanwhile Gail and Dewey are married, somewhat unhappily. Gail struggles to write a new book without the aid of sensationalized tabloid journalism and Dewey enjoys the modicum of respect he can muster from his new position as the sheriff of Woodsborough.

Hang on a second. We’ll get back to the critique when we’re done yawning.

The Scream franchise, and Scream 4 in particular, seems to overestimate our love affair with these characters, and Dewey and Gail in particular. So much emphasis is placed on Dewey and Gail’s marriage that this latest film feels more like an episode of a soap opera, albeit in sweeps week, than a Slasher. In a Slasher, people die. Nobody is safe, particularly in sequels when killing off established characters is a tried-and-true genre trope utilized to keep audiences on their toes. The ending briefly toys with it – here come those SPOILERS – by killing Sidney Prescott, but surprise, surprise, she turns out to be alive and well. The apparently holy trinity of the Scream movies all survive to survive throughout the next sequel.

Do you see the problem with this? For starters, it contradicts Scream 4’s supposed model of “There Are No Rules” when the franchise seems unwilling to let its protagonists perish in a movie about constant murder. There’s no suspense here, and it’s not aided by the fact that the new cast of characters is woefully shoved into the background. (We’ll get to that next.) The only characters we care about, historically at any rate, are clearly untouchable, robbing this horror movie of any actual suspense.

What’s more, Scream 4 finds our heroes facing off against movie-savvy serial killers for the fourth time, and yet none of them in the last fifteen years have ever decided to bone up on that material. As resident old farts they turn to new, younger cast members (in this case Rory Culkin and Eric Knudsen) for information on where the horror genre has gone since the events of Scream 3. There are limp justifications for this: asking Sidney Prescott to watch a horror movie is probably in poor taste, for example, and it’s a reasonable excuse to unite the old cast and the new cast in solving the mystery, etc. But in the end it boils down to making the most experienced cast members act like the amateurish new guys. Was Heather Matarazzo really that busy? Getting Randy’s sister from Scream 3 to fill in the blanks would have gone a long way towards keeping the older cast members from looking… Well, old. And distancing the obvious protagonists of the film from the target demographic doesn’t seem like savvy storytelling, let alone business.

Let some of these people die and make them act like they actually survived the Scream experience before and you’ll really have something here. But more to the point…

 

NEXT: How to treat your new cast members, and how to end 'Scream 4' (preferably earlier)…


4. EMPHASIZE YOUR NEW CAST OF CHARACTERS

Neve Campbell was 37 when she shot Scream 4. As Monty Python pointed out, 37 isn’t exactly “old.” But she sure as hell ain’t a teenager anymore, and teenagers were the demographic that made the original Scream the cultural sensation that it originally was. It was okay to foreground the older characters in the first two Scream sequels, since they came out soon enough after the first film that they were still relevant characters to the still-young audience of the original film. But over a decade after Scream 3, the new target audience respects them as franchise mainstays, at best. Audiences needed a new crop of younger characters to root for, and Scream 4 obliged with a cast of ingénues like Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, and so on and so forth.

And then it completely forgot that they existed.

SPOILER ALERT: And then it killed every single one of them off.

What was the point again? Oh yes, to introduce a new cast of relatable young characters to make the franchise seem relevant to the teenaged audience again. Well, you screwed that one up, didn’t you, Scream 4? The film’s emphasis on the original cast members sent all the younger characters kicking and screaming into the background. Whereas the young characters in Scream and Scream 2 had relatively complex interpersonal relationships (for a Slasher at least) and well-defined character types, the young cast of Scream 4 gets so little screen time compared to the original stars that they never make much of an impression. We like Hayden Panettiere and Rory Culkin, perhaps, but who the heck was Nico Tortorella besides an underdeveloped version of Skeet Ulrich from the original Scream? How was Marielle Jaffe different as a character from Emma Roberts, and wasn’t Emma Roberts perfectly positioned to be Scream 4’s proper protagonist as a strong young woman seemingly enduring the same victimization that Neve Campbell endured in the first film through a newer, more relatable (to young audiences, at any rate) set of eyes? We’ll get to that in more detail later.

While yes, the killers were probably not destined to survive into the supposedly inevitable Scream 5 (which is now less-than-inevitable since Scream 4 underperformed at the box office), at least some of these young cast members needed to be developed enough to survive into the next Scream films in order to make them relevant and interesting to new audiences. And – SPOILER ALERTnone of them do. Not a single cast member survives Scream 4, that we know of at any rate, who wasn’t either in the first three movies already or under the age of 37.

There was a point to introducing a new, younger cast, and the filmmakers screwed it up. Again, the deleted scenes on the DVD/Blu-Ray reveal that more footage had been shot with these characters, only to wind up on the cutting room floor so the original protagonists could be foregrounded, which was the exact opposite reason of why the scenes were filmed to begin with.

Develop these guys and let a handful of the more interesting characters live at the end. You’ll be glad you did, since it will mean you can actually make more of these movies.

 

5. COMMIT TO YOUR ENDING

MAJOR SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT. You’ve been warned.

The twist at the end of Scream 4 is not the identity of the killers. Astute audience members will probably notice that Emma Roberts and Rory Culkin are not around when most of the killings take place, and that Roberts’ general lack of screen time contradicts her supposed position as a new protagonist for the franchise. Thus, like us, you may have guessed early on that Sidney’s cousin is the killer. Not much of a twist, really: the killer is always someone close to Sidney in one way or the other. Maybe she really is cursed.

But again, that’s not the twist. The twist, supposedly, is that Emma Roberts actually kills Sidney Bristow, and gets away with it. Now that’s breaking all the rules. As the reporters shower her with the praise and adoration she wanted in the first place, and Scream 4 ends with its “remake” cleverly changing the ending of the original Scream so that the killers’ plan actually worked, we’re ready to slow clap. Well played, Scream 4. You really got us. You seemed for all the world to be just going through the motions only to gut punch us right at the end and seriously impress us with your ingenuity and ballsiness. You had us going there for a while. What a truly memorable cinematic experience you turned out to…

Why are you still going…?

Oh, so you could keep Sidney Bristow alive and bring the killer to justice, negating all the goodwill you just engendered by resorting to mainstream convention and negating your supposed premise. That’s…

Aw hell, that sucks.

The Scream franchise is not based on star power. Neve Campbell ain’t tearing up the box office in all her other movies, wherever they are, and David Arquette and Courtney Cox aren’t exactly superstars either. As we stated above, they are expendable. It’s okay to expend them, and it’s certainly okay to switch the entire genre around Saw-style and make the next couple of movies in your proposed new trilogy about the killer rather than the victims. Watching Emma Roberts murder and finagle her way through fame and fortune whilst trying to keep her secrets safe would have made for a truly unique new horror franchise that wouldn’t have just made Scream relevant again, it would have made it original again.

But no, we can’t have that. We need one more adventure with the core cast of characters miraculously surviving yet another killing spree, thus reverting the entire franchise back to the status quo from the start of Scream 4, since none of the original cast is even alive to mourn the passing of the dead, and making the entire film feel like a pointless cash grab.

Is there an opposite of a slow clap? Oh yes: throwing tomatoes. That’s what we should do.

Scream 4, you had a great ending. Why not actually end it there? As a horror movie franchise, particularly one dedicated to subverting convention, you had the unique freedom to go in a bold new direction. Don’t screw it up by reminding us of just how conventional these movies have become over the years.


 

That’s all for We Can Fix It this bi-week! Come back in 14 days for more adventures in 20/20 hindsight!

What movies would you like us to fix in future editions? Let us know in the comments below.