"One generation's tragedy is another generation's joke."
I should give some context here before I start talking about how much I loved SCREAM 4. What I'm about to say will sound cliche, but in this case, it's also absolutely true: I literally grew up with the SCREAM movies. Now that I reflect on it, I seriously believe that the SCREAM movies were the initial spark that led me to develop the love that I have for film. And it's not even because I like horror movies that much. To be honest, in the years between the last SCREAM movie and this new one that's just coming out, the horror/slasher genre has been in an AWFUL, AWFUL stage. People say that what makes the SCREAM movies better is that they offer all the tension and thrills of horror movies while at the same time poking fun at the genre - and they're right. But there's one other key element: the SCREAM movies also feature well-conceived dramatic scenes and character development. They give us characters who are not ONLY worried about whether or not they're gonna get killed next. They are people who have issues we might be able to, if not relate to, at least understand. This franchise has living, breathing characters (well, you know, at least until their time comes), and I think THAT is really the reason why these films have been so influential on my appreciation for movies: they combine horror thrills with witty quips about the rules of the genre AND the dramatic aspect is competently handled, rather than completely eschewed (as is the case with all the other gorefest fare that multiplexes tend to offer).
The first two SCREAM movies epitomize what I described in the above paragraph. As the heroine, Sidney becomes a character we root for, not just because she's "supposed" to be the one who always survives the carnage, but because of the back story involving the murder of her mother (an event that had already taken place before the first movie even began), which gives everything much more emotional heft and complexity. SCREAM 3 gets a really bad rap, and to a certain point, I understand it - there are times at which the movie descends into being totally ridiculous and falls into the same horror movie trappings at which the first two films aimed their satirical arrows. But I didn't think SCREAM 3 was a bad film at all: it had moments in which it recreated events of the first film (which would inevitably make those of us who had seen the first film a thousand times get nostalgic) and it had some nice commentary on how the Hollywood industry works and how the life of actresses is sometimes not as glamorous as you'd think. To give you an idea, I gave an 8/10 (which means "extremely good" in my rating scale) to the first two films in the franchise, and I gave a 6/10 (which means "good" in my scale) to the third film. I'm overjoyed, thrilled and uber-excited to inform you that, thanks in large part to the return of screenwriter Kevin Williamson (who penned the first two movies), SCREAM 4 is an absolute hoot that falls squarely on the same quality level as its first two predecessors. The film manages what seemed impossible: it retains the edgy and satirical spirit that always characterized the franchise, but it's nicely updated for our generation. People who weren't born when the first film came out should have no trouble loving the ride that SCREAM 4 has to offer. The film is a supremely delightful mixture of horror and black comedy.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE: As you hopefully know, one of the staples of the SCREAM movies is the mystery as to who the killer(s) is/are, which is, unfortunately, something we hardly see done by any of the stale horror films that typically get released. Because of that, this review won't contain spoilers... until the VERY END, but I'll leave plenty of space in between, and give you a fair warning so that you don't scroll down and accidentally read it. Considering my love for this franchise, it'd be really difficult for me to feel like I wrote a complete review without commenting on the ultimate twists and revelations of SCREAM 4.
I'll give an overview of the events of the first three movies, and then do a quick synopsis for this one. In the first film, we met high school student Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who was living in a quiet California town called Woodsboro. We were soon told that, a year prior to the events of the film, Sidney's mother was brutally murdered. A man is sitting on death row for the crime, though reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) is highly suspicious that the man was framed and that the real killer is still out there. Suddenly, people close to Sidney start getting killed viciously, and Sidney eventually becomes the main target of the perpetrator. At the end of the film, Sidney discovers that her mother's REAL killer, and the person who has been murdering all these other people, was her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich). It turns out that Sidney's mother was the resident "town slut" and one of the people she had sex with was Billy's father, which led to the break-up of Billy's family, thus causing him to go insane and murder Sidney's mother and go on this murderous rampage. With the help of Gale and town Deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette), Sidney is ultimately able to kill Billy and survive the first film's killing spree. In the second film, Sidney's off to college, and a movie version of the events of the first film is being shown in theaters. As soon as the movie comes out, a similar killing spree starts occurring, and once again, Sidney, Gale and Dewey are caught in the midst of it trying to discover who the killer is. Ultimately, it turns out that it was Billy's mother, who was out to avenge her son. The trio manages to survive that second film as well. In the third film, the events take place mostly on a movie set in which they're continuing to make movies about the trio's bloody saga, and again, REAL murders start unfolding. At the end of that third film, we find out that Sidney's mother had appeared in a few minor roles in horror films, and that she had been just as slutty during her time in Hollywood. The killer turns out to be a film director, who reveals himself to be Sidney's half-brother, a bastard child of one of their mother's sexual ventures. Again, the trio of Sidney, Dewey and Gale survives.
And now, eleven years later, we come to SCREAM 4. Sidney is back in Woodsboro, because she's on a book tour. She has published a book titled "Out of Darkness" in which she basically explains how she has dealt with surviving such macabre circumstances and losing so many people who were close to her. Dewey is now the town sheriff, and Gale is married to him - she's frustrated because she misses her reporting days, considering that she lives in a boring town in which nothing happens - but that will soon change. Sidney still has some family in Woodsboro: her aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell) and her cousin Jill (Emma Roberts). The group of people who will be our group of suspects (or if not, then potential victims, of course) includes Jill's ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella), her two best friends, Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe), and the two resident "movie geeks" of the group: Charlie (Rory Culkin) and Robbie (Erik Knudsen). Of course, another murderous rampage starts taking place, with the trio of Sidney, Dewey and Gale placed squarely as the killer's main targets.
One of the great, fun things that the SCREAM movies have often done is play with the whole "movie within a movie" technique. Something to that effect is done here during SCREAM 4's opening sequence and the results are terrific (oh, and it features a hilarious cameo by Kristen Bell). All three prior SCREAM movies began with a sequence in which two people get killed - SCREAM 4 manages to "mess around" with our expectation that that'll happen yet again here, yet it still stays TRUE to the expectation. Come to think of it, that's basically what we can say about the entire film: one of the reasons why it is so brilliant is that it gives us some nice 21st century twists and turns, yet it never wavers from the spirit of its predecessors. In particular, for those of us who loved the very FIRST film, there are plenty of Easter eggs: from the garage scene at the beginning, to the house (and room) that so closely resembles where Sidney dwelled in the first movie, to the kitchen in the final showdown, in which, um, other aspects of the first film come into play (but that'd get me into spoiler territory).
One of the first lines in SCREAM 4 is "This isn't a comedy; it's a horror movie." I'm not sure I agree - I think it's both. More importantly, people should learn to understand that that's actually a GREAT thing. First of all, it sucks when movies limit themselves to the categories they've been boxed in, and second of all, when a movie of ANY genre is capable of having light-hearted humor, that's almost always a good thing. And it's an extremely good thing in SCREAM 4. The humor here is hip to the max - I can't wait to see the film on DVD with subtitles to catch all of it. The character of Gale brings all the sass and pizzazz that she'd given us in the past (she even triumphantly remarks "I still got it!" at one point), and in a hilarious instance of dialogue, when Dewey refuses to let her in on the investigation, she says "I'm going rogue!". I nearly died laughing (and there's a part of me that perversely hopes Sarah Palin watches the film). But of course, the signature humor of the SCREAM movies is in how they satirize the horror genre, and that's no exception in this fourth entry. Like I said, the movie stays close to the original spirit of the franchise while updating for the new generation, so its commentary now is on reboots and remakes and on the obsession with FILMING events in all their gory detail (and then uploading them, of course). Towards the final act of the film, there's a an ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIC moment that combines tension and humor, when one character is on the phone with the killer, and the killer is asking the character a movie trivia question, "Name the remake...", but before the killer can finish the question, the character starts naming EVERY horror remake that has ever been done. The brilliance here lies in the amount of things that are COMBINED here: we have the tension over what this character's ultimate fate will be, the great humor involved in the fact that the character lists every remake out there, and then the satirical jab at the state the horror genre is currently in, with its massive overload of unoriginal, derivative remakes. This is as close as you can get to having an orgasmic movie moment. For those of us who cherish the SCREAM franchise and who are disenchanted with what horror movies have become in the years between SCREAM 3 and SCREAM 4, this moment (and the film as a whole) offers tons of cynical satisfaction. I dare you not to love it.
Another thing that the SCREAM movies always offer and that SCREAM 4 doesn't fall short on at all is in having a great, intense final showdown, in which not only is the identity of the killer(s) revealed, but also, we find out the motivations for why he/she/they went on the killing spree. This will amaze many who are used to seeing cardboard villains in slasher movies, but the SCREAM films have never featured a villain who is simply one-dimensionally evil, who kills just for the sake of killing. There's always a reason. I won't get into the details till the spoilers section, but I will say here that, once again, this aspect of the film is nothing short of triumphant, because it continues with that spirit of staying true to the way the original films' final acts unfolded, but giving it a 21st century update: in this case, the killer(s)'s motivations have a lot to do with the current craze for documenting everything on video and for the desire to be the center of attention. The film makes some incisive commentary here about what one needs (and doesn't need) to do in order to achieve fame. If, for just one second, you could stop thinking about the fact that this is a horror film, and you could consider the message the film is delivering here, you'll see how ingenious it is. "You don't have to work hard today to be famous. You just have to be a fuck-up." Why do you think Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian get higher TV ratings than President Obama? The fact that SCREAM 4 offers a sardonic, intelligent and spot-on answer to this question in what is revealed at the end makes it infinitely better than the dross of uninspired films (horror or not) that get put out in multiplexes.
Alas, the SCREAM franchise has always been afflicted by a flaw or two. There are problems with SCREAM 4, but the good thing is that they are ALL related to only one character: Jill's boyfriend Trevor, played here by Nico Tortorella. The problems are the following:
1) Tortorella gives an awful performance. He's wildly miscast.
2) While the SCREAM franchise normally tries to make MORE THAN ONE person out to be very suspicious, SCREAM 4 seems to be particularly obsessed with making THIS character the lone suspect. This isn't a spoiler, because it's something you'll notice early on in the film, and also, I haven't revealed whether he's the killer or not: I just said the film tries super hard to make us think he is, even lingering on his face longer than it should in several scenes, having him "suddenly appear" at key moments, and even showing his reactions at a film club meeting while other people are talking about what the killer should be doing.
3) The character is not developed at all. The problem here is that, right when the film BEGINS, Trevor and Jill have already broken up, so we don't even get a chance to see what's going on emotionally between them. The film wanted to establish a parallelism between Trevor and Billy (Sidney's boyfriend in the first film), but since Trevor isn't fleshed-out at all during the movie, it's impossible for that to happen.
Thankfully, though, Trevor is the ONLY character in the film with whom I have reservations. As the "scream queen" and the heroine, Neve Campbell proves once again that she's a terrific actress. I'm incredibly curious as to why she's hardly gotten any work ever since the former SCREAM movies. She must not be very lucky out there, because she's 100 times better than the actresses who normally populate horror movies. David Arquette isn't playing the hilarious, bumbling idiot that he played in the first few movies (but don't worry, there's someone to replace him in that role), but he still gives a good performance here. I was overjoyed by the fact that Courteney Cox got to play Gale's bitchiness to a "t" once again. Her interactions with the group's resident "film buffs" in which she's uber-rude and orders them around are magnificent and totally reminiscent of the way she'd yell at her cameramen back when she was a reporter in the first three films. If there's one thing we know for sure by the end of SCREAM 4, it's that screenwriter Kevin Williamson loves these three characters. I love them, too, and I'm incredibly glad that, eleven years later, I get to see them again and that they haven't been altered or dumbed down for the benefit of modern-generation audiences. It's for that reason, and for how resolutely committed the film is to blending unrelenting tension with delightful wit that SCREAM 4 offers a wallop of cinematic brilliance and unabashed entertainment.
DON'T KEEP READING IF YOU DON'T KNOW THE IDENTITY OF THE KILLER AND YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW IT (and seriously, if you don't know it, you should just go see it - what pleasure can there be in getting spoiled?)
OKAY, YOU'VE BEEN WARNED....
One of the fears I had with SCREAM 4 was that I knew that I was gonna have to stay off looking it up on the Internet as much as possible. Things have changed a lot since the last SCREAM. One Twitter update, one comment on a YouTube video, and the surprise is ruined. I'm glad that I managed to avoid the spoilers and that I went into the film with no information on who the killers were.
Film geek Charlie (Rory Culkin) and, much to my surprise, Sidney's cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) turn out to be the people behind the bloodshed in SCREAM 4, and this is where you have to praise the casting people. You see, considering the message that SCREAM 4 ultimately wishes to deliver, the killers HAD to be young. They had to be high school kids. Heck, I was 11 when the first SCREAM came out - these two actors are even younger than I am. I've known that Rory Culkin is terrific, but I never knew that he had the psycho thing in him. Alas, he proves he's got it here. Despite the suspiciously long mane of hair, I don't think he's ever TOO much of a big suspect throughout the film, and he deserves credit for that. Of course, though we usually see two people working together as the killers in the SCREAM movies, it's always ONE of them that is the more cold-hearted one, the one with motives that are less blood-thirsty and, well, more "rational". That job is given here to the petite Emma Roberts, who is easily the most innocent-looking person to EVER play a killer in the SCREAM movies. I have to admit, though, that a few seconds before she removed her mask, I figured out it was her because 1) she was the only person alive in the house who wasn't anywhere to be seen at that particular moment, and 2) the person wearing the costume just seemed awfully small. I recently saw Roberts in IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, and wow - not the type of person you'd expect to be the killer, but that's, of course, a good thing.
The super intense final act of SCREAM 4 starts out at a house, and the signature showdown between Sidney and the killers takes place in a kitchen similar to the one where the showdown occurred in the first SCREAM. What I LOVED here is that, in all THREE of the first films, you always had the killer explain how he/she plans on killing Sidney AND getting away with it, in order to end up looking like the lone innocent survivor... and the same happens in SCREAM 4, but with a great twist, because for once, we move beyond that final showdown and, for a second, it even seems like the killer may very well succeed in what she wants to do.
There was something that was initially off-putting to me about the fact that Jill was one of the killers, but it eventually started to make sense. I thought it was just incredibly sad and heart-breaking that Kate (Sidney's aunt and Jill's mother) actually got killed, and then when Jill is revealed as one of the culprits, I thought "Wow. That's pretty awful." But then, Jill delivers a line that not only offers an explanation but that also fits in well with the message the movie ultimately wants to deliver: "I mean, jeez, even my mom had to die, no big loss there, to make it all look exactly like the events of the first movie." When Jill displays indifference towards her mother, and she later says "Ugh, what am I supposed to do: go to college, grad school, WORK?!", then comments on how she decided to videotape everything "because no one reads anymore," and finally says that the way to become famous is by being a fuck-up, the film's critical commentary on today's youth couldn't be more obvious. And jeez, I'm 25, and I say "today's youth" like I'm this super old person, but in a way it's true, considering how quickly things have progressed and with how much the YouTube generation has devolved into a generation of people who just don't TALK to each other and hardly have any emotional exchange with one another. In this respect, one could almost view SCREAM 4 as a violent cousin to THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Its insight into our current generation is pure genius. The film manages to offer said insight while continuing to satisfy those of us who grew up with the first films and absolutely loved them for their masterful combination or horror and comedy, with terrific and unforgettable characters to boot. Regardless of whether or not I'm biased by the fact that I grew up with these movies and that they were such an influential part in how I started to develop a love for the film medium, there's no escaping the fact that it's the first 2011 film to which I can give a supremely enthusiastic recommendation.