By Edward Gambichler
“…This isn’t a comedy, its a horror film. People live, people die……..and you better start running……”
Ghostface ( Scream 4 )
Do you like “scary movies”? With this one simple question, the declining genre known as “slasher” films was revitalized. Slasher films were generally defined by film historians and fans alike as films in which the primary antagonist ( a psychopathic killer ) stalks an innocent group of people ( mostly teenagers ) and dispatches them in violent and graphic means. Usually the victims are cut off from the outside world ( secluded cabins in the woods, severed phone lines,etc. ) and the killer’s motives are tied to a shared history or relationship with his/ or her victims. One by one, the group is eliminated until the main protagonist ( traditionally, a beautiful and virginal young woman ) remains. The genre became so popular that many of the actresses who were cast in this role were referred to by fans as “scream queens”. Among the more classic entries in this type of movie were “Black Christmas” ( widely regarded as the first true slasher film ), “Prom Night”, “Terror Train”, “Friday the 13th”, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” ( a slasher film with a supernatural twist ) and the most famous of them all, “Halloween” ( starring Jamie Lee Curtis, cinema’s most famous “scream queen” ). The genre reached its peak in the late 70’s and mid 80’s. However, the rise of independent films like “Sex, Lies, and Videotapes”, “Drugstore Cowboy” and “Reservoir Dogs” and the popularity of filmmakers such as Stephen Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, and Quentin Tarantino relegated slasher films to the film purgatory of “straight to video” DVD release. It wasn’t until 1996 that the genre received a much needed jumpstart when Miramax ( thru their Dimension Films label ) released “Scream”.
Directed by horror maven Wes Craven ( “A Nightmare on Elm Street” )and written by Kevin Williamson ( “Dawson’s Creek”, “The Faculty” and another slasher entry, “I Know What You Did Last Summer”), Scream is the story of a group of high schoolers from the town of Woodsboro who are rocked by the brutal murder of one of their classmates, Casey Becker ( played in a brilliantly staged opening scene by actress Drew Barrymore ). The main protagonist, a lovely girl named Sydney Prescott ( played by “Party of Five’s” Neve Campbell ) is particularly affected by the murder, due to her own mother’s brutal rape and murder one year earlier. This mysterious killer plays a sick and twisted game with his prey by quizzing them on the subject of scary movies ( calling them first over the phone ), then killing them with a hunting knife when they give a wrong answer. The assailant conceals his/ or her identity by wearing a dark cloak and a Halloween mask resembling a screaming ghost. The cast also includes Skeet Ulrich, Rose McGowan, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette ( playing the town deputy, Dewey Riley ), and Courtney Cox ( in the role of Gale Weathers, news reporter and author of the book on the subject of Sydney’s mother’s death ). Scream became such a book office success that two sequels soon followed: Scream 2 (1997) and Scream 3 (2000). Both of these movies continued the character’s story arcs and the movie that was made about their lives, “Stab”.
Now, 2011,comes the release of Scream 4. This time out, the town of Woodsboro is rocked again by the double homicide of two young high school girls. The killer utilizes the same methods as the original Woodsboro killer ( Ghostface disguise, hunting knife, and cellphone ). Heading up the investigation is Dewey Riley ( who is now sheriff ) and married to Gale Weathers. Sydney Prescott has just arrived in town to start a book tour of her memoirs and when evidence linked to the murders is uncovered in her rental car, she becomes a suspect ( and is forced to stay in Woodsboro ). This time, the stakes are higher because it is Sydney’s niece Jill Roberts ( played by actress Emma Roberts ) and her friends ( played by Hayden Panetierre, Rory Culkin, Nico Torterella, Marielle Jaffe, and Erik Knudsen ) who are being hunted. As the body count gets higher, Sidney, Dewey, and Gale must race against time to catch the killer before tragedy strikes Sidney’s family again.
The one thing that made the first Scream movie unique from other slasher films of its kind was the level of self awareness ( especially in the character’s reactions to the events unfolding around them ). The characters in the film ( especially the “film geek” Randy Meeks, played by Jamie Kennedy ) would comment on how the situations they were in were like something out of a “scary movie”. The film was not just a straight up slasher movie, but also a commentary on traditional horror conventions. When Wes Craven directed the first “Nightmare on Elm Street” film and the third sequel “Dream Warriors”, he used the same structure as any other slasher film. When he was invited back to direct the sixth film in the series “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”, however, his approach to the material was “out of the box”. The main characters of the film were not just Freddy Krueger and his victim Nancy, but their respective “real” world counterparts, actors Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp ) and the plot centered around the actual production of a new Nightmare movie. Two years after, in 1996, he directed the first “Scream”.
I went to see the fourth film with a friend of mine, Juan. When we started to discuss the series of Scream films, Juan asked me to place them in order of 1 ( being the one I liked the best ) to 4 ( being the worst of the series ). I answered that I liked the first Scream first, Scream 4 second, Scream 3 third, and Scream 2, the last. Truth be told, Scream 4 would have been a lot better if the second and third one were never made. The same self awareness that made the first one unique, had by then been beaten to death. Also, the return of the three principal cast members ( Campbell, Arquette, and Cox ) fifteen years later, would have had a more nostalgic feel to it ( if the other two sequels hadn’t marred the original by convoluting the back story to Sidney Prescott’s family history ). When Neve Campbell first appears on the screen in the fourth film, I should have had the same reaction as when I saw Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later” ( when she came basic to reprise her iconic role of killer Michael Myer’s sister, Laurie Strode ). There are times when I think that some film franchises would “feel” better to us fans, if we could just drop the second and third sequels from our collective consciousness ( Die Hard, Halloween, Highlander, etc. ). Unfortunately, hindsight is not foresight.
Also, the film convention that Scream 4 seems to be “ripping apart” this time are remakes of classic horror movies and how filmmakers change the rules making them fresh and less predictable. It’s not as enticing as the ones being parodied in the first film. Before the movie started, I saw a trailer for an upcoming film called “Apollo 18” ( a movie about the supposedly last and secret lunar landing ). The movie utilizes the now popular “found footage” structure present in movies like “Blair Witch Project”,”Cloverfield”, and”Paranormal Activity”. For a second, I thought it would have been interesting to see a Scream movie produced in this vein. What makes this Scream film stand out this time is the killer’s motives behind the murders. The conclusion is logical and, at the same time, unsettling. All the character’s performances hit the right notes. Courtney Cox is especially funny this time out ( as well as “Mad Men”‘s Alison Brie in the role of Sidney’s publicist ). However, the standout in this film is Emma Roberts. She handles the young ingenue “scream queen” role just as well as Campbell or Curtis. Expect great things to come from this young actress. And I’m not saying that because her aunt is Julia Roberts and her father is Eric Roberts. Refrain from accusations of Hollywood nepotism, if you please.Trust me…..after this performance…….she doesn’t need to ride their coattails.