Back in 1996, horror cinema was not in a good place. Lazy and predictable in terms of its output, and with an over-reliance on an endless stream of direct-to-video atrocities and low-grade sequels, it seemed that maybe the scare business was on the way out.
It was, therefore, with perfect timing that the original Scream appeared and dragged the genre kicking and screaming out of the bargain basement and into the multiplex. With its blend of Gen-X casting, post-modern scripting and muscular direction, Scream created a potent template for the modern horror/slasher film, while also alerting studios to the potential of horror movies as big mainstream hits.
Yet, what started off as a welcome revitalisation was soon the new orthodoxy and, by the time the timid and overly comic Scream 3 hit screens in 2000, most were glad that the franchise had come to an end.
However, this being Hollywood, there was no way that a potentially lucrative franchise such as Scream would be allowed to lay fallow forever. And so, with their company in dire need of a slate of potential hits, in 2009 producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein approved production for the first new Scream installment in a decade.
Eschewing the modern trend for reboots and remakes, the Weinsteins took the unusual step of contracting both original series creator Kevin Williamson to write the script, and horror legend Wes Craven to return behind the camera.
What seemed like a promising start soon escalated, with the subsequent signing of original leads Neve Campbell, David Arquette and Courtney Cox to reprise their roles.
Unlike so many of the charmless, characterless remakes that Hollywood has foisted upon audiences these last few years, this one seemed to be taking the care to return the franchise to first principles. Could it be that, for Scream, the fourth time really would prove to be the charm?
Unfortunately, the answer was a resounding no.
From the banal script, right the way through to Craven’s flat and lifeless direction, Scream 4 simply doesn’t work. Neither funny enough to be a blackly comedic deconstruction of the horror sequel, nor scary enough to generate any significant tension, Scream 4 ends up being neither fish nor fowl.
Strangest of all, despite the expense of signing them up for a return engagement, Campbell, Cox and Arquette are given very little to do.
Faring far worse are married couple Gail and Dewey, with Gail’s character given a pointless writer’s block sub-plot that goes absolutely nowhere, while Sheriff Dewey’s part could quite easily have been renamed ‘generic policeman-who-drives-around-talking-on-CB-radio’, and no one would have known the difference.
Whether by intention or coincidence, Dewey and Gail also spend little time together on screen. It would be impolite to speculate whether this was influenced by the crumbling real-life marriage of Arquette and Cox, but in terms of the characters and their connection to the narrative, it seems a big mistake.
Faring marginally better is Neve Campbell as eternal victim Sidney. Campbell has one or two good scenes with her cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts) and her aunt, Kate(played by Mary McDonnell), but these are only brief respites from her primary role, which appears to involve standing in rooms looking wistfully off into the middle-distance.
However, despite its myriad flaws, Scream 4 isn’t a total washout, and whatever enjoyment can be taken from the film is to be found in the heartland of any good, bad or indifferent slasher movie – its teenage cast.
On this front, as he did in both the original Scream and Nightmare On Elm Street films, Craven’s talent for casting comes up trumps once again. The aforementioned Roberts is very strong, while both Rory Culkin and Hayden Panettiere turn in vibrant work as the next generation of Woodsboro teens.
Despite its strengths, it’s also this strand of the film that proves to be the most frustrating, as it ends up being a definite missed opportunity. A modern Scream movie should have been located here, with a younger, newer cast, and not have wasted its time trying to pay some sort of half-hearted lip service to the original films.
With rumours of trouble behind the scenes of Scream 4, it’s clear to see that the film has issues with tone, direction and focus. At certain points it’s almost as if the film is at war with itself, trying to assert what it should be over what the producers and vested interests would like it to be.
Sadly, in the world of Hollywood (and especially in the land of franchise filmmaking) there’s only ever going to be one winner.
Judging by the rather downbeat climax – and more importantly, its tepid box office returns – Scream 4 looks like it may well be the final outing for the franchise. Here’s hoping that really does turn out to be the case.
You can rent or buy Scream 4 at Blockbuster.co.uk.