More than a decade has gone by since Ghostface last terrorised the teen residents of Woodsboro, and much has changed since. We’re now in an age of social networking, citizen journalism, smart phones and Jedward.
The Scream franchise has always attempted to monitor the changing landscape of teen culture as well as the conventions of slasher horror, so it’s unsurprising that this latter-day entry tackles all these technological and social changes head-on (well, apart from Jedward), while simultaneously poking fun at its own patchy lineage.
In its matryoshka-doll like opening sequence – which, by the way, I found the most fun and surprising since the original movie way back in 1996 – a character mocks the Stab franchise, the fictional film series inspired by the earlier killings in Woodsboro. Now on its sixth sequel, the Stab series is creatively bankrupt, yet constantly revived thanks to the allure of the mighty dollar.
“I’m sick of this post-modern, meta shit,” the character says. “It’s all so predictable. You can see everything coming.”
By Scream 3, the franchise that made its name by confounding the conventions of its genre appeared to be finally done in by them, and it’s that film’s descent into bloated self-parody that writer Kevin Williamson is perhaps referencing here, along with the countless other horror series that have suffered a similar fate by their third or fourth sequel (see Saw, Halloween and Wes Craven’s own Nightmare On Elm Street).
It’s quite remarkable, then, that given how simplistic the Scream template is once you take away the knowing dialogue and in-references, Williamson has managed to summon up a story worth telling.
The raw materials for a typical horror sequel are all here – a troupe of picturesque middle-class teenagers, a quiet suburban backdrop, and a crazed killer in a mask – but Williamson has come up with a belated Scream entry that’s almost the equal of the first two. You could almost forget that the third movie was ever made, in fact, and enjoy this one as the concluding part of the trilogy instead.
Eleven years older but looking broadly the same, series heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is now a best-selling self-help author, and is back in her home town to promote her latest book, Out Of Darkness. But before she can even sign her first autograph, a series of bloody murders begin to take place, with Sidney once again the ultimate target.
Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and ex-journalist wife Gale (Courtney Cox) are also back to catch the killer, but the main focus of Scream 4 is its cast of high-school students, among them Sidney’s cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), her friend Kirby (Hayden Panattiere, sporting a great 80s haircut), and a couple of horror movie geeks, Robbie and Charlie (Erik Knudsen and Rory Culkin respectively).
The horror beats in Williamson’s script march to a fairly predictable rhythm, and it feels as though director Wes Craven’s opted to up the gore to compensate. While it’s hardly Hostel, this is by far the bloodiest Scream movie yet. There are a couple of quite startling killings, and one of particularly bloody death appears to have been trimmed to gain a 15 certificate.
For me, though, the Scream movies’ killings always took second place to their Giallo-like sense of mystery, and it’s this aspect of Scream 4 that I found most satisfying. As I was scribbling down notes in the darkness of a London fleapit, I repeatedly wrote down who I thought the culprit was, scribbled it out, then wrote another name, before scribbling that one out, too.
And even if you do guess the ending before the characters in the movie, there’s some great dialogue (“Your lemon squares taste like ass”), and the usual bran tub of horror movie references to enjoy, including a great last-reel nod to Fight Club.
It’s great to see that, while much has changed since the last series instalment in the late-90s, one of the smartest slasher franchises is still as sharp as ever. Scream 4 isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s well written, well directed, and has a conclusion that somehow manages to remain true to the spirit of the franchise, tap into contemporary obsessions with fame and celebrity, confound expectations (mine at least), and thumb its nose playfully at the modern conventions of remakes and reboots all at the same time.
No mean feat for a franchise that should have long since run out of ideas.