This article contains major Scream 4 spoilers.
Scream 4 was ahead of its time. Which is to say the “reboot” that this week’s “Scream” (aka Scream 5) appears to be was already executed once before by the franchise, and with savage bite. Released about half a decade too early to ride the wave of ‘90s nostalgia that was to come (we were still deep in the throes of ‘80s navel-gazing in 2011), and four years prior to Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens inventing the “legacy sequel” concept as we now know it today, Scream 4 was greeted with mixed reviews and modest box office.
Which is a shame, because frankly Scream 4 is better than you remember and certainly the best of the Scream sequels made to date—and that’s pretty cool unto itself since the Scream franchise has been the most consistent slasher series ever to wield a knife.
The film, Wes Craven’s last as director, opened at a time when the horror genre was in a different place. Blumhouse Productions (which launched Insidious just one year before Scream 4) and James Wan were only beginning to revitalize Hollywood chillers into something genuinely crowdpleasing and less hideous than the “torture porn” sequels and knockoffs that took the wrong lessons from Wan’s own groundbreaking Saw (2004). Meanwhile the resurgence of terrific arthouse horror (or “elevated horror”) was still a long way from having its mid-2010s renaissance. A24 hadn’t even been founded yet!
Instead the context Scream 4 found itself in was almost as bleak as the dark genre moment the original Scream tore down in 1996. In 2011, horror was the stuff of aforementioned torture porn and cynical, soulless remakes of all the horror classics from the 1970s and ‘80s, including many originated by Craven. Whereas the slasher genre was long in the tooth when Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson first deconstructed it with affection via 1996’s Scream, it had circled back to a Sisyphean repetition in 2011—an endless sea of remakes and retreads, none yet realizing there was more money to be had by getting the cast of the original back to bless “the next generation” in a torch-passing sequel. In ’96, Craven and Williamson’s hyper-articulate smartass teens revived the genre with meta-textual humor and self-awareness. Scream 4 had less success in its day, even though it plays sharper than ever as satire in 2022.
Before Han Solo ever said “Chewie, we’re home,” or a collection of Spider-Mans pointed at each other in shock, Scream 4 ditched the idea of doing a straight-ahead remake/reboot and instead returned to the original film’s Woodsboro 15 years later with Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). She’s older and wiser now—an author, in point of fact, with a book to sell. The naïveté she lost since the original film has been replaced with a hard-won wisdom and battle-ready acceptance of living a life inside a horror movie. When she discovers a neighbor is being slaughtered by a resurgent Ghostface copycat killer, she runs across the yard into danger, beating the cops into the fray instead of waiting for her phone to ring.
When the film begins, this is all taken for granted. She, alongside the returning Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), are the old guard, the ostensible mentors who we think are going to lead our new generation of protagonists through the trials and tribulations of surviving a Scream movie. Perhaps that’s why some critics were turned off by the first half of Scream 4, which beyond its deliciously self-deprecating opening sequence is most satisfied with seemingly going through the motions and introducing us to what have all become archetypes within the franchise: the sketchy boyfriend (Nico Tortorella), the movie-obsessed nerd, Charlie (Rory Culkin), and the ineffectual deputy with a crush (Mary Shelton).
Even Sidney appears to have her replacement waiting in the wings with an obvious new franchise lead introduced by way of Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts), the young final girl-ready cousin we never previously knew Sidney had. The one exception to this is Hayden Panettiere’s Kirby Reed, a charismatic and lively new player who was both a popular high schooler and also an unabashed horror hipster. Maybe this was commentary about how nerdiness had become cool in the interceding 15 years—or just a chance to have a real replacement for Jamie Kennedy’s Randy Meeks from the first two movies. Also like Randy, her death hurt.
Otherwise though, this class of Woodsboro High: The Next Generation looks a lot like the cast of a horror remake from the late 2000s: inferior copies who are largely disposable. But then comes the third act, and a climax which makes Scream 4 one of the best slasher movies in its decade.
After chases have been had and plenty of blood spilled—in fact more blood than in the original Scream trilogy after the MPAA relaxed a little—it’s time for the killers to be revealed and motives explained. It’s here where Scream 4 elevates itself from being a simple exercise in ‘90s nostalgia and becomes something vital.
Emma Roberts’ Jill Roberts removes her Ghostface mask and reveals that she is the mastermind behind all the murders which have occurred during this flick, including the death of her own mother. And she did it all for Sidney.
“Do you know what it was like growing up in this family, related to you?” Jill whines to her cousin while holding her at knifepoint. “I mean all I ever heard was Sidney this and Sidney that, and Sidney, Sidney, Sidney. You were always so fucking special! Well now I’m the special one.”
It’s a beautifully twisted switchback and the best motivation a killer has ever had in one of these movies. When the original Scream trilogy was released, anxiety about violence in the media was at an all-time high. But by the time of Scream 4, fear about what kind of media the “youth of America” consumed had been replaced by a compulsory desire by all generations to interact with it.
The meta-irony of casting Emma Roberts, the niece of Julia Roberts, as the covetous, jealous cousin of Campbell’s Sidney could not have been lost on anyone. Yet the director and new starlet make a meal of that meta-irony and every scrap of scenery on-screen as Emma basks in Jill’s celebrity-obsession and selfishness. One might argue that Emma has reprised this role every time she’s appeared in a Ryan Murphy-scripted TV series.
Either way, she never did it better than in Scream 4 where the young performer physicalizes the hunger and desperation for fame in her off-kilter character as she literally beats herself up over it: running her face into walls, stabbing a butcher’s knife to the hilt into her shoulder, and throwing her body through a glass table, all better to create the illusion that she’s a victim and the sole survivor of a massacre she engineered. And her speech where she crystallizes her motivation? It’s a perfect madcap parody of the turning point where social media began consuming all corners of American life, and reality TV had long come to replace celebrity murder trials as around-the-clock appointment viewing on cable TV.
“My friends?” Jill exclaims when asked by her cousin about all the dead bodies strewn across the floor. “What world are you living in? I don’t need friends, I need fans! Don’t you get it? This has never been about killing you, it’s about becoming you… You had your 15 minutes and now I want mine! I mean what am I supposed to do? Go to college, grad school, work? Look around, we all live in public now, we’re all on the internet, how do you think people become famous anymore? You don’t have to achieve anything!”
This sequence transgresses beyond the realm of horror and rubs up right against the border of farce: a kind of All About Eve with kitchen knives and where the new ingenue literally plans to murder her idol. It was also treated by some critics as too over-the-top in 2011—a heavy-handed send up of what is in reality innocuous social media. Some suggested in so many words that Craven and Williamson sounded like old men telling the kids to get off their lawn.
But more than 10 years after social media services like Tik Tok or Twitch have outpaced the self-streaming of the teens and killers in Scream 4, and where it’s become a credible career path to be an Instagram influencer or professional YouTuber, Jill’s plan to achieve stardom doesn’t seem so farfetched.
And, just as importantly, its satirical deconstruction of Hollywood has become disturbingly prescient. The film is, again, about one generation of stars supplanting the previous one with maximum prejudice. As Jill finally screams before stabbing Sidney, “You do have to die, Sid. Those are the rules. New movie, new franchise. There’s only room for one lead, and let’s face it, your ingenue days are over.”
What she’s verbalizing has more or less become the formula for a plethora of legacy sequels, which are most strikingly defined by Disney’s Star Wars movies. Those disjointed continuations of the original Star Wars movies fawningly reintroduced Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, and Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa, and systematically killed them all off in death scenes of varying quality. In their place, we received characters intended to be “the new Sidney,” such as a young desert loner with dreams in her eyes or a cocksure ace pilot who wants to do things his own way.
They are here to both be in awe of what came before—as Jill is in most of her initially bland scenes with Sidney—and to take over and carry the intellectual property forward while the original characters are put out to pasture. Scream 4 predicted all of this becoming the norm, and preemptively decimated it when it chose not to end with Jill’s epic screed of entitlement. This is, after all, a Scream movie, and you can’t actually kill Sidney Prescott.
Indeed, the fact that in this franchise the survivors are the stars as opposed to the masked killer is made explicit when Jill discovers at the hospital Sidney survived her stab wound and then remarks, “Who are you, Michael fucking Myers?” Jill tries to gut Sid again, as well as Dewey and Gale, only for the tables to be turned and for Sidney to get the final applause line: “You forgot the first rule of remakes, Jill. Don’t fuck with the original.”
For better or worse, it sounds like something you’d hear today on a disgruntled fanboy subreddit for Star Wars or Ghostbusters.
It’s also a resounding dismissal and middle finger toward the whole idea of infinite franchise expansion. When Scream 4 came out, remakes of horror classics were the rage. Craven subverted this by coming back to his own horror franchise. In doing so, he also brought back the original cast even though their “ingenue days” were over, and called them the “Han, Luke, and Leia” of horror. While that seems a bit overstated by Craven, especially before ‘90s nostalgia had fully crept into pop culture, it turned out to be prophetic. What he did was anticipate the next move of Hollywood IP exploitation, only Scream 4 had a middle finger ready for that too. It’s summed up by the closing shot of the movie: Jill’s dead, blank stare.
You cannot replace the original, so don’t even try.
Along with the movie’s demented opening credits in which we discover we’re watching a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie, and commenting on the ultimately nonsensical, self-eating nature that endless sequels would have in a franchise like this, the climax is what makes Scream 4 the perfect capper on the franchise. While Scream 2 is also a solid follow-up to the 1996 classic, the fourth movie was the first time a Scream sequel had something new to say about horror movies and pop culture in general: Stop fucking with the original. Hopefully, Scream 5 (and the rest of Hollywood) remembers that lesson.