“Do you like scary movies?”
Well, you must do … or else you wouldn't be reading this.
After loving the opening murder sequence from Scream, the audacious and protracted terrorising and slaying of Drew Barrymore in the first of a slew of what would become a series of celebrity cameo-carnage, I thought that Wes Craven's culture-savvy genre celebration petered-out into a laborious and resolutely un-scary yawnathon of uninspired red-herrings and repetitious set-pieces, belaboured by a gaggle of annoying Tinseltown brats. Although the sequel (or Scre-quel) was actually much more atmospheric and menacing, it still didn't do all that much for me and was still little other than a grand homage to much greater slasher-flicks, and all geared towards the teeny-boppers who, because of these films, actually believed they knew it all. And then came the third entry-wound … well, to be honest, it wasn't the sort of hack-job that even the die-hards expected. With Ehren Kruger (whom series creator and director Wes Craven must have hired, in regular-scribe Kevin Williamson's absence, purely because he, um, liked that familiar sounding surname) penning the bedevilled screenplay, the film just threw out the cohesive mood and leapt too irresponsibly onto new media fads, neglecting the build-up and the tension that Williamson was, at least, able to call upon. Personally, I hated it more than the first one. And it only aided my conviction that the Scream franchise, although the genre definitely had it coming, was as much a desecration of it, as it was a homage. Unavoidably, it opened up the hell-gates to an almost never-ending succession of unwanted and sanitised, airbrushed remakes, reboots, re-imaginings of the stalk 'n' slash formula. Whilst The Hills Have Eyes remake and the upgraded Texas Chainsaw Massacre were quite unexpectedly worthy endeavours, we had to suffer a multitude of Prom Nights, Black Christmases, Friday The 13th 's, My Bloody Valentines and Fogs that were unequivocally not. And let's not even mention the rash of Urban Legends, Final Destinations and slash-'em-ups revolving around what someone thinks we might have done “Last Summer”, and their lame-brained ilk, that sprung up like gore-soaked weeds in the wake of Scream's success. A lot of the original splatter-classics hadn't been any good even back in their day … but revamping them into often watered-down and tepid mimics tailor-made for the hip and trendy was just giving the genre a bad name. Or rather a worse name. The true shock of what the genre had to offer was gone and the balloon had burst, and it wasn't full of blood.
And so, after the rushed and messy third entry that blundered its way onto screens in 2000, pushing its ironic metaphor too far by taking place on a film-set, both the creative team of Craven and Williamson and the stab-happy survivors of three murderous marathons reunite to set the record straight and redress the bloody balance for Part 4. There's the unkillable victim played by Neve Campbell, the dopey Dewey Riley played by David Arquette, who is now the Sheriff of Woodsboro County, and his cantankerous, go-getting reporter wife, Gale, rattled-out with irascible verve once more by MILF-supreme Courtney Cox. Also returning is composer Marco Beltrami, who has scored all of the Ghostface flicks, regular DOP Peter Deming and, of course, Roger Jackson, who gamely supplies the unnerving voice on the phone that has been the hallmark of the series since the first scene back in 1996. As familiar as his tones are to us now, you can't deny that your blood runs cold when he suddenly turns all nasty and begins to taunt his distressed victim.
The plot, such as it is, has perennial survivor Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returning to Woodsboro ten years after the last spate of murders, to promote an autobiographical book on her ordeals and all those multiple close encounters with the grim reaper – a sort of splatter survival guide. Her arrival sparks off a spate of killings that seem to follow the same old pattern – Ghostface, big knife, menacing phone-calls, psycho pop-quiz – and soon the bodycount is rising and partying teens, the clueless idiots of the Sheriff's Department and a select bunch of peripheral knife-fodder are all suddenly compelled to re-evaluate the magic formula that will see them still standing come the end titles of a belated return to a franchise that everyone thought was dead and buried. You just can't keep a good nutcase down, though, can you? And it seems everyone wants their fifteen minutes of fame. Kevin Williamson plays around with those infernal slasher-flick rules that can only appeal to teenagers, and whilst he and Craven embrace the visually engrossing and the viscerally heart-in-mouth, they can't resist the temptation to make some lamentable attempts at moving with the times. Predictably enough, the duo would like this to be stalk 'n' slash for the Facebook and Youtube crowd.
Yet, aside from the head-cams, the text messages and all those crafty little cameras that the tenacious Gale, sick of wifely chores and hell-bent on a cut 'n' thrust scoop to reclaim her name, employs to catch the killer, what the pair deliver is still reassuringly traditional. We've seen it all before, of course, and it is fair to say that the fourth stab doesn't bring much fresh meat to the table. But this is a film that knows what it needs to do. It knows exactly who its audience is and, most importantly, it knows precisely what they want from it. Good opening jolts in the double-bladed prologue (boasting Anna Paquin in one of two palpitation-rife segments) set the perfect “trust no-one, expect the unexpected” tone for the rest of the film. From that point on, the kills come thick and fast, with murderous set-pieces piling on top of one another in a delirium of reasonably suspenseful confrontations. Some of them go on for far too long (as has been the case since film 1), lessening the gasp-factor with overkill, but there are more than enough thrills and spills to keep the core audience happy. We don't necessarily fear Ghostface though, and this is something that I have found to be an unfortunate hallmark of the entire series. There are reasons why he/she/they are such a bumbling idiot of a killer/killers, which I'll come to later, but as understandable as these reasons are, they can't help but ruin the menace that the character is meant to exude. When the victim slams a knee into the killer's groin, or stabs them in the neck, or smashes a vase over their head, we should applaud such last-ditch heroics. But such deeds occur so monotonously in Scream-land that you begin to feel sorry for Ghostface and become somewhat concerned over whether he or she will make it past the half-way point. I mean what kind of life-insurance do mass murderers have access to?
Craven clearly enjoys the scenario of setting people up for a fall. There are lots of “look behind you” moments which, to be honest, I'm something of a sucker for. And the protracted confrontations are a little more low-key than the crash, bang, wallop cop-impaling melees of the second entry, which did raise the gambit and stretched to tedium skirmishes of the third. But this feels tighter and more restricted, and less prone to go over-the-top. Well, comparatively speaking.
You have to admire the cocksure ease with which Craven sets practically everyone up as a suspect during the first act. Little lines of dialogue, a lingering look, an off beat about somebody's reactions. It's all highly overt and almost reminiscent of Carry On Screaming, Clue or even “The Phantom Raspberry-Blower of Old London Town” from The Two Ronnies. But this is part of the fun of the fright-fest … and Scre4m, more than any of the other entries, wants to have fun. More of a satire that its predecessors, the movie is often very funny. It is clearly not taking itself too seriously, yet this does not harm or hinder the atmosphere in any way. The characters, particularly the adults, are all klutzy buffoons. The kids are one-dimensional horror gurus for whom a gruesome death cannot come soon enough (you get the impression that such an exit is what they want!) , but their very fascination with violent mortality points the finger of suspicion at each and every one of them. The new entourage include Heroes' gorgeous cheerleader Hayden Panettiere, as the ever-enticing Kirby, Erik Knudsen and Rory Culkin (sporting that same distinctively unpleasant and sickly look as his brothers) as the resident movie-geeks running the slasher festival at Woodsboro High, Robbie and Charlie, Emma Roberts as Sidney's endangered cousin, Jill, and the groovily monikered Nico Tortorella as the darkly motivated ex-boyfriend who won't stop hanging around. Sidney's motor-mouthed agent, played by Alison Brie, chews up so much jibber-jabbering screen-time that if you had a knife to hand, you'd stab her yourself. Sheriff Dewey has got himself a cute female assistant in Deputy Judy (Marley Sheldon), who went to school with Sidney, although Sid barely even remembers her, and who is patently treading on Gale's toes to win over unlikely heart-throb, Dewey. Thus, the marriage of the genre's odd couple appears, at least superficially, to be under some strain. Gale's been under suspicion before … and she's struggling to write her next book, whilst Sid's tome is the talk of the town.
Ahhh, it could be anyone. Or, more crucially, more than one of them.
Neve Campbell seems to be growing into Selma Blair with each successive Scream … albeit an even more manish and, therefore, less attractive version. Does she make any other films beyond this series? I can't remember. But, regardless of the apparent one-track trajectory of her career, she is part and parcel of this franchise and, like Cox and Arquette, to have an instalment without her would be unthinkable. She does a lot of screaming, running up and down stairs, and fighting with Ghostface – core-competences that nobody else, by this stage, can hold a candle to. What she doesn't do, though, is provide any tangible depth to the character. Looking positively matronly now, she takes on the new killer with the stoic conviction of an Earth-locked Ripley. Honestly, you could almost imagine her admonishing Ghostface with the line, “You've been in my life for so long, I can't remember anything else.” But this gutsy attitude, full of the sort of resignation that implies she never, even for one moment, believes that she could ever live the quiet life, means that Sidney becomes a sort of serial killer, herself. An avenging angel cursed to combat mystery foes in masks for the rest of her days.
I mean she doesn't exactly get much help from anybody else. This lady would get more benefit from the Ghostbusters than from the cops. Dewey tries his best, as always. But he's still a dithering wreck of involuntary valour ... and he takes the requisite battering that we've come to expect. Cox has seen better days. She looked her hottest in Scream 2, but she's still tottering about in short skirts and high-heels. And I like that. She's certainly on fine and irritating form but, again, we expect this … and the screenplay has to be applauded for keeping the main characters as convincing extensions of the people we've seen before. Despite the sparky relationship, the warmth from Arquette and Cox is tangible. And necessary. You won't get any from anyone else, including the colder, more ruthless Campbell.
And the film is pleasantly violent. Don't be put off by that “15” certificate, folks. This is gory and nasty and pretty hard-edged when it comes to the murders. Plus, there are a lot of them, more this time around than in any of the previous encounters. That gleaming hunter's knife slams into nubile young flesh with quite some ferocity, and the unsettling thing is that Ghostface often then just stands and watches the death-throes of the skewered victim. At times this reminded me of the skeleton warriors with their perma-grins admiring their grisly handiwork for Ray Harryhausen in Jason And The Argonauts, that elongated face seemingly taking on a new and awe-filled expression, if only for a second or two as some new victim lurches about in the shock and realisation of having just been offed. I'm not so sure that someone could go on for long after having a blade rammed deep into the forehead, certainly not long enough to clambour out of a car and go staggering off. Although Omar Epps was able to shuffle out of the toilet after getting a knife through the side of his noggin in Scream 2. And I certainly don't believe that they could utter some execrable dying one-liner … but then this is a film in which skinny teens can routinely lift someone up and hurl them into a wall or through a window, and can take self-harming to eye-popping new levels. One early death-scene is incredibly savage – a whirlwind hack-fest-and-disembowelling that totals a bedroom and doffs its cutting-cap to Argento, as well as to the splashy slaying of Tina in the first Nightmare. Parts 2 and 3 had their moments, but this seems to gouge much deeper despite that drop in certificate.
There is a signature look to these films as well.
When John Carpenter took Michael Myers on a bloody tour of nocturnal suburban Haddonfield, he and Dean Cundey filmed the vulnerable, taboo-breaking setting of the family home with an aura of spectral menace, promoting the shadows and the darkened corners like they were some sort of infernal lair. Craven ripped through all of this nostalgic menace when he turned Freddy Kruger loose in some very similar settings, and with the Scream films he continues to present the cosy family home as a battlefield. For Laurie Strode’s festive nightmare, Carpenter turned familiar settings into a haunted house, subverting our conceptions of sanctuary. Craven doesn’t want to waste time with such slower-paced, clammy-skinned passages, though. For someone who turned the family home into a place of desperate revenge in The Last House On The Left, and the camper-van (a home from home) into a slaughterhouse in The Hills Have Eyes, he's a lot more, ahem, at home and respectful for the Woodsboro attacks. No matter how bloody things get in poster-festooned teenage bedrooms and all around those cosy parlours and expansive kitchens, these beautifully furnished abodes are still highly desirable. And this means that he is being considerably less subversive than he used to be. Whereas the Myers House in Haddonfield became shunned and a place of foreboding, Craven and DOP Peter Deming (who brought his evocative and highly fluid style to such splendidly drawn terrors as Evil Dead II, From Hell and Drag Me To Hell) like to maintain that image of a dreamy Californian idyll – and it works too. These houses are amazing. Expansive grounds, balconies, a warren of rooms in which to hide, basements that could house over a thousand illegal immigrants, and the kind of soundproofing that guarantees the dippy cops keeping watch right outside, let alone the neighbours across the street, won't hear a single gunshot, a shattering door, a breaking window or a piercing scream. The lensing is woozily languorous, almost as though Dean Cundey is sleep-filming. But the movie is instantly pretty to look at and sumptuously wide.
Craven is a much snappier director than Carpenter too (though not a better one, I should point out), and his Scream films, his duo of sojourns in The Hills and his couplet of self-helmed Krugers make this abundantly clear. You can imagine his attitude on set, as he calls the shots. Bam! Bam! Bam! He’s clicking his fingers until they sound like a constant whirring. He wants action, and lots of it. This is the sort of shtick that has, overall, made the antics of Ghostface so slapdash and Keystone Cop-like. Craven is trying to convey the very human nature of his fallible, yet fiendish foe or foes. We couldn’t possibly have Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees stumbling over his own feet, could we? And the robes … For God’s sake, the robes! Nobody, no matter how deeply in the throes of blood-lust they might be is going to be brutally balletic and aggressively agile when bedecked in Satanic robes and engaged in a hot pursuit of their target up a flight of stairs. At first I found this slapstick horror almost unbearable. But now having watched the films back to back on Blu-ray, exorcising my Scream demons, you could say, I find this quality to be just part of the framework. The killers aren't superhuman and they aren't supernatural. They tend to be giddy-minded obsessives whose own excitement and thrill of the chase tends to trip them up, mid-flow. Craven is deliberately tipping us off, right from the get-go, that his murderers are simply people – often dorky teens – and not monsters. And as you watch the movies, this scatter-shot approach to their campaigns of terror becomes an endearing eccentricity. We all know that the apparent ability to teleport around places is usually the product of having more than one killer, so there's no surprises for us on that score now.
Scream 3, with its patently absurd revelations a la Empire Strikes Back, sort of hinted at Sid's destiny, implying that fate couldn't be avoided. In many ways, Scre4m fulfils this. It goes back to basics – bedrooms, sleepovers and parties – but it implies that Sid has become the Sarah Connor of Woodsboro, it's protector and revenger. Craven began this female crusader angle with Elm Street's Nancy. He seems to be determined to create the genre's own Joan of Arc.
Strangely, one of the essential elements of the Scream films – that bloody infernal genre-referencing that had become so irritating – actually works well here. Admittedly, there is probably too much of this post-modern culture-dissection taking place – virtually every scene boasts some form of it – but I didn't find it grating this time out. The metaphysical wall is pushed and prodded almost as obviously as when Freddy first leaned out from dreamland above Nancy's bed in the original Nightmare On Elm Street. Characters agonise over may happen to one-another, all convinced that the events will play out along the lines of a reinvigorated, long-distance sequel, and all determinedly existing in a weird limbo-land of life imitating art imitating life … and death. But where this became cloying, self-aware and unbelievably pretentious throughout three movies, it seems to fit this entry like a razor-fingered glove. Craven knows that he's pushed this idea as far as it can go, and that he's created an entire sub-genre that will live on without him, regardless. Thus, he doesn't appear to be straining too hard to be hip, clever and ironic – the film, itself, and the mythology that encircles it, does all of that for him. In this way, the Scream franchise has finally gained what is so desired and taken on a life of its own. This is what Craven did with Freddy Kruger, albeit very methodically, very deliberately and with all due calculation. As intelligent and witty as his New Nightmare was, it was still Craven that was pulling the strings. Not Freddy. Scre4m, to me, feels as though it is a show that has become almost sentient and genuinely self-aware, a vicious vortex that sucks new cast members in to the slaughter and perpetually torments the long-standing characters as though they are captives in a cyclic screenplay. So, like an episode of The Twilight Zone, it is bound over to relive its crimes, passing on the evil from spirit to spirit like some ancient Druidic curse. It's like a hamlet in the middle of Tornado Alley. Every once in a while, trouble comes to town … unavoidably and irrevocably, like the proverbial bad penny.
Am I giving his film too much credit?
Probably. But then I'm in a good mood … and, against all my gut-instincts, I really did enjoy it.
It is just another post-modern slasher riff, when all said and done. But, rightly or wrongly, this is something that has redefined what many people expect from the horror film, incubating its own cult-status and demanding that people adore it by speaking to them and placing caricatures of them right up there on the screen. It's committee-led film-making – just the sort of thing that I normally rail against – but, by now, you just have to accept it on its own terms. To knock the Scream movies for being repetitive junk would be missing the point of the concept too glibly. As much as I love to denounce and criticise the woeful decline in the Friday The 13th series, I am also a fan of it, when all said and done. And you can't argue that the Scream movies aren't vastly more accomplished, though their aims are just the same. These slasher-pics aren't out to change the world, although the first Scream certainly rocked it about a little bit. They are simply meant to entertain. Personally, I can't fully believe that I've relented towards these generic, super-referential productions. But they are like a horror soap opera now. The same characters tweaked about with, and the same situations are still plaguing them. I'd say it was like Eastenders but with better looking women, but the Scream franchise is not that miserable. And this could well be the key. For all the death and mutilation on show, they remain glitzy, light and inoffensive. You may fall for the knee-jerk stingers but you won't have nightmares afterwards. You may wince when some beautiful young damsel gets carved up, but you won't care about their loss.
So, disliking the Scream films for what they created is pretty much on the mark. But I feel that disliking them for what they do isn't very fair. This is high-gloss disposable escapism. Horror's answer to a Stallone film. It's taken fifteen years for me to come around to this realisation about Ghostface's adventures … and even if I still think the mask and robes are ridiculous, and the Scooby-Doo finales are usually a let-down, hey, here's blood in your eye!
I’m certain that many detractors will find nothing here that will sway their opinions of Wes’ homage to the tropes of the critically maligned, yet ever-popular slasher-flick, but fans will lap this up. Right frame of mind, bucket of popcorn, beer and buddies … you can't go wrong. Ignore the token gestures to modern culture-tech, this is Old School stalk 'n' slash. It's Californian Giallo … and it's a scream!
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