Here's the thing with a long running horror series. If you really like the series, you're going to see the new entry if you have access to it. If, for any reason and at any time, you were turned off by the series, you're not going to watch it voluntarily and probably won't like it if you get suckered into it. Such is the case with Scream 4, one of the more entertaining slasher films to come out since, well, Scream. Scream has always been a tongue-in-cheek look at the horror genre. Aside from the shocking opening sequence with Drew Barrymore in the original, the film was more about skewering slashers than staying true to horror expectations. Slasher films have consistently used campy and cheesy humor since the 80s and it's a hit-or-miss proposition. Scream lambasted that trend, dissecting the finest details of morality, motivation, and misogyny while still delivering all the expected beats of the sub-genre.
Scream 4 is the first Scream since the original to advance this concept in a meaningful way. Take, for instance, the opening three scenes. Two high school-age sisters are talking about a Facebook stalker. One of them answers the house phone and receives a menacing call. She hangs up. Her sister receives another message on Facebook. The phone rings again. The older sister pretends to be killed to scare the younger sister. This continues on until the shocks arrive. Then we jump to two other college-aged girls watching a slasher film on TV. They begin debating the merits of the Saw and late sequels in other series. A fight breaks out before we cut to another pair of teenage girls watching a slasher movie about two girls watching a slasher movie about two girls talking about slasher movies. Either screenwriter Kevin Williamson saw and loved the Broadway musical [Title of Show] (about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical while starring in a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical) or Williamson is hitting on the "meta" element that has overtaken the horror genre since Scream.
What, exactly, defines this "meta?" Well, it's confusing enough that returning characters Sheriff Dewey Riley and bored housewife Gale Weathers-Rilye discuss what "meta" means because "that's what the kids say." It's essential a performance or art form--film, theater, music, literature, visual art, etc.--commenting on its own identity and genesis while the performance or art is going on itself. It's the equivalent of standing in between two mirrors directly across from each other and trying to count how many of your own reflection you can see. You're living in that moment of reflection while thinking about the reflection itself, which in turn spurs new realizations about the nature of the moment of reflection you see yourself in.
It's the anniversary of the Woodsboro Massacre that put Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) on the media map of the entire nation. She is back in town promoting her memoir about surviving the attacks and redefining herself as a person, not a victim. She reconnects with adversary Gale (Courtney Cox), the former reporter who wrote the book on the massacre that led to the creation of the Stab series, the films within the Scream series that tell Sidney's story. Gale is now married to Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette) and working on a novel. At the signing, Dewey receives a call that two girls have been murdered and their cell phones are at the bookstore. Of course they turn up in Sidney's rental car, forcing her to stay in Woodsboro and face another massacre.
The focus jumps between the original trilogy's surviving trio and the new group of high school students in Woodsboro. They are Sidney's cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), her best friends Kirby (an excellent Haydn Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe), Jill's ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Torterella), and film nerds Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin). Ghostface, the long-masked killer costume of the original trilogy, returns to start knifing a new generation of students. One by one they start to go down, only the pattern of the original no longer applies. "The unexpected is the new cliche," says Charlie at a film club meeting. He's not joking.
Director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson don't just take shots at Saw (the only named subject of ridicule) and other series that developed in the wake of Scream; they make fun of themselves. The most ridiculous moments of the series are torn apart. For example, in the scene within a scene within a scene opener, the awful "crushed by garage door" death is debunked and mocked mercilessly as the new Ghostface uses the automatic door system to trap--not crush--his victim. Chase sequences are completely restaged in more believable fashions, such as roof-top escapes, hiding under beds, and bracing doors. You'll no longer die from jumping eight feet off a roof and you're no longer safe if you manage to keep the killer out of the house. Even the strong scenes, such as Drew Barrymore's original question game, are dissected and restaged for shock value. The rules of the game have changed because Scream changed how the game is played.
Scream 4 features one of the most bizarre and unexpected endings I've ever seen in a horror film. It's not just a random tack-on, either. It works. It works so well that the film does everything it can to convince you of who the murderers have to be all the way through the film and there's a good chance you still won't catch enough of the clues to figure it all out. If all the adults have an alibi clearly shown in the film and all the students have been attacked before the body count starts rolling, who is left to be the killer?
Even in its most sincere moments, Scream 4 skewers the conventions of the slasher genre. The final scene even makes fun of the formula of reveals in the Scream series while following the expected beats of the reveal and bringing in new surprises. It's a difficult balancing act pulled off with style and wit and just the right amount of cheese.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.