Friday, April 15, 2011
"Scream 4" (opening April 15 throughout San Diego) is the latest entry in Wes Craven's horror franchise and it's only one step away from "Scary Movie." Notice I said "one step away" and not "one step up."
Wes Craven's 1996 "Scream" is one of the films responsible for the decline in contemporary horror. It may not have introduced jokey horror but it made a lot of money doing it and that inspired a whole generation of filmmakers and studio execs to make films that simply never had the balls to even try and scare anyone. This is not to say I don't like horror comedies. "Shaun of the Dead" is brilliant because it's funny, it's gory, and it actually makes you care about the characters. Same thing with TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." But the "Scream" films only make you giggle at their stupidity. You never care about any of the characters and the gore is only average. In fact in this latest installment, you could almost see the seams in the prosthetic effects used for some of the scars and knife wounds. This film will not fare well on Bluray where all such imperfections come through with digital clarity.
This latest "Scream" serves up its best moments in its opening minutes. As with the previous films, the franchise makes a point of getting a recognizable star for the opening and then killing her off. When that happened to Drew Barrymore in 1996 for the first film, it was a nice twist, suggesting that our expectations of having the star live till the end or close to the end were going to be denied. (Hitchcock did that decades before and so much better in "Psycho.") But with the fourth film this has become a cliché that the latest film can only make jokes about. And does so quite nicely. I'll give the film props for getting Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell for a funny intro. But then it's all downhill on a slippery bloody slope from there.
The story picks up ten years after the first film with Sidney (Neve Campbell) turning her repeated victimhood into a best-selling book and film fame. Gale (Courtney Cox), the one-time TV reporter, has married Dewey (David Arquette), who is now the sheriff of Woodsboro. So the old-timers from the past films are all reassembled. Then we have some fresh blood in the new crop of teenagers led by Jill (Emma Roberts). Sidney comes back to town for a book tour and guess what, Ghostface strikes again. Bodies quickly pile up as poor Dewey -- with a goofy-creepy deputy sidekick (Marley Shelton) -- try to protect Sidney and sort the murders out.
Of course a number of characters are horror nuts that play trivia games about the genre while being stalked by a serial killer. The cinema club teens explain how the new Ghostface is reinventing the "plot" and tweaking all the clichés we have come to expect. Only problem is that the tweaks have become clichés and the audience is way ahead of the killer and his/her victims. But Ghostface has always been a rather lame serial killer. In the past Ghostface has always been a pair of killers and I think one time even a female killer but to be honest these films are so blandly homogenous that I can't remember much about them, and I even get them confused with the goofy spoof of them "Scary Movie." But he is never all that scary or intimidating, and because the killer changes with each film he doesn't get to develop much personality or menace. His costume is pretty dumb as well and just seems to have been designed to manufacture cheaply and easily for mass sales at Halloween.
These films reveal so little imagination on the part of Wes Craven that you forget that he actually knew how to make scary movies back in the seventies ("Last House on the Left" is still disturbing). Since the film is so self-referential I wish the characters had sought out Craven on the set of his next film and killed him or at least tied him up and pried open his eyelids like Malcolm McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange," and then made him watch all his "Scream" films in an endless loop. I've interviewed Craven and he's a smart, articulate guy who actually knows horror and has good ideas but he has failed to pursue anything worthwhile for years. Pursuit of money, apparently, is more attractive than art these days.
"Scream 4" has occasional moments. As I mentioned the open is fun, and a couple kills are well executed (like a knife wound to the forehead). There's also a funny-mean dig at Neve Campbell for not being the ingénue she once was. Although Courtney Cox is the one I would have called out for looking scary (and I've been praying for her to be offed since her first annoying appearance in "Scream 1"). But a few mildly entertaining moments are all that keeps my anger at bay. Craven doesn't even take full advantage of his R rating to deliver a classic mix of babes, boobs, and blood (or if he really wants to update and refresh genre clichés he could add balls for a new "B").
To make matters worse, Craven throws in a clip of "Shaun of the Dead" just to remind us what good horror comedy is really like. It's not very smart to place the best of the genre inside one of the worst examples. Craven also calls out all the lame remakes, which again forces us to be aware of how unoriginal his own film is. His film doesn't hold up to any logic either. For one, when the killer is revealed we realize that Ghostface's height was all wrong and it was a total cheat. The film also claims to make use of new technology but Facebook and Twitter are just mentioned. But for once everyone's cell phone works because how else will Ghostface get to taunt his victims by phone. But when they call the cops in this small town it takes 20 minutes for them to get there. These things would be easy to overlook if the film excelled elsewhere but since it doesn't I found myself with plenty of time to nitpick.
"Scream 4" (rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some teen drinking) will probably please the less demanding fans of the franchise because it's so jokily self-referential. But in the end it makes a lot of noise about challenging genre stereotypes and clichés but then is too lazy and simple-minded to do anything but fall victim to them.
Companion viewing: "Psycho," "Scream," "Scary Movie," "Shaun of the Dead," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"