Contains whodunnit spoilers for the Scream series.
If a week is a long time in politics, then eleven years is approaching an eternity for the horror genre. The Scream series seemingly came to an end in 2000, its third instalment being a lacklustre conclusion to a trilogy that started so brightly and brilliantly in 1996 with the decade and era-defining Scream, before going to town on the very format of the horror movie sequel with its own follow-up. The third film saw cast and director return, but the missing ingredient that proved pivotal to the success of the series was screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who didn’t contribute the script for part three, with Ehren Kruger on writing duties.
It wasn’t a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, but nor was it in the grandiose finish that its ardent fanbase expected. Gone was the wit and subversion of Williamson and in came something more approaching a standard slasher thriller, that felt less like a Scream film and more of a lacklustre attempt at trying to do what his screenplays did so effortlessly. It was well-acted and directed as always, but it was clear that it was the combination of director, cast and writer that had made the series sing in the way that it did.
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In the eleven years between the third and fourth instalments the world changed fundamentally, and that was reflected in the horror genre itself. Where the latter part of the 90s was awash with self-awareness and movies that played with the genre and its tropes, subverting them to a witty degree, the 2000s would focus less on humour and more on vicious violence. Fuelled by bitterness over the post-9/11 era of the War on Terror, and news stories involving allied forces using torture to extract information from terror suspects – a lot of which were printed on the front pages of newspapers at the time – the subject of torture became less taboo, and prolonged sequences of violence, with torture and emphasis on the dismantling of the human body, became part and parcel of the story and the genre itself.
The suspense of prolonged set-pieces, impacted by the influence of John Carpenter’s Halloween and refined and perfected even more by the likes of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson, gave way to the likes of Saw and Hostel, movies that relied less on suspense and more on elongated sequences of victims tied to chairs or entrapped in elaborate torture devices and dismembered with near-pornographic glee. Admittedly, James Wan and Leigh Whannel’s Saw was built on a well constructed two-person play that was fuelled by an evocative atmosphere of terror and the unexpected, where its most notorious sequence of violence was the punchline to the film, but that soon gave way to a never-ending series that took more glee in the torture than the story, and the less said about Eli Roth’s Hostel the better (as is usually the case with anything made by Eli Roth if we’re honest).
It was within this environment that Scream 4 was released into cinemas. On top of the ‘torture porn’ cycle, the horror genre was also being made up of endless remakes of previous classics, most of which were coming from Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes studio and which produced glossy versions of the likes of Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hitcher, while the Saw cycle had come to a conclusion the year before with its seventh film (although two continuation movies have since been made).
The enticing prospect of Williamson returning to pen the fourth Scream wasn’t just in the fact that it was doing so with where the horror genre had been in its sights, but with a whole new set of social commentary to target. Released in 2011, the interesting aspect of the fourth film and what has made it age considerably well is how the eventual reveal of the killer comes down to trying to gain a modicum of celebrity in an era when such fame is easily grasped via the internet and reality television. From its film within a film with a film opening, there is a clear intent of going right for the jugular (no pun intended) with its targets of endless sequels, reboots and Hollywood’s never-ending attempt to copy and replicate the formulas and franchises of old, something the film is clearly having fun with since its a decade later sequel to a franchise that was a big a part of the 90s.
What has always given the Scream series considerable dramatic weight on top of the jokes and brilliantly orchestrated set-pieces has been its focus on story, character and suspense. Unlike other horror franchises such as Halloween, Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where, with a few obvious exceptions, the killer stays the same but the victims and lead characters change between movies, Scream has been a rarity where the lead characters are the same but the killer is always different, with the one recurring slasher movie element being the Ghostface mask and the voice of the killer’s sounding like Roger L. Jackson when they attempt to disguise it.
Williamson has always been as much a brilliant crafter of coming of age soaps as he has been with slasher movie narratives. The first season of Dawson’s Creek worked so well because of its combination of smart-alec exploration of teen drama tropes along with a clear love of using that type of material to tell a story. It was something that was sadly lacking from the latter stages of the show when he scaled back his involvement. Like the best instalments of Halloween and its focus on Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance as Laurie Strode, or the Alien movies that feature Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, Scream works so well because of Neve Campbell’s performance as Sidney Prescott, and its stock company of characters such as Courteney Cox as Gale Weathers and David Arquette as Deputy Dewey.
With each passing instalment of the series, there is the possibility that just maybe this will be the one where a major character will die, and with the fourth film seemingly positing a new generation of characters front and centre, represented by series newcomers Hayden Panettiere and Emma Roberts, that does appear to be where the film is going. But then Craven and Williamson wrong-foot everyone by having not only the newcomers get killed off with increasingly brutal abandon (this is the only 15 rated film in the series in the UK, but showing how things had changed by 2011 it features some of the most brutal violence of the series), but also revealing that it is one of those very newcomers that has become the new Ghostface.
More often than not with Scream, the killer has some connection to Sidney or her past, but here the series reflects the fact that Sidney is now older and no longer a teenager, but that past and her legacy as a survivor is influencing a future generation to not only want to destroy her and what she stands for, but also to become essentially the new Sidney. The new generation wants to destroy the previous one by any mean necessary and is willing to murder to do so.
At first glance, Emma Roberts is an ideal choice to take over any future instalments as ‘the next Sidney Prescott’, but instead of the movie laying that down as a passing of the torch moment, it opts to have her be actually murdering her way towards that. It gives the final act of the film a considerably chaotic and increasingly far fetched charge, giving us what seems like a natural ending before deciding to go for broke with another prolonged hospital set-piece that amounts to the film’s central philosophy that you should never mess with the originals.
Production of Scream 4 was not smooth sailing and ironically Ehren Kruger was brought in to do some rewrites for the film’s reshoot period, but make no mistake, this is a massive improvement on part three and could have functioned as a great ending to the series overall. The sad passing away of Wes Craven meant that a fifth film might have felt like heresy, but it is currently in the works, from the directors of Ready or Not behind the camera.
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The franchise itself has continued in other forms, most notably a television series that had its moments but which despite being an enjoyable enough glossy teen horror series couldn’t quite compete with the level of ingenuity here. As for Scream 4, commercially it failed to capture the imaginations of audiences again and critical reception was mixed, but not only does it remain the most underrated film of the series, but also one of the most underrated genre films of its decade; a brilliantly suspenseful and engaging horror film that revels in tropes and cliches as you would expect; but which has something even more potent to say about trying to be ‘the next big thing’.
It’s remained the most prescient of the series and the central motivations of its killer remains even more potent today. With the possibilities of instant internet fame available to younger viewers, and the onslaught of social media, video streaming, and the way the world has changed so much in the space of the ten years since this film came out, a fifth film feels like it has much potential in what it might opt to explore. Whether or not it can do that without Craven or Williamson remains to be seen, but with the cast returning yet again, the possibilities afforded by the potential of the film and the return of Neve Campbell as Sidney means that not only does the film have a lot to gets its teeth into, it also looks as if the series still hasn’t lost sight of the emotional centre that makes these films tick.
Scream 4 was released in the UK on 15th April 2011.