(by Dustin Putman
In 1996, director Wes Craven (2010's "My Soul to Take") and screenwriter Kevin Williamson (2005's "Cursed") broke barriers and single-handedly jump-started a dying genre with "Scream," a post-modern, part-satirical, part-scary comment on characters well-versed in pop culture and the so-called rules of horror movies who find themselves at the center of their very own slasher film. Mixing in a clever whodunit aspect to the carnage, the picture bred so many imitators (e.g., 1997's "I Know What You Did Last Summer," 1998's "Urban Legend," 2001's "Valentine") that, today, it's easy to forget just how groundbreaking "Scream" truly was when it initially came out. It racked up over $100-million at the box office and was followed by two solid sequels, 1997's "Scream 2" and 2000's "Scream 3." With the end of "Scream 3" was a sense that the story—for all intents and purposes, a trilogy—had come to its natural, fitting conclusion, the very last shot of an open door not suggesting that there were more follow-ups to come, but symbolic of surviving protagonist Sidney Prescott's (Neve Campbell) newfound safety and empowerment. Article continues below
Eleven years later, the official announcement that there would not only be a "Scream 4," but that all of the main players—in addition to Craven and Williamson, also steadfast leads Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette—would be returning was met with unavoidable excitement on my part, but also a fair amount of trepidation. The previous film had finished out on a high note, and a lesser fourth chapter might very well feel like a betrayal of the now-loved characters' earned defeat against evil. After all, what could another slasher flick in the series possibly do that hadn't been done before? Would the whole thing come off as tired and desperate, a last-ditch clinging to a formula long past its sell-by date? As it turns out, there was absolutely nothing to worry about. Equipped with an uncanny, ingenious, at times brilliant screenplay by Kevin Williamson, "Scream 4" is in many ways just as much a wholehearted revitalization of the again worn-out slasher genre as "Scream" was a decade and a half ago. Because horror movies go through fads with audiences and technology has grown and developed so much in the interim, "Scream 4" not only has a brand new arsenal of material to speak about, but also works as an astute, thought-provoking commentary on the world we now live in. It's whip-smart, it's auspiciously savvy, it's full of escalating tension, and it knows just how to juggle humor with frights without either tone lessening or overshadowing the other.
The complex opening set-piece is a bravura expression of imagination and showmanship that approaches meta levels of self-referential ambition. No more details can be given, because part of the fun comes in the discovery of what its filmmakers have up their sleeves. As the plot proper gets underway, Sidney has returned to her hometown of Woodsboro on the 15th anniversary of the original massacre to promote her best-selling memoir "Out of Darkness." Her joyous reunion with Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and retired news journalist Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), now married, is promptly cut short when two teenagers are found brutally slain. Forced to stay in town during the investigation after a bloody scene is found in the trunk of her rental car, Sidney is welcomed into the home of her late mother's sister, Aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell), and semi-estranged teenage cousin Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts). Sidney can't help but see herself in Jill, her circle of close peers—best friend and closet film aficionado Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere), next-door neighbor Olivia Morris (Marielle Jaffe), ex-boyfriend Trevor Sheldon (Nico Tortorella), know-it-all cinema club president Robbie Mercer (Erik Knudsen), and Robbie's softer-spoken sidekick Charlie Walker (Rory Culkin)—reminding her of her own ill-fated high school pals. When it becomes increasingly clear that a new psychopath behind the Ghostface mask has begun a fresh killing spree, Sidney and Jill are put in immediate danger while Gale, lured by the memories of her old cutthroat profession, decides to one-up Dewey's police force and start up her own investigation.
If "Scream" tore through slasher clichés with self-aware mischievousness, "Scream 4" just as shrewdly sends up the never-ending stream of remakes, torture porn, and high-numbered franchises the film industry has been inundating audiences with over the last decade. All the while—and most innovative of all—it intentionally poses as its own loose remake of "Scream" while delightfully subverting expectations at every turn. To see how this expertly constructed house of cards plays out is one of the most significant cinematic pleasures so far this year. The ideas and subtextual depth lurking just beneath the surface never seems to end, its look at the wolf-pack nature of current press and media colliding with a perceptive and all-too-valid observation of how the gravity of calamitous events, and what they mean, fades over time. Indeed, Woodsboro was once a small town with a stain in its history, and now the residents go out of their way to celebrate the anniversary as if it were some sort of local holiday. When Dewey quite eloquently states, "One generation's tragedy is the next one's joke," it rings resoundingly true. One might look at the original "Scream" the same way; for those young enough to not remember its theatrical release and the imprint it made, there is no way for them to understand just what kind of sensation it was, a cultural zeitgeist for people who had never seen anything like it before.
It might sound corny, but enough years have gone by that dropping back into the same characters' lives—namely, that of Sidney, Dewey and Gale—is like revisiting long-lost, well-liked acquaintances. There is no awkwardness to their interactions, either, the old chemistry they shared still very much in abundance. With over ten years' worth of perspective behind her, Sidney has come into her own as a fully grown woman who has now gotten her feelings out and expunged her deepest emotional scars. With the knowledge that it's all happening again and her life once more in danger, she is afraid, but no longer shaken by what she knows she must face. For Dewey and Gale, their relationship endures despite the rough patches they've faced. Gale, who is trying her hand at being a novelist with thus far little success, has begun to grow a little stir-crazy. She isn't happy by the new murders, but also hasn't rid herself of her opportunistic side; she knows a sign when she sees one, and if that means defying Dewey's official investigation and "going rogue," as she amusingly calls it, so be it.
Director Wes Craven handles the narrative with an artful skill he hasn't shown in a while, proving he's still got what it takes, at the age of 71, to still grab and thrill viewers. False-alarm jump scares are his one lingering unnecessary vice, though the handful that there are work if one sees them as cognizant of another enduring horror convention. Sensitive character moments smoothly blend with self-deprecating humor and suspenseful stalk-and-slash scenes, the latter not extraneous but always used as a means of motivation and moving the plot forward. The aforementioned prologue is right on target, handily establishing how vastly things have changed since the mid-'90s. A parking garage chase and assault involving Sidney's cheerily callous personal assistant Rebecca Walters (Alison Brie) is classily orchestrated. Visually potent flourishes, like a shadow Sidney sees reflected in a window and a cute bit with wind chimes, help to build the threat and atmosphere. Gale's pursuance of a story that leads her to a secluded barn where the third annual Stabathon—a marathon screening of all seven "Stab" movies—is being held ratchets up tension while simultaneously calling to mind the rural house-party climax of "Scream" and the opening scene from "Scream 2." From this point forward, the movie is menacingly non-stop as it sneakily averts from and pays loving homage to high-throttle third-act norms and the typically tacked-on nature of alternate endings and rejiggered finales.
With a collection of new faces surrounding the central trio, Neve Campbell (in, believe it or not, her first major wide-release studio feature since 2000's "Drowning Mona"), Courteney Cox (2008's "Bedtime Stories") and David Arquette (2008's "Hamlet 2") don't miss a step sinking back into their closely-defined roles of Sidney, Gale and Dewey. Oftentimes it is difficult relocating the soul of a past character and the results feel superficial, but that's not the case here. Freshman standouts abound, each of them distinctive enough to make their own respective mark. Hayden Panettiere (2009's "I Love You, Beth Cooper") is having a ball playing the infinitely cool Kirby, whose love for classics like "Suspiria" and "Don't Look Now" reveal a learned cinephile. Erik Knudsen (2011's "Beastly") and Rory Culkin (2006's "The Night Listener") adroitly portray two sides of the same movie geek coin, with Knudsen's Robbie wafting through his days with a snarky attitude, a camera pinned to his head, and a truth about himself he hasn't yet admitted, and Culkin pining away for longtime crush Kirby. Bringing a surprising dose of comedic verve to the proceedings are Marley Shelton (2009's "A Perfect Getaway"), embracing her off-beat side and an unspoken longing for acceptance as Deputy Judy Hicks, Dewey's partner and old classmate of Sidney's, and Alison Brie (TV's "Community"), stealing her scenes as Sidney's inconsiderate assistant Rebecca. Finally, Emma Roberts (2010's "It's Kind of a Funny Story"), as Jill, stands as both forerunner and effective counterpoint to the Sidney from the first "Scream." Even while getting to play a nice girl, there is an edge to Jill that intrigues and stands out. For someone who used to be best-known for kid-friendly family pics and a Nickelodeon sitcom, Roberts relishes the chance to go against the grain with this finitely R-rated change of pace. She's better than a lot of people will probably be expecting.
Where "Scream 4" goes cannot be divulged, but let it be known that the film entertains hugely for the duration, reinventing itself with each new reel in ways that are excitingly unanticipated. The final twenty minutes go down some grisly paths, even for this series, and what is so fascinating is how disturbing it becomes not from the blood and violence, but from its harrowing, thematically stacked inferences. The film's sturdy technical specs are guided by returning cinematographer Peter Deming's (2009's "Drag Me to Hell") in-tune lensing and composer Marco Beltrami's (2011's "Soul Surfer") appropriately diverse music score, incorporating several of the most memorable themes heard in previous installments. And standing in for Northern California's vision of fictional burg Woodsboro, the use of Michigan locations are seamless most of, if not all, the time. A particularly pronounced middle finger at the tendency to remake every horror movie with the vaguest name value—a scene where Kirby lists as many remakes as she can think of in quick succession is downright staggering in what it says about the dirge of creative inspiration in present-day Hollywood—the picture defies all rules by being a post-trilogy sequel as vividly original and resourceful as any horror film released in years. At a point when most series have gone stale, run out of ideas, and worn out their welcome, the bold, exhilarating "Scream 4" replenishes itself anew.