Friday, April 15, 2011

Scream 4: New Decade, Same Rules

So Scream 4 hits theaters today, and therefore I can review it without needlessly spoiling. I held off on posting this beforehand, mostly because a thorough evaluation of the film would have to look at the plot as a whole, including who dies and who kills them. And I’ll get to that, but first let me offer a few non-spoilery thoughts. First, bad or good, Scream 4 will make enough money to warrant the release of Scream 5. Mark my words. Secondly, while Scream 4 doesn’t succeed on every level, it delivers enough scares and laughs to warrant its place in the franchise. Indeed, if most movie sequels were created with Scream 4’s love and respect for the movies that preceded it, then sequels wouldn’t have the bad reputation they have today.

The meat of it, in gory, insides-on-the-outside detail, after the jump.

A great example of Scream 4’s love for the previous Scream movies, I think, appears only a few minutes in, in the opening kill-off. Yes, like the other three movies, the main plot follows a vignette about some poor soul meeting a grisly end at the hands of Mr. Ghostface. In Scream 4, it’s Friday Nights Live actress Aimee Teegarden. And her final moments manage to call back to the two female victims of the first Scream: Drew Barrymore’s Casey Becker, as she’s ultimately reduced to feebly crawling away and the killer descends upon her, and Rose McGowan’s Tatum, as the killer lowers the garage door on her in a sort of taunting gesture. It’s a welcomed tip of the bloodstained mask to previous unlucky alumni of Woodsboro High.

At the same time, however, the opening scene departs from the original formula radically. For one, Aimee Teegarden isn’t a big-name star. I’ve never watched Friday Night Lights, and seeing her bumped off so early doesn’t generate the sense of horror I felt watching the little girl from E.T. get gutted in the original film. And then there’s the fact that before Teegarden’s character meets her doom, Scream 4 has already subjected the audience to two false starts. The movie opens with Shenae Grimes and Lucy Hale as the nubile young things preparing to watch a scary movie at home. You’d think they were the big-name victims — they’re at least familiar to the high school set, as Grimes stars on 90210 and Hale on Pretty Little Liars — But then Ghostface shows up and dispatches them rather rapidly, only to show that the whole scene is actually the beginning to a Stab movie. Then the action shifts to a different living room, with Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell watching the just-screen murder scene and commenting on the lameness of self-aware slashers… And you’d totally think that these two must be the celebri-corpses-to-be, given that they’re more like household names as a result of Bell’s cult following from Veronica Mars and Paquin’s from True Blood (not to mention that whole thing where she has an Oscar). But then Bell’s character tires of Paquin’s yammering and knifes her in the stomach, only for the scene to change again and reveal that both previous murder sequences were the movie-in-a-movie openings to yet a different Stab movie being watched by Teegarden and yet another familiar-to-teens, unknown-to-the-adult-world actress, Brittany Robertson. Finally, the killer shows up in this suburban, upper-middle class living room and the plot begins in earnest.

On one hand, it’s funny how the movie fucks with its viewers and their preconceived notions of how a Scream movie should unfold. And the scenes’ layering of fiction-on-reality-on-fiction works perfectly with the groundwork laid by the previous movies. On the other, it’s exhausting and a little too on-the-nose. And you’re still left with an opening scene victim who’s just not that famous. (Though considering that Scream 2’s opening scene victim was Jada Pinkett and Scream 3’s was Liev Schreiber, the opening victim’s A-list status may be more the exception than the rule. Yeah, Scream 3 did in Gossip Girl mom Kelly Rutherford too, but that was well before most people would have known her name.)

That, in a sense, sums up my feelings toward the whole film: at times great, and totally keeping up with the corn syrup-soaked legacy of the previous Screams and the first one in particular, but never fully re-creating the clenched-fists, edge-of-the-seat atmosphere of the first movie. Of course, this opinion probably has everything to do with the person reviewing: When I saw the first Scream, I had never seen a slasher movie in the theater before. Eleven years later, I’ve seen countless and am more or less numb to anything that could be thrown at me by a movie about a masked killer stalking sexy teens. So it goes.

As a big Scream fan, I enjoyed the nods to the past that occurred throughout the rest of the movie. For example, Gale Weathers being nearly filleted as a crowd of young people cheer through the opening to Stab, Heather Graham and all? It’s a great callback to Jada Pinkett’s murder scene in Scream 2 But the key word in that sentence is nearly. In the end, Gale survives. So do Dewey and Sidney. Everyone else dies, and this proved majorly problematic for me. I like the inference that “old Hollywood” and “old horror” ultimately outlasted the new generation of nobodies wanting their shot at fame. But if the people behind Scream 4 do indeed plan to make a fifth installment — and I honestly believe they will when they see the box office this one will make — I can’t imagine where they will go. This movie was the franchise’s chase with discarding the dead wood and moving in a new direction with characters who still have interesting territory to explore. Sidney, Gale and Dewey, however, don’t seem like they have far to go, and when the only other survivor is the minor comedy relief supplier, Deputy Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton), I have to wonder what could possibly await this little universe.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, talking about Scream 5. Scream 4 is what’s hitting theaters, and there’s still the single biggest plot point to consider: the killer. I have to admit I was surprised when the mask came off to reveal Emma Robert’s character, Jill, Sidney’s cousin and seemingly the next dark-haired final girl-in-training. It was the right move to make, especially in a series that hasn’t yet had a “girl” killer. (Mrs. Loomis in Scream 2 is a full-grown woman, and as a result of Laurie Metcalf’s portrayal, just barely qualifies as gendered.) And while I can’t fault Jill’s reasoning for killing off a good chunk of her graduating class — she just wanted to be famous, so she had organized the massacre so as to frame her boyfriend and make herself the new survivor, the new media darling, the successor to now-acclaimed authoress Sidney Prescott — but the dialogue explaining her motives was heavyhanded. She explained (and I’m paraphrasing here) that “you don’t need to be special to be famous today. You only need to have a lot of fucked-up shit happen to you” and she came just this short of making a joke about Kim Kardashian. I got the script’s implication about how fame works in 2011 versus in 1996, but I got it before Psycho Jill spelled it out so literally. Then again, maybe I’m forgetting that this movie’s target audience is teenagers weened on YouTube and Sparknotes and the exposition is therefore necessary. (Is Sparknotes even a thing anymore?) Personally, I more enjoyed the way Jill’s attempt to take over Sidney’s spot as the victimized survivor because it plays into the Hollywood ingenue cycle, in which of-the-moment actresses get replaced by more youthful newcomers, but the script seemed more concern with stepping onto a soapbox and addressing today’s prereqs for celebrity.

The rest of the movie, in scattered notes:

  • This film had a much higher body count than I had expected. At that, even, some of the kills were surprisingly gory. I didn’t expect to see Mariel Jaffe’s organs spill out, especially after the highly sanitized Scream 3. Way to earn that R rating, I guess.
  • So I think I like Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere now. Roberts I had only seen in the recent Nancy Drew reboot, which I only watched because I was on a plane. But I thought she succeeded in both extremes of her role: as the virginal victim and, once unmasked, as the unhinged killer. And the scene in which she beats the shit out of herself in order to make herself look like a victim had her pulling off some good physical comedy. Panettiere I had never been a fan of before, but she delivered her one-liners with good timing. In the end, I was sad when she got stabbed to death in a similar way to how I was sad when Parker Posey’s character bit it in Scream 3. I hoped that, in the end, her character might have somehow miraculously survived. She didn’t.
  • Speaking of Jennifer Jolie, I loved the scene in which Allison Brie’s character temporarily re-created the admirer-infuriator relationship that Jolie had with Gale Weathers in Scream 3. I didn’t love that Brie’s character acted more stupidly than a character in a Scream movie should. If you’re inside a car and the killer wants to kill you, why would you exit the vehicle and walk around stupidly rather than call the police on your phone? You deserved to get tossed off a parking garage, Annie Adderall.
  • Mary McDonnel (one of two Oscar-winners to bite it in this movie) was criminally underused, but at least she made the most of the few lines she had. I totally see why Lauren Graham walked away from the role, and I wonder how the character of Jill’s mom worked before the rewrites.
  • My guess as to who the killer was? Deputy Judy, especially when she revealed that she had gone to high school with Sidney. After Kevin Williamson had attempted to write Hallie as one of the killers in Scream 2 and Angelina as one of the killers in Scream 3, I was sure that this movie would feature a woman behind the mask. And I assumed that Williamson would have tried to re-incorporate the big reveal he wrote into the original Scream 3 draft, with actress and would-be Stab 3 star Angelina Tyler revealing herself to be Sidney’s jealous former classmate Angie Crick. (“I sat next to you in English class.”) Nope.
  • Another tip-off that the killer might be female? The soundtrack. Woman-fronted bands like The Sounds and Ida Maria suggested an emphasis on females doing what males might traditionally be expected to do. Noticeably lacking from this film’s soundtrack, however: “Red Right Hand.” New rules, I guess. But in its place “Axel F”? What the fuck?
  • In the early stages of production, Emma Roberts’s character was named Jill Kessler. In the final produce, it’s Jill Roberts. As in Emma Roberts? Was the character re-written to align with the actress playing her? It’s majorly weird, and a bit distracting, but it helps to flesh out Jill’s character a bit. In the film, Jill is jealous of Sidney’s fame and is angry for having lived nearly her whole life in her more famous relative’s shadow. Similarly, Emma Roberts has been compared to her much more famous aunt, Julia Roberts, for her whole career so far. Funny little parallel, right?
  • Given the message sent by the more established actors — Prescott, Cox and Arquette — outlasting the new crew, how interesting is it that the two killers are played by Emma Roberts and Rory Culkin, both of whom have immediately recognizable last names? (Culkin plays Charlie, Jill’s assistant and pawn, who ultimately gets done in by Jill in a similar fashion to Skeet Ulrich’s character overenthusiastically stabbing Matthew Lillard’s in the first Scream.) The implicit message? Established folk outlast younger folk, but the younger folk descended from Hollywood legacies outlast the ones with no major familial connection. This seems especially intentional given how important family bonds seem to be throughout the series.
And with all that, this screamer is about out of breath.

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