Two girls, watching a slasher movie about a psycho in an Edvard Munch Scream mask who calls girls at home and then stabs them to death, get a call from a psycho who shows up in a Scream mask and stabs them to death. But that was a scene from a movie, Stab 6, that two other girls are watching when their phone rings, a gravelly voice threatens them and — surprise! — one girl kills the other. And that turns out to be the climax of Stab 7, which two girls in Woodsboro, Ohio, are watching when a “real” monster, in the same Munch-y mask, intrudes and slices them up. Cue the title of our movie: Scream 4.
There may be a point in a horror-film series at which self-referential becomes self-reverential, but Scream passed that long ago. Back in 1996, when director Wes Craven filmed Kevin Williamson’s all-knowing, mostly joking script, the innovation was that, for once, the people on-screen were as aware of horror-movie clichés and twists as the people in the audience. With its masked murderer (nicknamed Ghostface) following such angels of serial death as Halloween‘s Michael Myers and Friday the 13th‘s Jason, as well as Craven’s own dream weaver Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Scream series twisted the genre rules in a pop-modernist way that complimented the movies’ fans for their hipness even as it eviscerated their on-screen doppelgängers. After three episodes, the series dribbled out in 2000 — the same year as the first of four Final Destination scare-athons, and long before any of the seven Saw films, the four Resident Evils or the Hollywood tart-ups of Japan’s Ju-On (The Grudge) and The Ring cycles.
After 11 years and the proliferation of these and many other movie-wise horror series, what’s left to say or show? Call it Scream, the Next Generation. The young folks of the first film — chief damsel in distress Sidney (Neve Campbell), police officer Dewey (David Arquette) and cub reporter Gail (Courteney Cox), whose book The Woodsboro Murders has been spun into the Stab movie franchise — have reconvened just as a rash of copycat murders makes everyone jumpy and/or dead. Again someone is stalking the people nearest to Sidney: her aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell), her young cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) and a half-dozen of Jill’s friends. Many of them die luridly; one of them is the new Ghostface.
With sassy appearances by the latest class of TV-show femmes — Lucy Hale (Pretty Little Liars), Shenae Grimes (the 90210 reboot), Anna Paquin (True Blood), Kristen Bell (Heroes), Aimee Teegarden (Friday Night Lights), Brittany Robertson (Life Unexpected) and, perkiest of the bunch, Heroes‘ Hayden Panettiere as the movie’s snarkiest, most desirable vamp — the movie seems nouveau in attitude, but it’s retro in its abiding by basic horror tropes. Chief among them: the gore-nographic precept that the slasher’s victims (Scream 4‘s first eight deaths, plus a few others later) must be attractive young women, because killing guys just isn’t sexy. The movie views the murders with an amused, Olympian detachment, as if the gutted women were figures in a torture-porn update of the Clue board game that’s lavish in locations but limited in weaponry: the scantily dressed teen, in the bedroom, with a knife; the snooty publicist, in a deserted parking garage, with a knife; one of Sidney’s relatives, inside her front door, with a knife through the mail slot.
Creating clever people who do stupid things — like wandering alone upstairs, or out into the night, or down into a dank cellar, always into the killer’s serrated embrace — the new Scream achieves a certain purity of form, a low level of perfection. It accepts, and in fact revels in, the tradition of separating the slaughter scenes with long, arid dialogue patches that function as concession-stand breaks. Though the movie makes use of texting and Twitter, it’s essentially an old-fashioned whodunit in which people still get scared over the phone and killed in person. Back in the 1940s, Sorry, Wrong Number sanded audiences’ nerves down to the nub with its story of a frail woman terrorized by a voice on the phone. Scream 4 uses new media to manage the same old thrills.
Some critics have praised or damned the movie on behavioral grounds. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle writes that Scream 4 “makes us care about the characters”; Roger Ebert chastises it as “a film that doesn’t care about human insights.” But morality and caring about characters are as irrelevant here as they would be in Last Year at Marienbad or any other sophisticated film construct — and certainly beside the point in an entertainment that keeps telling you it’s only a movie about movies. Existing in a self-contained universe, Scre4m is its own remake (Screamake), sequel (shriekquel), parody and critique. Thus it taunts and pleases audiences, mocks and justifies itself and makes any review redundant.
So we’ll devote just one paragraph to noting that, on its own terms, Scream 4 is pretty good. The opening film-within-a-film-within-a-film gag is as sharp as the best parodies on the Funny or Die website (like Billy Crystal’s recent When Harry Met Sally sequel with Helen Mirren). Williamson’s bitchy wit extends to inside jokes about his stars, most cuttingly the improbable marriage of Cox and Arquette, who met while filming the first Scream; one character says, “It always seemed more like a movie romance than a real one.” Cinematographer Peter Deming’s use of shadows and space won’t evoke comparisons to camera master Gregg Toland, but they create a suitably creepy aura. So does the production design; on the front door of Sidney’s house, look for the warp in the wood, which mimics Ghostface’s silhouette.
Similarly, Scream 4 bears the imprints, the ghost faces, of so many other horror movies that it is a one-film fright festival. Both knowing and naive, it is best seen at a midnight screening with an audience prepared to laugh and shudder — or at home, alone, in the dark, with the doors bolted and the phones shut off.