Things I Learned From Movie X
Scream 4
By Edwin Davies
October 11, 2011

Courtney Cox filed for divorce in a most unusual manner.

It’s rare for a long-running series to take time off and then come back to be as good as it was before it went away. With such a rich history to live up to, the next installment already comes saddled with a great deal more baggage than it could realistically handle. There’s also the chance that the world might have changed in some way that makes the very idea of the series itself irrelevant, so no matter how good the new addition might be, it simply won’t have the audience that it once had. Surely, bringing back a series after a time away is a foolhardy endeavour doomed to fail.

But that’s enough about the return of Things I Learned From Movie X after a brief hiatus, let’s talk about Scream 4. (Ha! I am being meta and post-modern, thereby making me seem relevant and new again!) Or Scre4m, as it is annoyingly known, if only because it makes me read the name as Screfourm and then incorrectly believe that it is a sequel to the classic 1995 serial killer movie Sesevenen. In Scream 4, Sidney Prescott returns to Woodboro as part of a tour in support of a book she has written about her experiences in the previous films, and because everyone involved needed the money. Once she arrives, she reconnects with family and friends, realizes how much she has changed, then leaves town with no real incident. Nah, I’m just fuckin’ with you. Someone dressed up as an Edvard Munch painting kills a bunch of fresh young faces, whilst the real horror lies on the faces of the older cast members as they are all forced to look back on their careers and wonder how things have gone so wrong that the only way they can get their names on a film poster these days is by digging up the festering corpse of their one successful franchise and forcing it to go through the old familiar motions like some macabre puppet show.

Still, new decade, new rules; new column, new lessons.

You can get away with anything if you say that you’re going to do it beforehand

Scream 4 opens with a scene of two girls (Lucy Hale and Shenae Grimes) hanging out in their home, talking about boys, scary movies and doing other broadly stereotypical teenage girl things. Suddenly they get a phone call and the audience get a nauseating sense of déjà vu. They answer the phone to hear some creepy guy asking them weird questions, before eventually telling them to open the door to their house. They do, discover that there’s no one there, but it turns out that THE KILLER IS INSIDE THE HOUSE! They are both killed by the Ghostface Killer (no, not that one), at which point the film pulls back to reveal two girls (Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin) watching that scene unfold. It turns out that was just the opening of Stab 6, the sixth installment of the fictional film-series-within-a-film-series that has been a part of the Scream franchise since Scream 2. They talk about how one of them (Paquin) finds the film to be stupid since it’s just a load of characters being killed off, none of whom were developed so their deaths hold no weight. Then Kristin Bell guts Anna Paquin, which is awesome because Kristen Bell is awesome. (You can’t tell, but I just took a full five minute break from writing this to think about how much I miss Veronica Mars. Sigh.) Then, the film pulls back again to reveal that, oh shit, *that* was the opening scene of Stab 7, which is being watched by two other girls (Aimee Teegarden and Brittany Robertson) who debate the emptiness of all this post-modernism and how, after a certain point, it just becomes meaningless and hollow. Then Ghostface shows up and kills them both in ways that are eerily reminiscent of deaths in previous Scream films, at which point the Scream 4 title finally comes up. Then the film pulls back to reveal me watching it at home, at which point I start writing this article. After I send it to my editor, I get a phone call from someone asking me if I like writing about scary movies, before Ghostface appears and hacks me to pieces with a knife. Then it pulls back to reveal you reading this very article, unaware that the killer IS STANDING RIGHT BEHIND YOU FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST WATCH OUT!

Okay, so I made those last two reveals up, but they would not have been out of place if they had been in the actual film. Whilst there’s a certain sense of fun to opening Scream 4 with not one fake out but a whole series of them, inadvertently turning it into the horror film equivalent of the Pre-Taped Call-In Show sketch from Mr. Show, there’s also an air of smug self-satisfaction to it that is really off-putting. It’s clear that Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson were keenly aware of the criticisms that would be leveled at Scream 4, so they go out of their way to have the characters in these fake outs describe the flaws aloud, allowing them to get ahead of the critics. The problem with that is it only works if the rest of the work subverts those expectations, in the process rendering the criticisms moot. What actually happens is that Scream 4 plays into every single one of the criticisms in the worst way; the post-modernism feels stale and forced, the new characters feel under-developed so their deaths become increasingly meaningless, and many of the elements feel like rehashes of previous films in the series. Rather than acting as a clever comment on the nature of sequels and remakes it just acts as a handy catch-all that allows Craven and Williamson to be lazy and derivative by saying, “Oh, but it’s meant to be lazy and derivative because it’s a commentary on lazy and derivative sequels.” So, following that logic, the next time you plan to commit a felony of some sort, make sure you tell everyone around you about it in excruciating detail, claim that it’s an exercise in post-modernism, and then the law won’t be able to touch you.

There are more important things in life than horror movies, you know

We’re going to jump straight into spoiler territory here, so if you haven’t seen Scream 4, which I assume is most of you based on the box office, I doubt you’ll care that much about it being ruined, so read on. After 90-something minutes of introducing us to a host of bright new faces and killing most of them off (including, most tragically, the luminous Alison Brie as a representative from Sidney’s publisher), the film settles down to the business of revealing who the killer is from the selection of identikit teenagers who haven’t been sliced up but good yet. Turns out that it was Sidney’s cousin, played by Emma Roberts, and her gawky horror film-obsessed friend, played by Rory “The Weakest Culkin” Culkin, and they have re-staged killings from Sidney’s past in order to orchestrate a situation in which they can become famous as survivors of the very murders they committed, much as Sidney became famous after surviving the events of Scream. It’s a kind of clever satire of celebrity culture and the cult that surrounds survivors of harrowing events, but it’s sort of undermined by the fact that Rory Culkin’s character reveals his true nature by killing Hayden Panettiere’s character right after she tells him that she has a thing for him. Now, I’m willing to forgive certain problems with the plotting of the Scream films because they take place in a heightened version of our reality, but to suggest that someone would kill Hayden Panettiere because it fits into their master plan, rather than to keep up the pretense for a little while longer and sleep with her? Even if they had set it in space they could not have found a way to make the film seem less plausible.

Craven by name…

The revelation of who the killers are illustrates the real problem with Scream 4, one which, if resolved correctly, could have taken the film from being merely diverting to genuinely great; its ending. After telling Sidney their plan, the killers set about making themselves look like plausible survivors so that can avert suspicion and become famous. Except at the crucial moment Emma Roberts stabs Rory Culkin through the heart, theoretically making her the sole survivor. She then stabs Sidney and starts to make herself look like a convincing victim by throwing herself through a glass table, stabbing herself, and even using the hands of one of the dead to scratch her face and pull out her hair. These scenes are pretty nuts and harrowing, and it’s a credit to Emma Roberts that she throws herself into them with a crazy abandon befitting her loopy character. Eventually she falls down next to Sidney and lapses into unconsciousness as the cops arrive.

Now, had the film ended there, it could have been a contender for one of the all-time great, dark endings. The hero from the previous films is dead, the killer gets away with it, and is even destined to become rich and famous as a result of their actions. It would be such a complete subversion of everything we know about horror film conventions and would have made the rest of the film look better in retrospect; everything conformed to formula so closely in order to make the ending completely shocking.

Instead, they chicken out by having Emma Roberts wake up in the hospital, accidentally reveal her nefariousness to the original cast members, and the whole thing ends with Sidney zapping her own cousin’s head with a defibrillator like she’s trying to give her ECT, then shooting her through the heart. It’s a cowardly ending that restores the status quo and deprives the film of its one chance to have some genuine satirical bite, like a version of Network in which, after getting shot, Howard Beale gets up and says, “Actually, this is all a bit silly, isn’t it? Let’s all get back to making proper news, and just forget about the whole devolution of news and media in general thing, because it probably isn’t anything to worry about.”