Movie Review: Scream 4 (The REALLY Short Version)
By Tom Houseman
December 22, 2011

Scream: The Gossip Girl Years

Recently, another member of the BOP writing staff, Tom Douglass (whom I shall from now on refer to as either Tom 2 or Fake Tom), decided to review the first ninety-four minutes and twelve seconds of Scream 4. I think this is a wise decision, as the Scream trilogy plus one is one of my favorite film series and I love every minute of every Scream movie except for the finale of Scream 4. What is extra painful is that in the first three movies, my favorite parts that do not involve Randy are the confessions of the killers. When Randy declared “it's the millennium. Motives are incidental,” it blew my mind. These were the movies that were meta and self-referential before it was cool to be meta and self-referential. When everyone else was still getting used to the idea of being ironic, Scream was already post-ironic.

So I was curious to read Tom 2's thoughts on Scream 4, especially ignoring everything to do with Emma Roberts (I'll give Rory Culkin a pass because I love all those beautiful Culkin boys). But when he began talking about the opening sequence, I realized that while Fake Tom's intentions were good, he just didn't get it. When you describe the first couple of scenes of Scream 4 as “interesting in a couple of respects” and “a little inconsequential,” it is clear to me that you just don't get how extraordinary what Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven are doing is. The phrases you should be using are “totally fucking brilliant” and “holy shit I can't stop orgasming I probably need to go to the hospital but that would tear me away from this mind blowing work of cinematic genius.”

However, since Fake Tom included neither of these phrases, it is up to me to step up and correct this grievance. Overall, Scream 4 is not nearly as good as any of the first three, and it's entirely possible that I'll never watch it again. Except for that opening sequence, which is by far the best part of any of the four Scream films, and which I could watch over and over again for eternity. Since Tom dropped the ball, I will pick up that ball and throw it at your face like you're a fat kid in a dodge ball game, with my review of the first five minutes and thirty-five seconds of Scream 4. I will try to get across to you, dear reader, as well as any other Tom's out there, why these first two scenes are not just hilarious, but perfectly encapsulate everything that the Scream movies are trying to do.

The First Scene

The challenge facing the new Scream film is to fit the formula of the first three films while still remaining fresh and original. When audiences go to see Scream 4, there will be certain things they expect. How then, can Williamson and Craven placate the audience expectations while still being able to surprise them? The first two sequels did this so effectively because they were able to constantly change the rules. The second one played with the idea of a sequel, and with it the notion of a copycat killer. Scream 2 also introduced the Stab series, a self-referential way to explore horror movie killers, an idea already established in Scream.

The third film took this notion of life imitating art to another level, by having the killer take out characters in the order that they are supposed to be killed in Stab 3. This makes the Stab series even more important to the overarching idea of the film, while also continuing to point out the irony that the life that is imitating art is itself art. That is the brilliance of the Scream trilogy. It is always very aware that it is a movie, a movie about movies, and it toys with that idea very effectively. Scream 3 also brings the story back to the beginning, essentially completing the trilogy. Since Scream 4 begins a new story, and that new story it begins isn't very interesting, I am going to ignore it completely for the purposes of this review.

The film opens with some random brunette girl (Girl 1) answering the phone, and we hear the all too familiar Ghost Face voice. “Hello?” “Hello.” “Uh, yes?” “Who's this?” It's what we would expect from the opening of a Scream movie, but right off the bat, something smells fishy. It is exactly what we would expect from the opening of a Scream movie. It is right on the nose. We know that the opening scene of the Scream films is part of the formula. Somebody answers the phone and starts talking to Ghostface. In the second film they changed it by having us in a theater, with the scene in question happening during the opening of Stab. In the third film, we have a character with whom we are familiar, Cotton Weary, answering the phone.

So now, in Scream 4, we have the familiar, but we don't have the twist. To a discerning Scream 4 viewer, something feels amiss. The scene continues and immediately segues into another part of the formula: characters discussing horror films. Horror has changed quite a bit in the last decade, so now these two girls (whose names we do not know) are discussing Saw 4. Of course, Williamson takes the chance to get his digs in at torture porn. “You don't give a shit who dies,” expounds the girl who was not on the phone with ghost face (Girl 2), “because there's no character development. It's just body parts ripping and blood spewing.” Again, this feels so on the nose, so generic Scream dialogue, that while you're busy settling in to the formula, something feels strange.

As the scene continues we see Ghostface working his magic, this time with social networking at his hand. When Girl 2 starts discussing her new Facebook stalker, it is painfully obvious that this is Ghostface at work. Williamson doesn't bother building the suspense, as Girl 2 says that her stalker has been saying “Hey, what's up, blah blah, I'm going to kill you.” This is so obvious that it's funny, and Williamson has never been afraid to score laughs during the Scream films, so he gets a few more in when Girl 1 points out that the picture of Girl 2's stalker is actually that of Channing Tatum (made even more amusing by the fact that she recognizes him just from his abs).

So we know the lives of these girls are numbered, and we are expecting the return call from Ghostface. When it comes, the banter is again sharp, and the suspense starts to build. We hear Ghostface starting to get angry, which is always really fun, because his threats are quite creative. After the girls decide not to answer the phone anymore, Girl 2 gets a text from Ghostface, telling her to answer the phone. The girls start freaking out again, and Ghostface starts messing with their minds while making his presence felt. We expect another call, but instead another Facebook message comes. “I dare you to open the door.”

What kind of Scream movie would this be if someone didn't try to call Ghostface's bluff? Girl 1 opens the door and walks outside, seeing nobody. Now the tension is palpable, as we await Ghostface's attack. Girl 2 gets another message, “I'm not outside. I'm right beside you.” She has just enough time to look baffled before BAM! Ghostface jumps out and stabs her. Blood gushes and Girl 1 starts freaking out. Yes, the foreplay in this opening was awfully fast, especially because we were expecting something new and interesting, but it is so much fun to watch Ghostface rampage that it is forgivable.

But then something totally crazy happens. Another Ghostface appears outside and stabs Girl 1! Before we are even prepared to watch the inevitable chase, it is over. This is the first time that Scream 4 wildly deviates from the established formula. Yes, there were two killers in Scream, but that was the giant reveal at the end. Had we seen Drew Barrymore chased down by two killers it would have entirely changed the rest of the film. Such an important reveal so early in the film seems bizarre, beyond the fact that this scene did not build up nearly as much as we would expect.

And then, dear reader, our minds are blown as the title screams comes up, not to say SCRE4M, as we would expect, but instead STAB 6. What the hell is going on? We all ask, totally flabbergasted. Which brings us to...

Scene 2

We, the audience, are now watching a new pair of girls who have just watched the same scene that we, the audience, have just watched, and we, the audience are baffled. You probably recognize these two blonde girls as Anna Paquin and that chick from Veronica Mars, which is additionally confusing, because in the trailers and commercials for Scream 4 there was no mention of these two famous actresses. Paquin begins ranting against what we just saw, stating flatly “you're fucking kidding me. That was so fucking stupid, pure horseshit. The death of horror right here in front of us.” Was that just a fakeout opening? Is this the real opening? Is Ghostface going to call these girls and begin the cycle anew? We went in this movie knowing what to expect and now our footing is completely unstable. Williamson: 1, Audience: 0.

Paquin continues her rant. “A bunch of articulate teens sit around deconstructing horror movies until Ghostface kills them one by one,” she says, and the irony is palpable. “It's been done to death, the whole self-aware post-modern meta shit.” Okay, so in the first scene Williamson was ripping on torture porn, and now he's ripping on... the Scream movies? True, Scream was self-aware, post-modern and meta before any of those things were cool. And we expect Williamson to bring something new to the table this time around, but is he really just going to continue the same Scream shtick while at the same time mocking it? Additionally, this scene is even more on the nose than the last one was. And where the heck is Ghostface?

“I like the Stab movies,” responds Veronica Mars (why can I not remember that girl's name? And why do I refuse to Google it?), “they're scarier. It's not aliens or zombies or little Asian ghost girls. There's something real about a guy with a knife who just {dramatic pause as Paquin opens her soda} snaps.” This line is actually quite beautiful, and defends the Scream movies on a level beyond just “look how clever they are.” These movies have always been very realistic, and there is a power in having real people as killers, people who know the people they are killing and have real motives, even though in the 21st Century, motives are of course incidental. Of course, there is a silliness in talking about how these are real people, since the characters in the Scream movies are fictional and therefore, by definition they are not real people.

After having offered up his defense, Williamson continues to rail against his own series while simultaneously fucking with all of our heads. As Paquin continues to mock the Stab movies (“these sequels don't know when to stop, they just keep recycling the same shit”) that feeling in our stomachs that something is amiss continues to grow. There's no sign of Ghostface, no phone call from a wrong number. There has always been discussion of horror movie tropes in these movies, but it is usually earned, long after a few people have had their livers put in the mailbox next to their spleen and their pancreas. This feels out of place, wrong even. Especially after what happened in the last scene, suspicions abound.

And then pretty much the last thing that we could possibly expect to happen, happens. Veronica Mars (Kristen something? This is bugging me) pulls a knife out from her lap and jams it right into Anna Paquin's stomach. Wait, what? The scream movies are quick to bend the rules and twist the formula, but this isn't bending the rules. It's, well, shoving a knife into their stomach. “Did that surprise you?” Kristen Bell asks (I got it!), essentially saying it both to Anna Paquin and the audience. “Because you talk too much,” Bell explains, when Paquin, coughing blood, asks for an explanation as to what the heck just happened. “Now shut the fuck up and watch the movie.”

And in what is perhaps my favorite five second span of any movie this year that does not involve Keira Knightley getting spanked, Kristen Bell calmly turns back to face the TV and presses play. This pause gives us just enough time for us to fully register what happened. We go through the initial shock of seeing somebody not in a mask gut somebody else, and are left staring at a perfectly calm murderer watching a horror movie. And before we can scream “what the fuck?!” at the top of our lungs in a crowded movie theater, the title screen pulls up, STAB 7, and we cut to another scene of two different blonde girls watching that movie, preparing to overanalyze it.

Why This is Kind of Brilliant

Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven are throwing down the gauntlet here. There are rules for horror movies, rules for sequels, and rules for conclusions of trilogies. The first three Scream movies explain those rules and then effectively subvert them, trying to throw us off our guard. But there are no established rules for a fourth movie. Usually the fourth film in a series stops worrying about continuity and just tries to be as big and crazy as possible, usually with disastrous results (as anybody who saw Pirates of the Caribbean 4 can attest to). So what rules are there for Scream 4 to subvert? None, and Williamson and Craven know that. So what they're saying is this: expect anything.

Part of the fun of the Scream movies is trying to figure out who the killer is and inevitably being wrong. Throughout Scream 4 I kept changing my guess, usually because my prime suspect would get killed off. My two main suspects were based on characters I considered throwbacks to killers from the first two movies: the ex-boyfriend (very similar to Billy Loomis) and the precocious publicist (in my mind a doppelganger of Debbie Salt). But I couldn't forget those opening scenes, and thinking “there are no rules here. We can expect anything. What if Gale is the killer? What if Sidney is the killer? What if everyone in the film is a killer?” I couldn't get on solid footing the entire film because those two first scenes had destroyed my ability to believe anything I saw or was told. Williamson and Craven knew what they were doing with those first two scenes, and it was fucking with our heads. And my God did they do it well.

Why This was Totally Brilliant

There's a certain strangeness that comes with a movie being self-aware, and it is this: if you are self-aware, you know that you are a movie. You know that you are not real life, that your characters are not real people, and that everything that is happening in you is entirely fictional. Typically, there are two courses of action you can take with this kind of information. You can ignore it, which is what the show Community does. Abed on Community frequently draws comparisons between the events on the show and other TV shows and movies, but the characters believe that they are real people and that what is happening is real life. The other option is to openly state that what you are is fictional, often by breaking the fourth wall. Family Guy does this frequently, with one character or another (usually Peter or Stewie) occasionally commenting on the fact that they are in a TV show.

Scream 4 takes a different tactic. It blatantly throws the fact that it is fictional in your face while simultaneously denying it. It's as if the movie gives a big a speech about how seriously you should take it while it is wearing one of those fake arrow-in-the-head things and flatly denying that there is anything on its head. These first two scenes are Williamson and Craven's way of announcing that you should take everything you see at face value while holding up a sign that says “I'm full of shit.” And it is confusing!

Okay, so within five and a half minutes we see three characters get killed. We are supposed to have an emotional investment in these characters because in movies like these that is a thing we are supposed to have. But after all these characters get killed the movie then tells us, “no, you are not supposed to have an emotional investment in these characters because none of that was real. It was all just part of a movie.” “But wait!” We respond, our brows furrowed. “Everything that is happening in this movie is just part of a movie,” which is a statement that seems stupidly obvious when we say it out loud. “Why should we care about any of these characters?” And then the movie just raises one eye brow coyly, leaving us even more confused than we were before we asked the question and also jealous that this movie is so good at raising one eye brow.

And that question is, along with the mystery of who the killer is, the driving force behind the movie. Are those first two scenes any less real than the rest of the movie? If not, why are we watching any of it? Why watch any movie other than documentaries if we know that what is happening isn't real? “it's illogical,” says the blonde girl who isn't Julie Taylor to Julie Taylor in the third opening scene of the movie. “It begs the question that if the beginning of Stab 7 is Stab 6, then is the beginning of Stab 6 Stab 5, and if so, what is Stab 4?” It's brilliantly simple and at the same time massively convoluted. We mock the Stab movies because they are the fake movies within the Scream movies, but they are no less fake than the Scream movies. In the end we're just watching actors pretend to get stabbed and cough up corn syrup.

There is a scene later in Scream 4 that adds another layer to the complication. Olivia, one of Jill's friends, gets killed by Ghost Face, as characters in the Scream movies are wont to do. In a sick twist, Jill and Olivia's friend Kirby is forced to watch the scene through a window from the house next door, helpless to stop her friend from being executed. Kirby is horrified and brought to tears by what she is witnessing. We, of course, are not. We might be sickened by the scene, but honestly, we're so desensitized to violence that we probably think it is cool and entertaining and maybe a little bit scary. That is why we watch horror movies: to be scared and entertained.

But aren't we in exactly the same situation as Kirby (what a ridiculous name, by the way)? Are we not watching, through a window, a teenage girl being killed? We are unable to stop the slaughter, and we can only watch. Williamson and Craven explored this idea before, in Scream, when Gale's cameraman was watching video footage of somebody being killed inside the house. They are watching a movie the same way that we are, but for them it is real. It is not real for the two blonde girls watching Stab 6, or the two other blonde girls watching Stab 7. For them, and for us, it is just a movie, but for Gale's cameraman and for Kirby, the scene they are watching is real life.

The additional layer of this is that these characters think of their lives in relation to movies. All of the events are compared to “fiction,” while none of them realize that Ghostface is as real as Michael Myers and Jigsaw: not at all. “Think of me as your director,” the real Ghostface says to Julie Taylor in the third scene, which again raises the question of why this Ghostface is more real than the Ghostface in Stab 6. “You're in my movie; you've got a fun part.” I suppose that in a sense this solves the mystery: the real killer is Wes Craven.

So Williamson and Craven are challenging not just our assumptions of horror movies, but the way we consume fiction. They are commenting on the absurdity of all stories, even his own, or perhaps especially his own. “You're overthinking it,” says Julie Taylor to not Julie Taylor before they are killed. “Am I?” asks not Julie Taylor, “or did whoever made it just underthink it?” Whatever you want to say about Scream 4, it is certain that Williamson and Craven did not underthink anything.

While the story is not nearly as interesting as the first three films, and yes, the last 15 minutes are awful, the identity of the film is brilliant. This is a film in which everything in the world is fictional, and therefore meaningless. But since all fiction is meaningless, we are allowed to sit back and indulge our sick voyeurism. It fundamentally changes the idea of not believing anything you see: in this meaningless fictional world, believing nothing is the same as believing everything. And that is why the first five and a half minutes of Scream 4 is my favorite scary movie.