Fifteen years ago, the first Scream film struck a chord with the public with its ability to knowingly comment on the very genre it occupied. When it’s done correctly, this balancing act makes a very successful movie—altogether the original Scream trilogy grossed over $500 million—but it’s very hard to do correctly. When you don’t do it correctly, you get something like Scream 4.
Scream 4 begins with a new version of the iconic phone call scene, in which a new young actress (Lucy Hale replacing Drew Barrymore*) is stalked by Ghostface over the phone. When she finally gets killed in the new film, though, the murder is laughably fake, at which point it is revealed that what we’re actually watching is the opening scene of one of the Stab sequels—the movie-franchise-within-a-movie-franchise of the Scream universe. The film then cuts to two NEW young girls watching that scene on the couch. When one of THEM dies we are revealed to be watching YET ANOTHER Stab sequel. At this point the plot of Scream 4 actually begins, but by then the reality of the film has been so undercut that there is no investment at all when the “real” characters die.
This kind of ‘snake swallowing its own tail’ gimmick is commonly referred to as being ‘meta’ or self-aware, but the original Scream did more than just a few winks and nods at the audience (although there were plenty of those). The entire point of the Scream franchise is that its characters are fully aware of the genre tropes they inhabit, but not due to any sly knowingness on the part of the movie. The characters are aware because they, like the movie’s audience, grew up watching horror movies that were predictable, clichéd, and formulaic. This difference is crucial—it’s the difference between hurting the movie by taking the audience out of the reality of the film* and making the reality even more realistic.
*One of the clumsier instances of this kind of bad meta can be found in an episode of the new ABC series Happy Endings, which stars Elisha Cuthbert. At one point, a character says to Cuthbert’s character (for almost no reason at all), “Imagine if your dad was head of some elite counterterrorist unit or something.” Not only is this reference not the least bit subtle, but it also detracts from the show since it ONLY makes sense if the character has seen 24.
Comparing this latest opening scene with the Drew Barrymore original just highlights what a joke Scream 4 is. Whereas the new opening is all inside jokes for the audience (like shots at the Saw series, or the fact that almost all of the actresses in the opening are known for starring in TV high school dramas), the initial opening is legitimately scary. It may be unfair to compare things to that opening scene—which is as good as the franchise ever got—but it is a perfect showcase of the aforementioned balancing act.
The most famous line from that scene, and probably from the entire franchise, is, of course, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” It’s worth pointing out that the line is often misquoted. That is, it’s often quoted in a menacing inflection, but the line is actually just playful banter. It’s only in retrospect that the question becomes scary. This gradual flow from harmless flirting to a threatening conversation to a full-scale murder is what builds the tension of the scene and, consequently, allows it to function as a legitimate horror scene while simultaneously commenting on the genre. Since Casey is actually frightened when the killer knocks on her door, it makes sense for her to yell, “Who’s there?” It’s only when the killer points it out—“You should never say ‘Who’s there?’ Don’t you watch scary movies? It’s a death wish. You might as well just come out here to investigate a strange noise or something!”—that we realize it’s a cliché.
By contrast, the victims in Scream 4 almost never actually seem scared. They all just assume that someone’s making a Stab reference until the moment the knife is in them.
This is because the latest installment lacks “the rules” described in the clip above. Randy, the character most familiar with the genre, breaks down the rules of all horror films. With each subsequent film in the franchise Randy would break down the new rules (he even managed to do it in Scream 3 despite being killed off in Scream 2), for sequels and for trilogies respectively. At one point in Scream 4 the new film geek character says, “There are still rules, but the rules have changed. The unexpected is the new cliché,” which is the kind of thing that only makes sense if you don’t think about it. After all, the original “rules” weren’t plucked from thin air or invented by Scream; they were inherited from decades of horror films. But Scream 4 invents rules out of whole cloth…except when it’s following the plot of the original movie almost exactly. So the new “rules” are that you have to be totally different from the original, but also exactly the same. Or something like that…
In fact, Scream 4 doesn’t abide by any rules at all—not of genre, or parody, or sequels, or remakes. It’s just a mess that tosses around the terms of the original trilogy and hopes fans will play along. There are some good lines in Kevin Williamson’s script, some good performances from the cast (including a surprisingly strong turn by Hayden Panettiere), and not all of the plot twists are obvious way ahead of time (though most are). This may be enough to amuse the franchise’s most diehard fans, but for the rest of us, the Scream series should have been killed off a decade ago.