Meta, are you better?

Scream 4 advertises itself with the line: “New decade. New rules.” These “rules” are a recurring motif. Because eleven years – that’s eleven years – have elapsed since Scream 3, Scream 4 is sort of presented as a “reboot.” And I mean sort of. An actual “reboot” would usually either come as an “origins” story, or as a re-cast version of the original which wipes away all traces in order to start again. Well, despite Dimension’s desire to re-start the franchise, with a new trilogy mooted, this is neither. And there’s the central problem with it.

If ever a franchise could reboot itself, it’s Scream. I’m assuming we all loved Scream? I know I did. In 1996, when Kevin Williamson’s original idea came to glorious fruition, it was something new: a slasher film in which the characters have seen all the other slasher films. It was funny and scary. This is no mean feat. And it was clever. It rewarded the geeks, and it spoon-fed the non-geeks, while patronising neither. And of course, Scream 2 and Scream 3 worked because they were a sequel and a threequel with plenty of material to draw on from the horror franchise pool.

But Scream 4, despite being written by Williamson, and directed by Wes Craven, does not work. And it does not work because it is a lazy film that can’t even be bothered to make jokes about how lazy it is. Which is very lazy indeed. In it, Sidney (Neve Campbell) returns to Woodsboro on the anniversary of the first killing, to promote her self-help book. This ought to be a reasonable way back in: the town is still famous for the original murders, and two other lifers, Courteney Cox’s now ex-reporter and David Arquette’s now-Sheriff, still live there. Meanwhile, the high school has been repopulated with younger, more nubile kids seemingly happy to leave windows open and engage gravel-voiced nutters in phone conversations: we have Emma Roberts, Claire off of Heroes, Rory Culkin … there are also pop-iconic cameos for True Blood’s Anna Paquin, Battlestar’s Mary McDonnell and Veronica Mars’ Kristen Bell. But it seems that all the fun went into the casting.

The film geeks – here: Culkin, a constant video-blogging Erik Knudsen (Saw II), and Hayden Panettiere herself – keep a running commentary on how a “reboot” or “remake” works, and how “meta” everything is (there’s a decent enough running gag about the fictional Stab franchise, now up to Stab 7 and subject to its own Stabathon), and yet Scream 4 is not “meta” enough. References to other developments in horror, such as the Saw movies (“I hate that torture porn shit”) and the Ring series are thrown away, and once you get past the self-referential dialogue, you realise that the film itself – the film you’re watching – is just another suburban slasher film.

None of the clever ideas in the script find their way into the film, if you see what I mean. Wouldn’t it have been funnier, and cleverer, if market forces had made Scream 4 a torture porn parody? Or a Japanese ghost story parody? This way, it would have been a satire on the evolution of the genre. As it stands, it’s just a parody of the type of film it set out to parody in 1996. That’s a long time in horror.

And guess what? It quickly gets boring. The first time we heard a character reference a slasher trope and then fall victim to that trope, it was revolutionary. When the two cops sent to guard Sidney’s house have a “meta” discussion about the fate of cops in horror movies, we’re almost there again (at least it’s an area not yet covered in previous Scream films), but they don’t do anything with it. They talk about how cops get killed unless they’re Bruce Willis – which is a pretty dated seeming and lazy reference anyway – and, without giving away if or how they get killed, the pay-off line is … “Fuck Bruce Willis,” which isn’t funny or clever, or logical. Did Williamson’s screenplay actually end with the words, “Will this do?”

Anyway, it’s a wasted opportunity. I love “meta” when it’s done as well as Williamson once did it. But there’s only a very thin veneer of “meta” around Scream 4. And that rather goes again “meta”, doesn’t it?

(I’ve just re-read this entry and it does not give away who gets killed or who doesn’t get killed, so I am safe with the film company. Mind you, if you care who gets killed or not killed, you are a more patient man than I am.)

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8 thoughts on “Meta, are you better?

  1. This gives me a reality check; The job of a film reviewer is not the ultimate-romantic-geek-nirvana that I perceive it to be… e.g. Scream 4. But staring at screen of spreadsheets whilst I sip my non-coffee tasting coffee from the vending machine, I’m still jealous.

    PS – I saw a 15ft foot high stone foot as I walked to work a few mornings ago, can anyone beat that? – http://twitpic.com/4k8wtg

    • The job of a film reviewer is arduous. If you are a proper critic, and I’m not, you have to see around six or seven films a week, sometimes more. Of these, you’re lucky if half are above two stars. However, seeing all the films give you a sense of perspective and expertise, neither of which I have, as I don’t see all of the films every week, only when called upon to do so.

  2. Was there ever any doubt it was going to be pointless and bad? Maybe they should have called it “Scream 4ced”?

    I did like the first in the series, the two sequels less so. As you said, the first film was genuinely clever, but although the second was okay, I thought the sequels just tried too hard. I barely even remember what happened in the third though, other than the Jay and Silent Bob cameo, so that just shows how memorable that one was for me.

    I remember reading a statement from Craven claiming that he wouldn’t return as director for the fourth entry unless the script was as good as the original Scream. His quality gauge really does seem to be off in recent years though. His last directing job, My Soul To Take, which he also wrote, was absolute nonsense, and an obvious attempt to recapture past glories as it was just a retread of his A Nightmare On Elm Street concept, something he also tried with Shocker too, though that one at least had a half-decent villain, and did make sense (in context!)

    So, while I’m sure I see Scream 4 at some point, it will most definitely be on the small screen, and at no cost, other than some wasted time.

    • SPOILER ALERT! (Added in by Administrator)

      I disagree with this article, because I thought Scream 4 was great. I saw it as clever with the sub-plot that you don’t mention, and with the reason behind the killings, and (spoiler alert) I found the scene with Emma Roberts near the end, when she mutilates herself was very strong. It kept me guessing at times, where I honestly didn’t correctly guess who were the killers until the first killer was revealed (thought it would be his friend). And the ” Fuck Bruce Willis” line was EPIC! People I talked to loved it. It won’t be “You’re the Man now, dog” famous, but it will still be memorable.

  3. I’m not a particular “slasher-movie” fan: indeed, I don’t think I’ve seen a single Elm Street or Friday 13th movie (although I have seen the Carpenter Halloween.) But I enjoyed the original Scream immensely, because it was so well-written – and the references it was making were pitched perfectly so that, as you say, they were clear to the non-geeks whilst clearly not being patronising to those who knew more.
    But alas it seems that franchise fever trumps originality every time, even though a good sequel ought to require more effort than an original piece of work and, done well, can often be better (cf. Godfather, Toy Story.) Whereas lazily remaking the original time and time again starts to feel like fraud, not matter how “ironic” or “postmodern” you like to present it as being.

  4. I thought Scream 4 was great, Andrew. You say “once you get past the self-referential dialogue” but it’s all about the self referential dialogue.

    The satire comes from the success of the previous trilogy and how they’ve formed the basis of every slasher film since. Just last week The Roommate was released and, while not a slasher film, contained so many elements of this genre. They’re still being used, it is still very relevant.

    “Wouldn’t it have been funnier, and cleverer, if market forces had made Scream 4 a torture porn parody? Or a Japanese ghost story parody?”

    But how would this have even worked? It’s a satire on slasher films, you’re wanting it to be a film it could never be, it’s either a parody of slasher films or it’s not a Scream film. Not that doing a satire on Japanese horror is exactly topical anyway, Ringu was nearly 15 years ago.

  5. SPOILER WARNING – No plot details spared!

    Hi Andrew,

    This is a thoughtful and interesting article, but I respectfully disagree. This is the best of the sequels in my opinion, generally much more relevant than S2 & S3.

    Sure, they talked about the horror sequel in Scream 2 and the horror trilogy in Scream 3, but only in those short set predetermined scenes that never felt like they were dictating the film itself but just required elements that needed to be there. Overall, they never made any in-roads into discussing the genre like the original, and to me they seem more deserving of your comments regarding laziness or falling back into standard slasher tropes.

    Scream 4 does discuss the changes in the genre over the last 10 years, like the slew of remakes, Asian horror getting big in the west, Hostel and Saw style torture porn, postmodernism and teen-drama and then the backslash against. They use it in a way that leads the plot of the film where it’s relevant, and they briefly mention it when it isn’t.

    Relevance is important because Scream is not about horror films, it’s about slasher films, a subcategory of the horror genre, and it shouldn’t be expected to open its borders up to the wider horror world. So ‘Asian ghost girls’ and torture porn are only relevant to an extent, they have implications in the genre but are outside of it – even if they seem similar, I can ensure anyone that to a fan they are worlds apart. If you go on a horror film forum/site and see what slasher fans are talking about and where the interesting debates are, you will see a lot more discussion of remakes of ’80s classics than anything else. This is the ‘big thing’ in the slasher genre at the moment, and Scream 4’s analysis of this trend is sharp, perfectly pitched, well observed and leads the plot and message of the film as it should, much as the first Scream did so well.

    It is mostly a ‘for the fans’ film though, I think that’s why the reviews have been so divisive. It’s a lot easier to enjoy if you know the genre, and it’s one of those films where knowing the script of Scream off by heart really enhances it. Not because it’s all ‘yo shoutout to people who remember this scene/line/character’ in that kinda pointless winking and nudging way, it’s a smarter and more layered idea than that. More in the sense that it’s all about remakes of old classics and the way it uses the idea of a killer ‘remaking’ the original film is very clever, it twists the Scream script up and repackages it in a way that breaks down, analyses and parodies all the current trends, so in order to get all the jokes and the sly genre piss-takes, you do sort of need to watch a lot of slasher films and remember Scream pretty damn well.

    Finally, and THIS IS WHERE IT GETS VERY SPOILERY IN CAPITAL LETTERS AND I’LL EVEN SAY SPOILER ONE MORE TIME, the idea of the Final Girl being that deliberately, organising the events because she wants to be that, is wonderful, and I would argue a deliberately weighted question refering to the topic at hand: did Hollywood Producerman remake ‘x slasher film’ out of respect for the source material or the audience, or are they just desensitised to it all and after a quick easy buck?

    As the other commenter wrote, her self-mutilation scene was nail-biting stuff, and her carefully organising her body to match ‘the professional survivor’ Sidney was a fantastic touch. I adored the ending. Well, the first one anyway. I agreed with Jill when she said ‘It should have ended back at the house’, but Sidney’s rebuttal against it all ‘don’t f*ck with the original’ was a good touch that redeemed it somewhat, and actually helps my point somewhat – it’s all about the remakes. I don’t think it should be criticised for having a tight focus instead of a broader view of horror as a whole, particularly when it’s a fan’s film and the tight focus in question is the one the fans themselves are all talking about.

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