Monday, January 16, 2012

A Stab in the Dark

I wasn't expecting to like Scream 4 (2011, directed by Wes Craven) all that much. I'm not really a fan of either the original Scream movies or of Craven himself. Oh, there are spots in his filmography that I like quite a bit, but the reflexive nature of the Scream movies seemed to be the director devouring his own tendencies. Craven has always been a post-modern filmmaker; Scream represented post-modernism eating itself. The second film in the series reduced this tendency to absurdity. I never did see the third film. I can probably take a stab in the dark as to how that film plays, given that it's set in the movie industry. It's been over a decade since the third film. One would hardly think a fourth film would be necessary at this point, let alone one where the principles from the original are all getting a bit long in the tooth. And yet, here it is.

Note: this review contains heavy spoilers. I'll put the rest behind the cut.

The film opens with a riff on the opening of the original film, in which two teenagers are tormented by a cell-phone wielding psycho in a ghost costume. This is feint, of course, a clip from the fictional "Stab" franchise nested inside another sequence from yet another episode from the "Stab" movies. They seem to recede back into themselves like the reflections of two mirrors facing each other. One character even comments on the fact that if the prelude was "X" number, then how did they arrive at "Y." The Scream movies have always been aware of their own absurdity. The main story, once it's done noodling with the opening, finds Sydney Prescott returning to Woodsboro on a book tour. Her return coincides with the anniversary of the original murders, and sure enough, soon, teenagers are dropping. Meanwhile, Gale Weathers has settled into domestic, um, bliss with Riley, who is now the Sheriff. Gale is a writer now, too, and Sydney's return only exacerbates her already crippling writer's block. A new outbreak of murder is exactly the thing she needs to get her out of the house and back in the game, where she confronts the fact that the way people gather and consume news has dramatically changed since her days in front of a news camera. The web is where it's at. This hasn't escaped the killer, either, who films the murders with a webcam. The targets of the murders this time appear to be Sydney's niece, Jill, and her friends, Kirby and Olivia. Gale, meanwhile, enlists the high school film club to help her out, and discovers that the new killer is probably playing by the rules of remakes rather than sequels. But things aren't necessarily what they seem.

Ignoring the PoMo retconning of the "rules" of the slasher movie for the moment, this is Craven's best film in quite a while. His last decade has been a dead loss. Of his directorial efforts, only Red Eye enjoyed any kind of success, critical or otherwise, while the less said about the film's he's produced--including multiple remakes, it should be noted--the better. The fact that he's directing a fourth Scream movie smacks of desperation, but in spite of that, he actually makes a movie of it. This might be his best film since the original item. There's something about the minimal demands of the slasher movie that brings out the best in Craven, and this is about as sharp for most of its length as the first ten minutes of Scream. That's praise, by the way. The first ten minutes of the original are terrific. Craven has always been his own worst enemy when it comes to overcomplicating and overthinking his movies, and stripping all of that away always benefits his films. And so it is here. This stages some killer set-pieces, including one that makes clever use of multiple web cameras and another in which the second film's death by garage door is gently parodied. Craven knows how to turn the screws when he's got the will to do it.

This has an appealing cast, too, and takes more advantage of talented young actors than any of the previous films. Prime among them are Rory Culkin and Emma Roberts, who play our merry ghost-faced murderers. Culkin vanishes into his part to the point that I didn't recognize him at first, which is kind of the point. His motives are clearly defined and fairly simple. He's in it to get girls. Roberts, on the other hand, has motives that are positively baroque. It's not enough that she's jealous of her aunt's fame, she fancies herself as the center of a brand new franchise. She wants to be the final girl and she'll kill anyone she has to to get her way. She plays the role with a sociopathic light in her eyes that reveals the actress herself as a major movie star in the making (perhaps not surprising given her pedigree).

The climax of this movie is suitably absurd, but it's totally committed to its own absurdity and it's awfully funny. This is important, because in terms of the status quo it enforces at the end, it's exactly the same as the previous films. This, too, is kind of funny, because slasher movies don't really change from film to film themselves, and it's entirely appropriate that this one provides the same thing that the previous films provide. Craven and company have a good laugh at this, and so did I.

Still, I hope this is the last trip to this particular well. It's always best to go out on a high note, and the punch line at the end of Scream 4 is terrific.

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