Sunday, October 30, 2011

Scream 4

Director: Wes Craven
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Marley Shelton, Adam Brody, Rory Culkin, Erik Knudsen, Alison Brie
Running Time: 111 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

I'll say this for Scream 4: It gets its most miscalculated sequences out of the way early. In its first few minutes to be exact. Opening with a movie within a movie within a movie, it's a self-referential stab (literally) at parody that ends up being a parody in itself as a number of characters bite the dust before the opening credits roll. Of course, we're not sure if they're actual victims or actresses in the fake "Stab" sequels inspired by Scream. But does that even really matter when you've already exposed the killer four times with nearly eight murders before the "real" movie begins? So when our old friend Ghostface does eventually show up it induces unwanted giggles and when he starts killing people "for real," I started doubting if it was. Part of the problem is highlighted in that crazy opening, as the film descends so far into parody that it's unclear whether they're even in on the joke. Director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson must have understood why their classic opening scene with Drew Barrymore in 1996's Scream worked. Right? If a really crappy sequel were released today it's easy to think Ghostface probably would be text messaging. Are they trying to make fun of movies that would do that by actually doing it?  Do their intentions even make a difference? It's almost maddening trying to distinguish this film from one of the Scary Movie sequels at points, except for the fact that this is might be unintentionally funnier and boasts what's easily the craziest ending the series has seen yet. At least I wasn't bored.

When bestselling self-help author and Ghostface survivor Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns home to promote her latest book she finds the town overrun with many more residents (i.e. potential victims) than when she left, as well as a new Ghostface slashing away on the fifteenth anniversary of the Woodsboro murders. So many new characters that a manual could probably be handed out before the film and it would still be fairly difficult to keep track of who they are, where they are, and all their various sub-plots. There's Sidney's cousin and the film's protagonist Jill (Emma Roberts), who along with her ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella) and pals Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe) are the first to experience Ghostface's menacing phone calls. We also have the school's cinema club geeks Charlie (Rory Culkin) and Robbie (Erik Knudsen), basically assuming the Jamie Kennedy role from the first two films by explaining how the killer is now playing by the new horror movie "rules" established in the past decade involving reboots, remakes, torture porn and found footage.  Of course, there's the return of Deputy (now Sheriff) Dewey (David Arquette) and his wife, struggling author Gail Weathers-Riley (Courtney Cox). Their relationship is strained not only by her desire to break the case before him to resurrect her journalism career but by Deputy Judy's (Marley Shelton) crush on Dewey. There's also Sidney's overbearing publicist Rebecca (Alison Brie) who's determined to exploit her client's tragedy to become the next Gail Weathers. Needless to say, all these characters are set up as suspects. 

Over-plotted and needlessly complicated, this script was reported to have some major issues in pre-production and after watching what unfolds onscreen it isn't difficult to see how. Throwing an entirely new cast of young, fresh faces into the mix with the originals had to be done but the execution seems way off, with everyone fighting for screen time and more than a few characters not making much of an impression at all. One of them is unfortunately Campbell's Sidney, the supposed linchpin of the series who plays more of a mopey supporting role until the film's (admittedly exciting) climax. The psychological trauma of her coming home to face her past demons is touched on briefly, then discarded simply because there's just too much other stuff going on and the kills are occurring at a mile a minute. The increase is reasonable given the new "rules" but that doesn't change the fact that so many of them happening in such rapid succession lessens the impact and tension. The idea of the killer recording the murders this time around is a really good one, but clumsily introduced and not developed with enough consistency to pack the punch it should, which is a shame considering the interesting places they could have gone with it.

Say what you want about Campbell as an actress (and I happen to think she's an underrated one) but there's always been a strong, tough presence about her, along with with just the right amount of vulnerability, that seemed to make her the ideal scream queen. Maybe that's why Emma Roberts seems like such a lousy choice for the lead. Much more believable as Julia Roberts' niece than Sidney Prescott's cousin, she just doesn't have that presence Campbell had and looks to young for the part. Supposedly Twilight's Ashley Greene was originally considered for her role and with no familiarity of her work I'd still go out on a limb and say she could have possibly been a better fit. But it's of little difference since Hayden Panettiere feels like the true lead as Kirby, owning every scene she's in and out-acting everyone else in this enormous cast by just simply being real, which might be the hardest thing to do in this genre. The movie's biggest surprise might just be how much of an impact she makes with her limited screen time and the firm grasp she has on the material, especially evident in one sensational scene toward the end. Almost single-handedly saving this entire movie, I started to wonder if they'd actually be dumb enough to kill her off since her presence is clearly the best shot this series has at another installment. It's difficult recalling another character in the Scream saga I wanted to pull through more, knowing that the second she dies this franchise is probably going with her.

As for the rest, Arquette and Cox slide back into their old, familiar roles with relative ease, even if Gail Weathers seems a bit more irritating than I remember. In addition to Shelton's deputy (undeniably a comic highlight) you can count Culkin and Knudsen's film geeks as two of the new characters that work well enough to wish even more could have been done with them. Much of the new cast isn't a disaster, with the exception of Tortorella's Trevor who's so bland he actually makes you miss Skeet Ulrich's Johnny Depp impersonation from the the original. Anthony Anderson and Adam Brody also show up as two bumbling cops and it's kind of a shame nothing is really done with the latter since Brody could have easily been set up as the logical successor or sidekick to Arquette's character if the series continues (a big "if" at this point). Then again, with a running time of only 111 minutes it's almost impossible to squeeze all these characters in with speaking parts. Two big name actresses provide an early cameo and I still couldn't help but think it was a total waste of their talents, even by cameo standards.

The ending's a hoot that's for sure. As far as the revelation of the killer(s) it stands among the more clever surprises in the series in that it holds up, partially eliminating some of the bigger story problems up until that point, with one performer somewhat redeeming themselves with an over-the-top turn I didn't think was in them. But the script jammed too much in until then and was already lost in meta nonsense to such a point that it eventually grows indistinguishable from what it's parodying by the finale. Count me among the few looking forward to a Scream reboot, anticipating enough time had passed for a fresh shine to be put on the franchise, especially if the key original cast members were to return, which they did. While I still think this was a great idea and it's not the weakest entry in the series (see the third), it's the first where the tone seems off, alternating unevenly between comedy and horror throughout. It strangely disappoints in a fashion similar to J.J. Abram's Spielberg throwback Super 8 from earlier in the year in that both films had massive built-in nostalgia that could have yielded greatness if only small mistakes were corrected at the screenwriting stage before they became bigger ones on screen. More closely resembling a limp third sequel of an ailing horror franchise than a full-on revitalization, Scream 4 is an entertainingly jumbled mess that had me wishing for more and wondering what should have been.

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