Critic-at-large Jeff Koch uses the latest movie in the “Scream” franchise as an opportunity to reflect on how the genre–and movie goers–have evolved over the last 15 years.
When Scream was released in 1996, it turned the horror genre on its head. With a sharp script written by Kevin Williamson, it was not only clever and funny, it was also genuinely scary. At the time, no other movie I had seen in the theater had frightened me more, nor stuck with me longer. What set it apart, though, was its ability to be self-referential and meta, as the characters were aware that they were in a horror movie and aware of the all of the tropes inherent therein. And they talked about them openly and detachedly, even as they violated them and… were killed. This allowed the audience to feel in on the joke (some might say to also feel smugly intelligent) while still trying to solve the puzzle of the killer.
Two increasingly poor sequels later, the Scream franchise seemed to go out with a whimper in 2000. With movies like The Blair Witch Project (the current holder of “most scared I’ve ever been after seeing a movie in a theater” in my life, and it happened twice) and Saw coming along, pushing the boundaries of both the genre and audiences, the Scream movies became outdated, quaint, and trite.
Eleven years later (and 15 years after the original), Scream is back. The setting is the same, the characters are the same, and the story is mostly the same. Enough time has passed, the thinking must have gone, that what is old could be new again.
Perhaps that could be true with better execution. Or perhaps it just can’t be true. We’ll never know, because Scream 4 just falls flat. Williamson, the original screenwriter, is back. And the script is as clever and meta as the original. Too clever; and too meta. Instead of giving a winking nod to the audience, it hits us over the head time and time again with clever self-referential dialogue and allusions to other movies (including the original Scream and Stab, the movie within-the-the-movie of the first Scream trilogy). The first 20 minutes of the movie are a jumbled self-referential doubling-back-on-itself look-how-clever-we-are mess that provides plenty of wry smiles and even some laughs.
There are two problems here. First, you can only get so meta. Eventually, the clever references and self-knowing pile up too high and collapse on themselves, destroying any sense of “reality” in the movie. This completely removes the audience from any sense of place, time, or atmosphere. Yes, it’s fun to sit in a movie theater and “get” what the movie is doing; but it removes you from buying into a film and suspending belief. Also, when you try to get too cutesy and clever, you run the risk of getting stuck between going too far and not going far enough, a place that Scream 4 sinks into and dies. Finally, being self-referential appears clever and sharp, but if done incorrectly, it is also quite lazy. It is faux intelligence, smoke and mirrors used to cover up lack of depth and honesty.
The second major problem: the movie just isn’t scary. Maybe this is the genre’s and society’s fault, as audiences keep getting pushed and pushed into desensitization, needing bigger shocks and bigger gore to really get scared. Maybe the traditional slasher film is dead. Maybe it’s all the irony and self-reference preventing a total buy-in. The movie even has a dearth of honest to God “boo!” moments; no masked killers jumping out of closets, no refrigerator doors opening then closing to reveal threatening characters. I watched the movie alone in a darkened theater, and never once felt scared or nervous.
Late in the 2nd act of the movie, a character states that “unpredictability is the new cliche”. He’s right; we’ve been pushed so far and in so many directions, that the only thing we expect from horror is to see something we’ve never seen before. This seems to imply that Scream 4 is striving for stability and a call back to what made the original so good. But predictability is still rote and boring and lazy. In horror, atmosphere and honest storytelling still win out over gimmick, irony, and cleverness.
Or maybe I’ve changed too much. In 1996 I was 18 and just starting to critically watch movies. In many ways, Scream is the movie that got me interested in the horror genre. It’s what led me to The Blair Witch Project and The Ring and the Saw series and Paranormal Activity and so many more–all of the movies that, ironically, diminished the Scream franchise. I went into Scream 4 eager to re-enter that world, to re-capture that feeling I had when I was 18 and sitting in the front row of a packed movie theater with my college girlfriend and realizing that I was part of a watershed moment, witnessing a cultural zeitgeist–and still being scared as hell. But there is no going back, and there is no re-experiencing of that original fear. But maybe, just maybe, some 18 year-old-kid is sitting in a theater with his girlfriend watching Scream 4 and falling in love with a genre just as another 18 year-old did 15 years prior.
That still doesn’t make the movie good to this 32-year-old.