Towards the end of my Originals post about the “Scream” trilogy, I voiced a few hopes about what I wanted the new installment to be like. Not only did I think “Scream 4” needed to maintain the comic timing and well-structured scares of the first films, but it also had to do something entirely new, and break from the often soapy narrative progress of the earlier three movies. So when I went to go see it last night, I was more than a little surprised. “Scream 4” is exactly what I wanted it to be, for the first hour or so; then it starts twisting in on itself so quickly and effectively that by the end it had entirely one-upped my hopes for the sequel/remake and left me breathless.
I think on some level we’ve forgotten as a culture what brilliant satire really is. Look at the horrific series of films brought about by the mediocre “Scary Movie” series; things like “Date Movie” and “Meet the Spartans,” along with last year’s somewhat embarrassing “MacGruber.” Great satire should come from the love of a genre, not simply opportunism to make fun of something popular. What made “Scream” so wonderful is that it not only laughed at the tropes of the slasher flick but was also really good at executing them; Wes Craven, at his best, is able to both craft a really solid horror film and make fun of it in precisely the same moment. “Scream 4” not only profits from its loving satire of the genre but also from the success of the first film. It’s not just a remake of “Scream,” it’s a film in dialog with its predecessor, and pays homage to the original by trying to outdo it.
Also, it’s scary. I think this is a point often missing from the discussion of the franchise, because everyone loves talking about its comic reflexivity (for good reason). “Scream 4” will make you jump; it is successful as a slasher flick just as much as it is successful as a satire thereof. Craven’s wonderful alone-in-the-house set pieces bring audience genuinely to the edge of their seats, and when Ghostface suddenly appears the room shrieks. It’s real suspense, far cry from the gory torture porn we’ve gotten used to these days (and the film makes pretty clear its disgust with the “Saw” franchise early on).
It also helps that we really care about the characters. There’s a whole slew of new and younger cast members who are given exactly enough to do that we want them to survive, but they are not so important that when they inevitably get stabbed we end up heartbroken. And of course Neve Campbell, David Arquette and Courteney Cox all bring their A-game. It’s been 15 years, but the time evaporates the moment these actors bring their characters to life again, which is exactly what you need for this kind of movie. I can’t remember the last time I saw a horror film in which I actively cared whether or not the protagonists lived or died, and without that the frights lose their punch.
You can’t have brilliant satire without a real understanding of the genre itself and a love for what it does well, and the team of Craven and writer Kevin Williamson has that in spades. Then they take the basis in slasher cinema and add on the reflexive commentary, the in-movie discussions of horror film that worked so well in “Scream.” There are jabs at the “Saw” films and the way horror has changed in the past decade (mostly for the worse), and there’s a constant discourse about how these things work. We’re told that some things still hold, like not saying “Be right back,” but there have been quite a few shifts. You don’t need to be a virgin anymore to survive, but according to Woodsboro high’s cinema club things are so bleak now that often everyone dies, and the only pretty much surefire way to get out alive is to be gay. And as two of the geekier characters in the film point out, this is a “scream-make” and not a “shriek-quel,” and so there are different rules.
Set in Woodsboro (unlike the second and third films), “Scream 4” is a direct remake of the first film, with a consciousness but not a focus on the intervening franchise. Going back to the classic does wonders for the flow of the story, as we follow a series of murders committed by a killer clearly obsessed with the original movie but also determined to take it to the next level. The culminating party scene of “Scream” is here imitated but then rejected, as Craven makes a hard turn into a final act that won’t stop building up its momentum. It’s filled with the tropes of the genre and direct commentary on them; don’t go outside alone, everyone is a suspect etc. By the time we’re in the final stretch, the whirlwind of real suspense and witty referential dialog reaches a fever pitch (and my midnight audience just went wild).
Moreover, and I want to stress this, the success of “Scream 4” doesn’t simply result from genre tropes and funny meta-discourse being played one after the other. The connection between these two concurrent aspects of the film, in the way Craven and Williamson combine them, creates something new. When Gale Weathers (Cox) is fixing up her video camera, and we can see on the live feed that Ghostface is coming up behind her, our reaction is not split and disjointed. We don’t shriek first and then laugh later at some apropos joke about how no one in horror movies ever turns around. On the contrary, in moments like this (which occur throughout the film) we experience the fear and the comedy at precisely the same moment. When we see that long white mask emerge from the darkness, we yell at the screen because “Scream 4” wants us to, while we are simultaneously aware that we’re supposed to yell, and then laugh at ourselves for doing so. The satire of this film is not comedy about fear; it’s the combination of comedy and fear into a sort of meta-experience that is more than the sum of its parts.
Great satire is not a formulaic or simple construction, but it is rather a complex interplay between loved and established genre tropes and witty self-aware critique. “Scream” was fantastic precisely because it was boldly upfront about its love for and emulation of slasher classics while concurrently discussing and poking fun at them. It was an internally collaborative film. And now, “Scream 4” achieves its success by commenting not only on the link between parody and original, but by playing with its relationship to “Scream” itself. This new film adds another element to the brilliance of its predecessor, by basing its satire on the 1996 kick-off to the franchise. It doesn’t try to be better than the original so much as one-up it, creating a dialog between the two films that enriches them both. It is a satire as well as a satire of a satire, and does it so boisterously and effectively that you can’t help but get trapped in its simultaneously frightening and hilarious meta-whirlwind.