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Friday, October 30, 2015

The Dead End: SCREAM to SCREAM 4... and Beyond


Scream resurrected a moribund American horror industry in the 90s from kitsch hell, and it's easy to see how: The opening 13 minutes of Scream, in which Ghostface stalks Drew Barrymore, is among the finest horror set pieces ever put to film. It's shocking that Barrymore, a sizable star at the time, would be killed off so early, but it's also shocking in the personality of the killer. Jason, Michael Meyers, Leatherface, the Xenomorph... most icons of horror were grim, silent slaughterers whose terror came from their implacability. But Scream was directed by Wes Craven, and Ghostface is a slasher in the vein of Freddy Krueger - an excitable figure who revels in violence. Ghostface didn't stalk his victims; he played with them.

Scream is unique among major horror franchises in that it really couldn't follow the killer. There was no supernatural aspect, there was nothing special about the killer at all. With Ghostface dead, permanently, Scream 2 had to either start fresh - in which case, why Ghostface? - or follow survivors Sidney, Dewey, and Gale. Sure, it could have and probably should have wiped the slate completely and gone the anthology route, but that's never been a popular model even when it's the right one for a series to follow.

And the subtext of the killers here peddles in the sort of 'youth in revolt supercriminal' nonsense that elderly conservative people were terrified of in the 1990s, with a cast of kids that are wildly, laughably amoral, whether they're the killers or not. It's the sort of laughably fear-mongering that gave us things like Class of 1984 or Death Wish, though Craven - who reinvented horror at least three times through his career - gave the idea a sense of playfulness that dulled the edge of the premise's stupider aspects. Still, as the cast grew up, the series lost more and more of its sense of a wild world on the brink of collapse. In Scream, the excess of these kids, who think they're immortal and don't really seem to process consequence, is part of the horror; you could legitimately see basically any of these people as the killer. With an adult cast, though, everything calmed down... except for the heightened world of the meta-conceit, which just went crazier and crazier over the course of the films. 

And boy howdy does that meta-textual stuff get blunt. In the first film, it's fairly limited. The characters clearly know the tropes of horror films, but knowing doesn't save them from killers who know just as much. The only truly meta aspect was Jamie Kennedy's Randy expounds on what you do to survive a horror film, talking about how sex equals death and saying "I'll be right back," before going off alone is a death sentence. What a lot of people forget, however, is that Randy is actually wrong about pretty much everything he suggests. A character who says "I'll be right back," before going off alone isn't killed, he's the killer; when Sidney loses her virginity to her boyfriend, everyone, including the killers, acts like that has some symbolic importance... but it doesn't. She emerges victorious.


The problem with a gimmick, however, is that a long-running franchise will sand off every hint of nuance over the course of the sequels in an attempt to turn it into a perfect money-making machine, and in doing so, they'll destroy it. By the third film in the series, Randy was literally predicting the future, leaving a post-mortem video tape explaining the plot of Scream 3 to the characters and being 100% correct. In the first film, the characters can recognize that they're living through the events of what could be seen as a horror film; by the third film they can use this knowledge to predict the future. In the fourth film, they basically have a character acknowledge that the plot has granted her invulnerability, and at that point, well, why bother?

In Scream 4, Sidney Prescott returns to Woodsboro on a book tour that happens to coincide with the anniversary of the (first) Ghostface Massacre. It's tasteless, particularly for a character who was previously pretty much defined by her hatred of this sort of crass exploitation of tragedy, but that's the way the story begins. Even before she arrives, a new round of killings begins, and a new class of nubile young genre nerds are forced to confront with the fact that someone, likely one of their own, is hunting them down and killing them. Sidney, the ultimate survivor, tries to protect as much of her family as possible, but her rebellious niece escapes to attend a party that quickly turns deadly.

Scream 4 opens with a reasonably entertaining series of fake-outs, a nod to the series' love of playing with meta-textual genre conventions and the long-running Stab series of films-within-a-film. But the problem is, that's the most inventive thing the series does. The characters who survived the other ones all survive this one. Playing with the idea of a reboot is interesting, but they mostly use it to just do most of the first film over again with a pared down cast and fewer new scares. The kills never get very inventive, nor do the set-pieces - there's nothing as viscerally intense as the opening to Scream or even the excellent car crash scene in Scream 2. And the series has lost a lot of its energy, both behind the scenes and in a very visible, very obvious way.

One of my favorite things about Ghostface in Scream is that, sure, he's brutally killing people, but when he's stalking his victim, he's more Buster Keaton than Jason Vorhees. Kick Ghostface and he goes flying comically back, arms waving wildly; hit him in the face and get a comically exaggerated fall that takes him completely off his feet. Under the direction of Craven, Ghostface in the first Scream was a manic figure, which is rare for horror movie monsters, and he existed in a manic universe of youth gone wild. The stodgy adult Ghostfaces of future films would tone down Ghostface's energy until he was a rote slasher, a figure that would appear largely because audiences expected him to.



But Scream 4 does have some redeeming elements. Its supporting cast is strong - Kristen Bell and Alison Brie both have small roles - and it introduces one truly excellent new character: Hayden Panetierre's Kirby. Panetierre's performance is coming from some alternate universe where a high schooler can be a dorky genre sophisticate who dresses like a businesswoman and knows exactly what she wants from the world. Panetierre's character is a pre-packaged marvel whose facade drops rapidly back to 'frustrated high schooler' when confronted by an obstacle, which is the key to making her feel realistic. There are layers to Kirby, and they almost all come from Panetierre. She's far and away the highlight of Scream 4, the only character in the film who actually feels like a character rather than a caricature.

Joss Whedon once described The Cabin in the Woods as a 'loving hate letter' to the horror genre. The reason Cabin works - and the reason the first Scream works - is a fundamental love of the genre, a love that comes from a place of deep understanding. Sure, in both cases, it led to frustration with what the genre was doing at the time, but that frustration is grounded in knowing what the fuck they're talking about. The fundamental problem with Scream 4 and its televised follow-up, is that it comes from the opposite place. Craven, Williamson, and Kruger didn't understand how found footage worked, what drives modern teenagers, or how the horror genre is changing in the advent of VOD. Because of this, the best the film can do is mock something it doesn't really get in the first place, which is why Scream 4 in particular feels so tragically stodgy.

With Wes Craven's recent death, a cinematic Scream revival seems unlikely in the near future, though they were always kicking around the idea of Scream 5. Instead, however, we got MTV's take on Scream. With televised horror hotter than ever thanks to The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, it made total sense to reboot the series with an eye for serialization. But Scream was always going to be a challenging adaptation, in large part because, well, with the modulation just a little bit off, Scream's hipper-than-hip metatextual play is incredibly grating. I can't in good faith recommend the show to anyone, because divorced from Craven's steady - if sometimes plain - hand, the series loses any semblance of modulation.

Which was always the problem with the Scream series overall, anyway, if I'm being honest. Scream frequently confused being clever with being smart, but it was such a thoroughly-realized love letter to the slasher genre that you could forgive it some excess. Scream 4 isn't a love letter to anything. It hates its characters, doesn't understand its genre, and has forgotten that being clever isn't worth much if you aren't being scary too. Scream is a great horror film; Scream 2 has a couple great, tense set-pieces undone by a weak ending. But, while Scream 4 is an improvement over the out-and-out abysmal Scream 3, it is still more concerned with giving audiences what they want from a Scream film than it is in making the best possible movie. It's a fine horror film in a franchise that redefined horror films for a generation, a legacy it can't live up to, even while it - rightfully - has its defenders, and it's not a bad way for the series to go out, if indeed it ends there.

The Scream sequels could recognize their own weaknesses, point out all the mistakes inherent in sequels, trilogies, reboots. Writers Kevin Williamson and Ehren Kruger were clearly familiar with the genre, and director Wes Craven had basically perfected it, and the TV show had the advantage of coming at the tail end of a small TV horror boom that could have offered plenty of inspiration. The smart thing to do with all that knowledge and inspiration would be to subvert our expectations, do something new; the clever thing to do would be to do exactly what we expect, but just comment on it over and over and over again to make sure we knew they were being cliche on purpose. And the Scream films are nothing if not clever.

Previously on The Dead End

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