Monday, April 18, 2011

I Scream, U Scream

Back in 1996, director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson released their new take on the horror genre with Scream, a self-aware horror film that both celebrated and parodied slasher films. It did so by essentially publishing the "rules" of these films in an effort to create a realistic scenario concerning sick people copycatting famous films like Friday the 13'th and Halloween. The film introduced Ghostface, a brand new killer who would play a game with his victims, testing them on their knowledge of scary movies where failure ends with a bloody massacre. Scream was a watershed moment for the careers of Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette, and has arguably become Craven's best known work (and that includes a varied horror catalogue of Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes and The People Under the Stairs), and it was no surprise that two sequels quickly followed in the original's wake. Unfortunately, Scream 2 and 3 lacked in originality compared to the original. Scream 2 was largely a good film but lacked in the character development of the people outside of the main cast that made the original so interesting. Scream 3, however (the only one I managed to see in the theater at the time) was a mess, trying far too hard to wrap up the trilogy and being a bit TOO self-involved to the detriment of the story and scares. With that wreck of a finale and the end of the trilogy, it was assumed that there would be no more Ghostface, no more Scream. That changed this past weekend, when Scream 4 was released, fifteen years after the first and eleven after the series' last entry. Surrounding the surviving Campbell, Cox and Arquette with a young cast from a new generation and changing the rules of engagement, and helmed by original creators Craven and Williamson (returning to the franchise after writing the scripts for the first two films) made for a compelling argument to see this latest iteration, possibly the first in an all-new trilogy. Seems too good to pass up, doesn't it? Still, the length of time between the third and fourth films makes you ponder the stability of the franchise, and it was with this mentality that I cautiously approached the screening.

I wouldn't want to be the person in THAT trunk right now...
On the fifteenth anniversary of the Woodsboro Massacre (of Scream), Sidney Prescott (Campbell) returns home as part of a promotional book-signing tour. Reinventing her life and refusing to any longer be characterized as a "victim", Sidney seems to be doing well with her new life until her old nemesis Ghostface returns, set to create a killing spree to put his old ones to shame. After a couple of high school students are slaughtered and evidence is planted in Sidney's rental car, Sheriff Dewey Riley (Arquette) forces her to remain in town, where she stays with her aunt Kate and young cousin Jill (Emma Roberts). Dewey, in addition to investigating the murders and protecting Sidney, is also put upon by his wife, retired journalist and current novelist Gale Weathers (Cox), who goes rogue on her own investigation. Meanwhile, Ghostface appears to be everywhere, attacking everyone involved and eventually it comes down to Sidney and her allies to put an ultimate end to the murders in her home town.

Scream 4 features an all-star cast to be killed, including Sookie Stackhouse and Veronica Mars
One of the biggest heists the Scream series pulled off was its ability to hire big-name actors for its starring roles. Known primarily for smaller budgets, horror films are often forced to go with unknown performers with dubious talents and credentials. With the Scream franchise, however, the creators hit pay-dirt when Drew Barrymore approached them about the script for the first film, briefly holding the lead role before unexpected schedule conflicts forced her out. She remained with the production however, and when the film was released, Barrymore - already a star in her own right - became famous as the first on-screen victim of the series, dying horribly in the very first scene (okay, technically Kevin Patrick Walls played the first victim, but he didn't say a line so that doesn't count, right?). She was also not the only legitimate star to sign on; Campbell was a big name at the time, headlining the Fox drama Party of Five, and later appeared in the ill-fated TV drama The Philanthropist. Cox was also famous, but for a completely different genre; she was working on the NBC comedy Friends at the same time she starred in the film, and had to lobby extensively for the chance to play a "bitchy" role. Scream became Arquette's largest role to date, but being part of the Arquette acting family guaranteed he was a known quantity at the time. Between Arquette, Campbell and Cox, the films showed their heart, and the three have become the most reliable performers in the recurring casts. Other big stars managed to make appearances in the film and its sequels, and the cast lists were spotted with well-known names such as Rose McGowan, Liev Schrieber, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jerry O'Connell, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Laurie Metcalf, and Parker Posey. The Scream phenomena became so huge that many of the actors who signed on did so without ever reading the scripts, so influenced were they by the film's legacy and successes.

No, Emma, hair dye won't make you the new Sidney
Scream 4 is a return of sorts to that franchise's successes. Like stepping into an old pair of sneakers, watching the film is akin to something broken in and comfortable, with the series' trademark scares/humor combination in full effect. Thanks most likely to the reunification of the creative team of Craven and Williamson, not to mention the familiar characters played by the principal trio, it's very easy to recapture the magic of the original Scream. Unfortunately, that is also the film's main fault; the film feels SO familiar that it doesn't really tread any new ground, despite the movie's marketing department claiming that all-new rules were in play. Sure, new elements are added, such as the killer recording their murderous exploits for future release, but very little is actually done with that angle. I couldn't help but think that this generation's Ghostface was much less clever than previous incarnations, as he barely used his trademark phone calls to open up to his slayings. Ghostface's motives however are a nice break from that of the original trilogy, and while I won't go into it here (you find out in the film's final act), I felt that the reasons for the murders were very generation-appropriate and twisted enough to be believable, if perhaps a bit TOO warped overall. An overlong false start showed the audience that the film creators were well aware how their story progression was worn and thin, but that didn't stop them from going the tried and true route. The ending was also gradual to the point where I almost lost interest, but was still good overall. Between the first and final act, however was a nice blend of chaos and fear that comes together nice and easy. The film successfully keeps you in the dark as to who the true killer or killers are,  one thing they've managed to successfully replicate in every entry to the series.

The game of "Telephone" was never meant to be played with cellulars
Another thing the Scream series was known for was its good acting corps, most notably the big three. Arquette plays a more matured version of his classic character Dewey, with his new Sheriff job and marriage to Gale having grown up Dewey to the point where the goofiness of his origins rarely makes an appearance. He's still lovable, and fans of the series I believe will like this latest transformation. Cox is back in step as the hard-nosed Gale, though very little interesting is done with her character. Her motivations for investigating the murders are entirely self-motivated and selfish, as she simply wants material for her next book.Suffering from writer's block after ten years away, she hardly makes for the interesting character she once was. Cox plays the writer to great effect, I just wish more had been done with the Gale. Campbell is by far the best of the big three, as I thought Sidney's transformation between Screams 3 and 4 was remarkable, to say the least. It helps that Campbell has been more or less out of the spotlight since her early successes, making her starring role here a more fresh experience.

Scream 4 does a great job of putting Cox and Campbell in the line of fire
It's a shame the secondary cast doesn't leave more of a lasting impression on us. Like last year's Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, a Culkin manages to be the best part, in this case younger brother Rory Culkin as a horror film geek named Charlie. Like his older brothers, Culkin has the ability to steal any scene in which he's part, but not in any over-the top way. He's simply too talented to ignore, and hopefully will result in bigger roles in the future. Heroes star Hayden Panettiere has her biggest role to date as Kirby, a closet horror fan who is Charlie's romantic interest, though she regularly rebuffs his stunted advances. At first it looks like she might not bring much to the table except for a super-short haircut, but she proves to be more talented as the story progresses. Erik Knudson also enjoys his largest role so far as Robbie, Charlie's best friend and VP of the school's horror fan club. Knudson, who had small parts in last year's Youth in Revolt and Scott Pilgrim, is a character actor in the making who gets a chance to show his chops here. Sadly, these three are the only good parts of the supporting cast, with most of the others being either wrong or not talented enough for what they must do on screen. Despite coming from the acting lineage of aunt Julia and dad Eric, Emma Roberts doesn't seem to possess the skills to be anything more than a Nickelodeon star. The film does the best it can to try and mold her into a new generation's Sidney, but there's only so much that can be done with her. Alison Brie as Sidney's publicist is a do-nothing role that just screams "cannon fodder". The same is true for deputies Hoss and Perkins, played by legitimate actors Adam Brody and Anthony Anderson. Marley Shelton could have been interesting as a young deputy with eyes for Dewey, but not enough is done with her to be any good. Nico Tortorella and Marielle Jaffe are practically useless in their portrayal of other students in peril. Unlike the first film, there simply isn't anyone on the supporting cast to come anywhere near the same level of  the main three characters.

After a few years, Trick-or-Treaters learned to avoid the Prescott residence
In all, Scream 4 is a lot of fun. It might not be as good as the original, but after such a long absence, it has far more going for it than it probably deserves. If this project had been tackled without the writing talents of Williamson, the direction of Craven, and the acting core of Arquette, Campbell and Cox, I have no doubt that it would have been a true disaster upon release. With it's classic mix of horror and humor, Scream 4 is like being introduced to a long-lost friend; you're excited to see them again, and not a whole lot has changed. Familiar to a fault, Scream 4 won't be remembered as the best horror film this year, and any plans to create a new trilogy with this as the starter should be approached with careful precision if you want to get things right. It's a shame though that barely anyone made their way to the theaters for this release, as it's been a fairly disappointing year for the cinema. Expected blockbusters have been anything but, with films like Sucker Punch, Drive Angry and I Am Number Four failing to make an impact, and even successful films have barely been making more than their budgets back in ticket sales. With failures like these, its obvious Hollywood is going to have to do some major tinkering to figure out exactly what it is that will bring people back to the theaters. Until then, they'll keep putting out more of the same, and the patrons will slow to a trickle, threatening to stop altogether.

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