Monday, August 29, 2011

What's your favourite scary movie?

Though horror movies are far from my favourite genre, I love the Scream series of movies. These films take a look at the horror film in a delightfully satirical, tongue-in-cheek way: the characters expound on the rules of the horror movie, proudly avoid the same stupid mistakes, and then turn around and make new stupid mistakes. This layer of satire is what makes the first two films, Scream and Scream 2, stand up above your average violent slasher flick. While still violent (and rather scary) movies, they have a fun habit of mocking themselves in the process and it makes for great watching.

Something happened by the time Scream 3 rolled along, however. The series became lazy and started to come up with outlandish situations… but it took itself seriously. The charm of the first two movies was the characters’ self-awareness, but in Scream 3, these scenes were very few, far between, and not nearly as successful. There are some moments in the movie—like a very good chase through a movie set, or a cameo by Carrie Fischer in which she takes a fun crack at herself and the character she played in Star Wars—but overall, Scream 3 fell flat, feeling like little more than an attempt to cash in.

Which brings us to Scream 4, released earlier this year. Scream 4 realises what its predecessor did wrong and strives to correct its mistakes—and the result is a movie just as fun and watchable as the first two films (although it’s far more graphic in terms of violence, making me wince in several spots). You may or may not know the drill: Sidney Prescott, who was involved in the original series of killings, returns to her home town of Woodsboro to promote her new book. And lo and behold! Someone decides it’s the perfect time to take up the mantle of Ghostface and start a new, 21st century killing spree. Neve Campbell returns as Sidney, Courtney Cox returns as Gale Weathers, and David Arquette returns as Dewey Riley, who is now the sheriff. For me, the key returning player is Roger L. Jackson, who voices the killer in every movie and does a hell of a job.

Here’s a fun game to play at a party: how
many of these people will survive?
The point of Scream 4 is to mock Hollywood remakes of classic horror movies, a far better target than “rules of a trilogy” that Scream 3 cursorily touched upon. In recent years, we’ve seen a wave of remakes inferior to the originals, and of course, much more brutal, graphic, and violent. (I particularly hold Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake in contempt.)The new Ghostface killer seems to be patterning his killings on the original Woodsboro massacre (chronicled in Scream) and as the characters eventually find out, the killer is filming the murders as they are committed.

What I like so much about the original Scream is that it is a genuine whodunit. You can figure out the killer, and some really good clues and red herrings are given to the viewer (though, viewed from a modern-day perspective, you have to keep in mind the time period, especially when discussions on cell phones arise). Scream 2 is a step down—while you can still deduce whodunit, some clues are withheld from the audience and make it less satisfying. Scream 3 is a total cheat on the audience, and yet ironically, its cheating makes the puzzle even easier to solve. Scream 4, however, makes a common mistake with mysteries: it assumes that having the killer soliloquize about their motives makes it a mystery. Incorrect, my fatheads! You can substitute anyone else’s name as the killer and it would make no difference at all. No clues ever point to the killer as the killer, and as a result, the mystery is extremely poor.

However, Scream 4 is a genuine improvement on its predecessor overall. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and the characters are again their same old selves. In Scream 3, Gale Weathers can do nothing without screaming for Dewey’s help. Dewey became a superman; Gale lost her vitality and spunk and just screamed… The only character who emerged unscathed was Sidney, played with grace and charm by Neve Campbell. Scream 4 realizes this: Gale is frustrated, suffering from a creative block, and decides to solve the murders herself. Here is the character from the first two films, with incredible energy, independence, and intelligence to boot!

You're so dead.
Another improvement is in terms of plot. Scream 4 is much stronger than Scream 3, which dangled its plot in front of the audience’s nose in a most conspicuous manner. It would make for a great MST3K episode—whenever a certain character enters onscreen, you might as well announce: “And our red herring for this evening…” It wouldn’t be too bad if Scream 3 was more light-hearted about it, but it is ungodly serious, becoming the kind of movie the first Scream mocked. Another thing I disliked was Ghostface’s technology in Scream 3: the first two movies had a killer who was limited to a voice changer that came out with Roger L. Jackson’s voice. In Scream 3, the killer can replicate any voice, and this plot device is hammered out to death. Sometimes, simplicity is just better.

Scream 4 learned these lessons and gives us satire back, creatively executed and in a prominent role. The movie starts with a few unexpected surprises, and the jump scares throughout are more creative. One of my favourites is when a jump scare is provided by nothing more than a flowerpot. It’s not even thrown by the killer. You just have to see it for yourself. The movie takes cracks at phenomena that have become more frequent since the original films came out—fanboyism, the advent of technology, etc. Also throughout the film there are fun references to the originals, such as Gale Weather’s confrontation with a rather obnoxious lady, reminding us of a similar encounter with an obnoxious wannabe-reporter. Thus, the satire returns quite prominently and makes the movie very entertaining.

I’m not a fan of brutal violence, and that makes Scream 4 a bit problematic in my view. I just don’t like seeing disembowelling, dismemberment, decapitation, etc. so graphically. (In Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, on the other hand, there are plenty of decapitations on screen but they are done in a delightfully cheesy way. That movie, incidentally, is a good mystery where the supernatural is accepted and integrated into the puzzle.) Even the stabbing is hard to take in this movie (especially in comparison with the first movies), as the blood oozes in a sickening way everywhere and is just disgusting to look at. Then again, perhaps that’s the point. Hollywood remakes are gorier and more brutal than the originals and that could be the effect Scream 4 was going for. Still, whether successful or not, there were several moments where I had a rather hard time looking at the screen.

Overall, despite my purely personal reservations about the graphic violence, I’d place Scream 4 on the same level as Scream and Scream 2. It’s a highly entertaining movie that realises the mistakes its predecessor made, and it doesn’t fall into them. At the same time, it’s an effectively scary horror movie and injects fun and vitality into a franchise that seemed dead. This is what Scream 3 should have been.


  1. Excellent review - I loved this when it came out as per my blog post

    However, I watched it again when it came out on DVD this week and found it very flat when you know what's coming. Even more so that Scream 3, on the second viewing, all I could see was it's shortcoming, especially in the mystery element.

    But you're right about the flower pot. Best bit of the film, along with Sydney's last line.

  2. Heya Doc, thanks for commenting.

    I'm not sure how rewatchable this movie is, but it definitely has its scary moments. It's more creative in terms of its jump scares, but upon reflection, it doesn't really have a scene of tension that makes it stand out, like the escape from the locked car in "Scream 2" or the opening of "Scream".

    I neglected to expound on the movies-within-the-movies, but I highly enjoyed those. The brief glimpses you get of "Stab" are a spot-on rendition of what "Scream" would have been as a relatively cheap, average horror movie, complete with technical goofs.

  3. The problem is that the horror movie has moved from being a sort of dark fantasy to being full blown grand guignol. It's unlikely to change because most movies are aimed at 14-18 year olds who see horror movies as a test of their bravery and are unlikely to respond to subtlety or understatement.

  4. The ending ruined the overall enjoyment of this movie for me. Something (very subtle) happened towards the end that made me perk up and expect an original, exceedingly dark ending. But no, they had to go with the predicate, lets send the audience home happy, Hollywood crap ending.

    I still think the first Scream movie was the best of the bunch. After that, it became the run-of-the-mill slasher series the first installment was poking fun at.

  5. My favorite "horror" movie is "Wait Until Dark," starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin. Hepburn plays a blind woman who is terrorized by a trio of criminals. It's based on a classic stage play, which unfortunately may be never be performed again after next year thanks to short-sighted legislation.

  6. @TomCat
    I know what you mean, but as a fan of the series, I breathed a sigh of relief when it turned out they weren't going for the extremely dark ending. I think you're a bit harsh on "Scream 2", which had a valid target in sequels and really ran with the idea, plus it had some very good scenes. The escape from the locked police car is one of my favourite scenes in the entire series- it's brilliantly done! Then you have other priceless scenes like Buffy getting done in by Ghostface, Randy's phone conversation, and a random one-man musical number... :)

    I too enjoy the movie, but I'm afraid I have no idea what legislation you refer to there with the play.

  7. *** SPOILERS***

    The legislation I refer to are the new laws phasing out the sale of incandescent light bulbs. You can't smash compact florescent bulbs on stage- people might get mercury poisoning!

  8. Hey bro nice review! You hit some very good points throughout.

    As a fanatic of the Scream movies; the original is still my favorite but part 4 is perhaps the second best entry followed by the 2nd and 3rd.