Scream 4

The spread of reviews on this film is really curious, with many outright ignoring its ideas — lost, no doubt, in the sentimental haze cast by it being Wes Craven’s last film —and others reacting to them with hostility. The latter, more honest and fruitful as this is a film with ideas, still fall back on either vague suggestions or, I think, mistaken reading of intent: this is not, unlike the original, a film about slasher films, and its diegetic meta-commentary is indeed hollow because, above all else, it was largely voiced in the ‘95 film. The harshest criticisms center on Craven and Kevin Williamson’s out-of-touchness, generalized with accusations of “old man yells at cloud.” There’s a protectiveness here I think is understandable, a residue of defending younger generations from conservative critics that has a way of obscuring understanding of actual critiques in a reactionary manner — unless, of course, you dress your film up in Harris Savides or Benoît Debie cinematography.

This misses the film’s sharpness, but some things should be admitted openly: the “teens” are unconvincing in the extreme, and the ways Craven and Williamson force technology into the scenarios is obvious and unoriginal — but that’s like complaining the characters in The Godfather talk in Guido voices and wear fedoras. How many slasher films have realistic teens? How many of them neorealistically attune themselves to the specificities of a cultural moment (beyond the art department)? Or are we, (and have been always) talking about something more symbolic and poetic here, a contradictory dialogue between a national conscious and unconscious? And, are slashers not caught in a refractory network of reacting to each other’s structures, styles, and iconographies? I feel like Craven was given a hard time along these lines for something many other filmmakers are absolved of, when really he’s continuing in the narrative tradition he helped pioneer.

That this is his last film is almost too disheartening because it is, by far, his darkest and least hopeful, and Craven had aged in many ways into the most affirmational of all horror filmmakers. Naturally, it’s partially coincidence that this was so, as his life was cut short soon after, so I don’t think too much auteurist hot air can be pumped from the fact, but it does dialogue well with his career, particularly the direction it took from New Nightmare onward. Called back for yet another sequel, and aware of the direction the genre was heading, the bitterness is understandable — perhaps even earned. The film has a way of concluding a thread started in the ‘90 film, a questioning of the why’s of genre narrativity. In the land of remakes, however, this becomes more caustic, Craven and Williamson adjusting the ideas accordingly. In New Nightmare, narrative helped wrestle with an ancient and permanent evil; spurred by Heather Langenkamp’s anxieties over motherhood, we can really take this ancient evil to mean, gasp, the unconscious: narrative is used, per Craven’s formulation at least, to articulate, channel, and release the darker aspects of our nature. Scream 4 is similarly interested in the “why” of continuing to create genre narrative, but unlike New Nightmare, the answer is abyssal and terrifying, not reassuring and personal. It presents narrative as a self-perpetuating monster, cannibalizing its tail like an ouroboros — but not cosmically so. No, this monster is fed and maintained with human purpose, and as it perpetuates itself the original essence is progressively lost, until only the images are what matter, the content long drowned in irony.

”At least Woodsboro’s known for something.

The economic reasons for this perpetuation having already been covered in Scream 3, Craven pivots back to the original’s territory in focusing on the townspeople themselves and their responsibility in this process. Somewhat dangerously, as the negative reviews attest, he and Williamson center their vision on the youth — but one could miss here a subtlety: the film’s adult characters are casually revealed as almost uniformly possessed by ressentiment and emotional cynicism, desirous of the attention devoted on Neve Campbell’s Sydney: even Mary McDonnell’s character has a moment of jealously reflecting that no one asks about her pain. The teens present the extreme end of this trend, the culmination of the adults’ narcissism; in this way, they also, classically, play into the structural rules of the slasher, where a group of teens play out tensions much larger than themselves. So, again, what exactly is his fumble here? The critique is not limited to the teens, but they are the actors for the critique, and yes, they come up for some criticism. Emma Roberts' character might be the most cynical creation in Craven’s filmography, a vision of youth as obsessed with celebrity and being seen. This obsession is all-consuming: anything — family, friends — can be tossed on its pyre. Devoid of actual vision for the future, this obsession reaches backwards, mines and apes the past, and, leaping beyond mere LARPing, actively recreates trauma so as to shape its own image. Craven and Williamson imagine an arms race for trauma and narrative that blurs reality and fiction, one of the least friendly takes on us as “artists” of our own lives.

Roberts’ Jill is double sided: in a way, she is the spirit of remakes, recreating originals in a desperate reach for her own recognition; more interestingly, she is the social reflection of this trend: of a fecund culture, her only recourse is the “authentic” past, a past she has no real understanding of. Her and Rory Culkin’s Charlie (in a cheeky director/starlet pairing echoing that of Craven/Campbell) can only make old movies, only recycle old narratives, embellished by increased brutality (one of the more effective meta-comments). You could say Craven and Williamson are bullying teens here with this but that ungenerously misses what is implicit: a culture built on the diminishing returns of recycled narrative and images will eventually, violently, eat itself; in fact, it already is.