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Scream 4 and the Nature of Horror

Posted on the 27 November 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost
Scream 4 and the nature of horror

Movie poster for Scream 4

“How meta can you get?” is something that people in Scream 4 say. A lot. Most critics, when it came out last year, thought that it could have been, er, well, a bit less meta and a bit better. Which was a shame, since Scream (directed by Wes Craven and written by that most savvy of scribblers, Kevin Williamson), stands as a biting comment on horror films – and yet, as a truly biting horror film itself.

Scream 2, with its film within a film (Stab, starring Tori Spelling, and retelling the events of Scream) succeeded; Scream 3 was, though it had lost its bite, still enjoyable as practically a screwball comedy. They all followed the practised ruts of a horror film, in which an external force causes mayhem for a while, but is tamed and neutered. Like revenge tragedies, they bleed into each other; and like revenge tragedies, it’s very hard to stop the cycle. The Oresteia did it by chaining the Furies up underneath a statue of Athena – but you can’t do that with mask-wearing pyschopaths, can you? There just isn’t enough room.

So what of Scream 4? Well, I would argue that it has found a way to end the cycle. The meta-ness takes many forms. There has been a Stab franchise (they are now on the sixth – or seventh – outing; nobody can quite agree). Sidney Prescott (an always effective Neve Campbell), the original survivor of all three films (boy, she must have some scars, says someone wryly), has emerged from the darkness to write a memoir of her experiences, and returns to her home town to give a reading. Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox), the fast-talking reporter, is now married to dopey Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette), and unable to write her own novel (having written the book that Stab was based on). Meanwhile the high school students act out versions of Stab, hang up ghostface masks in reference to the original killers, and even have their own Stabathon, where they watch all the films in one go whilst brandishing fake knives.

The pacing of the first two thirds is uneven; new characters are either goofy (such as Dewey’s deputy and Sidney’s assistant, one of whom dies; the wrong one, in my opinion) or unbelievable, like the high school geek who records his entire experience on a webcam nailed to his head. Imagine Peepshow, but with added toilet time. Mercifully, we get none of that. The death scenes are not particularly frightening; and there is hardly a batsqueak of suspense. But it’s still watchable, as a curiosity.

Until the final reel, that is, when a surprise is sprung upon us in true Wes Craven style. The film becomes a mordant, affecting response to the horrors of social networking and the vapid need for fame, with echoes of Nicole Kidman’s To Die For. As a film, it’s entirely clued up (with references to mobiles, Facebook, Twitter and so on) – but these references are not merely window dressing. They are part of the texture of the whole, and essential to the success of the film.

The last third, when Sidney is running for her life, then becomes almost better than the first three films put together. The tension, previously entirely lacking, suddenly appears like a noose around the neck.  Everything is called into question: love, family, friendship; the nature of celebrity, the desire for an admired self. Nothing is sacred in Scream 4. Which makes it, perhaps, closer to the bone than any of its predecessors. And in the final scene, after the film has quietly managed to laugh at itself, you’re left feeling troubled, not cleansed; and that, surely, is what a horror film is meant to do.

As the final credits roll, the horror is rooted deep inside the viewer, much as it is when you read of true crime. There is nowhere left for the Scream series to go. In its meta-ness it returned to the beginning; but it’s also carved out a satisfying end.


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