We All Scream for… Not This

A decade after the last installment, one of America’s most influential horror film franchises returned on April 15, 2011.  Scream 4 opened at a modest $18.7 million, good for second place.  It tumbled 62% in its second weekend to a paltry $7.2M.  What was once innovative becomes hopelessly outdated if it doesn’t adapt and evolve.  Scream didn’t.  The series that seemed so cooler-than-thou at its outset has become just another product in a crowded marketplace.  It’s safe to say that the face of the horror genre is no longer the “Ghostface” made iconic in the 1990s.  The face of the genre today is probably a zombie’s bloody leer.

As for me, I’ll always curse the Scream series’ name.  Not because the second two sucked, but for de-constructing the workings of the horror genre in an attempt to seem hip and smart, while only making serious horror look stupid; for de-fanging a form based on menace, making it fit for mass consumption but damn near un-scary; and for dragging out the dull concept of the dude with a knife, long after it had become cliché.

But even for me, it’s a little sad to see Scream become irrelevant.

Love it or hate it, the first movie has an indelible place in horror history.  When Hollywood spots a trend, it snatches it like a catnip treat and rolls around with it until there’s nothing left but unrecognizable scraps.  We can’t blame Wes Craven or the films themselves, but until The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project closed the decade strong, the 1990s were dominated by painfully ear-piercing echoes of Scream.

If you dig fright flicks and you’re over 25, you might have been pleased that this mainstream hit made horror hot again after a long fallow period.  During the Clinton Administration, the economy was good and we felt safe from annihilation but almost nothing original was finding its way to movie screens in the U.S.  At least not in the category Scream refers to, in a rather juvenile manner, as “scary movies.”

One breath of fresh air, or gust of wind from a charnel house, was Candyman (1992). That lurid phantasmagoria would be original in any decade.  But the slasher was dead in a way the bad guy in the movie never is.  Audiences had grown as weary of slashing as Jason Voorhees’ machete-swinging arm.  And before movies like Blair Witch, The Ring and 28 Days Later cleared new paths, to many it seemed like a psycho with a sharp instrument was the only definition of horror.

Screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s Scream (1996) stuck to that tired template, but it did bring something new to the table.  It was meta, it was sly, and it didn’t cast a bunch of unskilled no-names to suck face and get stalked the way the Friday the 13th movies had a decade before.

This movie took hot talent from teens’ top TV shows and put them right on the poster.  Hunky guys and fresh-faced females that the fairer sex not only recognized, but might adore.  Courteney Cox from Friends. Neve Campbell from Party of Five. Plus, a real movie star, Drew Barrymore.  Ole’ Ghostface sat down at his drafting table and drew up the blueprint for horror aimed at teenage girls.

As a movie, it wasn’t half bad.  Scream had a harrowing opening set-piece that set a bar the rest of the movie couldn’t touch, but overall the flick was a suspenseful and clever bit of business.  It toyed with and teased the horror genre, but it tried pretty hard to deliver an actual horror film as well.

The film created a new paradigm for Hollywood horror that was easy to screw up.  A parade of jokey, watered-down exercises in empty suspense followed.  The business model was that if you took a bunch of pretty faces from the small screen, a “whodunit” mystery element and a lot of shadowy corridors to traverse, you had a horror movie.

At best, the films inspired by Scream were shallowly manipulative but entertaining.  At worst, they were what no horror film should be: toothless.  Maybe they played by “the rules” outlined by Jamie Kennedy’s character in Scream, but they failed to meet the true definition of a horror film.  There was nothing transgressive, shocking or unsettling about this stuff, unless ‘90s fashion counts.

So what’s Stogie’s take on Scream 4?  “Pleasantly mediocre.”  The movie is decidedly old-fashioned and more than a bit uneven, but you could do worse things on a date.  That said, as a self-referential comment on the genre this thing not only fails the test, it decides to sleep in and send its stoned cousin.

The last decade of horror is addressed in a few glancing references to torture porn and zombies, as this weary iteration of a now passé series decides to leave trailblazing to the young.  There are moments of satire that skewer sequels and remakes effectively, but they come from a conservative stance.  Content to take its position as the creaky old guard, the movie makes the statement “Never f##k with the original” in dialogue.  Wait, wasn’t that exactly what the first Scream was doing to its elders?

Happily, this time around we don’t really need another Scream movie to revive the genre.  There is provocative work coming out of Europe and Asia.  In the U.S., filmmakers are finding new things to do with ghosts, zombies, vampires and werewolves.  Producers aren’t as unwilling to take risks because audiences have proven to be open-minded and unafraid of being afraid.  We’ve survived the short-lived spate of Saw imitators, thanks be to all that is unholy, and the horror genre is healthy.

As for Scream, it can take its rightful place as the answer to one of a raspy-voiced caller’s trivia questions.

— Stogie Joe