I've Been Wrong About Scream 4 for 10 Years

Emma Roberts and Ghostface.
Emma Roberts and Ghostface.
Photo: Dimension Films
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It took me 30 minutes to remember who the killers were in Scream 4. That’s how long it had been since I’d seen it, let alone thought about it.

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You see, I’m a fan of the Scream franchise. I’ve seen the first three films dozens of times. Ask me about those killers and I’d spout off: “Stu, Billy, Billy’s mom, Mickey (Timothy Olyphant!), Roman.” But Scream 4? I was watching with fresh eyes until it all clicked in. Those fresh eyes are probably a big reason why, on the occasion of its 10 year anniversary on April 15, I’m ready to say it.

I was wrong about Scream 4. All this time I thought it was totally forgettable when, in reality, it’s fucking awesome.

I think those 10 years play a huge role in that change of heart. When Scream 4 —directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson—was released in 2011, obviously, social media was a big thing. Since then though, it’s gotten bigger than maybe anyone could have ever imagined. So now, watching a film about a killer who hopes to murder and lie their way to becoming internet famous seems shockingly plausible. Ten years ago? Maybe a little less so. Fame was still, at the time, a little less attainable than playing video games on Twitch, eating food on TikTok, or opening boxes on YouTube. Now, kids just want to be famous for doing nothing because so many of them have been able to do just that.

(If you’re like me and don’t remember who the Scream 4 killers are, go watch it now and come back, because I have to talk about them.)

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That right there, a “spoiler warning,” might have been the biggest downfall of Scream 4. It’s a film where the biggest part of what makes it so unique and interesting is stuffed into the last 20 minutes. Especially when it was released, you didn’t want to talk about those 20 minutes for fear of spoiling the movie for everyone. So many of the juiciest bits probably got a little forgotten or under-analyzed. The fact is the killers are revealed to be film nerd Charlie (Rory Culkin) and Jill (Emma Roberts), who is the cousin of original Scream survivor Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell).

Jill explains it’s been hard growing up having a family member who is so incredibly famous (for being the subject of murderous rampages which were turned into books which were then turned into the popular Stab movies) and realizes she wanted some of that fame and attention. But she doesn’t want to work for it. She decides teaming up with Charlie for a series of murders resembling the murders from the first film would do just that. Especially if people thought she wasn’t the killer, but the survivor. The hero. The Sidney.

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Cousins.
Photo: Dimension Films

Scream 4 takes things up a notch after that. Jill purposefully kills Charlie, saying people prefer a “lone survivor” and the finale moves from the house, where it ended in the first Scream, to the hospital. There, Jill is about to get every bit of fame she’d ever dreamed of with one small problem. She didn’t quite kill Sidney, leading to a thrilling climax where she, Courteney Cox’s Gale, David Arquette’s Dewey, and Marley Shelton’s Deputy Judy heroically team up to defeat her. The movie ends on the media applauding Jill’s heroism in taking down the “killer” (she framed her ex-boyfriend) without the knowledge that upstairs from where they’re standing, Jill is now dead and the story has gotten even bigger. Though, to be fair, she’ll probably be even more famous dead than alive.

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By ending the film there, with Jill’s death, a misinformed media, and no real respite for the true heroes, Williamson and Craven leave Scream 4 on a much more complex note than the previous three films. There are real implications to consider, both for the characters and the audience; the story isn’t totally wrapped up, we don’t know what happens next for Sidney or the town of Woodsboro, and there’s no way to tell how everyone will react when the real truth comes out, if it even does. Now we the audience have to admit if this was real, we would absolutely be fascinated and obsessed with Jill just like she wanted, though she’s evil and we shouldn’t be. It’s a mirror on ourselves. A layered, devious little ending that stands apart not just from many mainstream film endings, but horror film endings especially. It’s excellent.

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It’s also interesting to note that while we’re now talking about the 10-year anniversary of this film (with Scream 5 on the way), Scream 4 came out 11 years after Scream 3. Much as in this case, that decade of waiting probably had a huge impact on the film’s reception. Scream 4 did OK at the box office but was not nearly the hit of the first three. It all but killed the franchise theatrically (though it did find life again on TV) partially because, in the 10 years between movies, all kinds of unattainable expectations were built. It was difficult, at least for me personally, to judge Scream 4 both just on its own and as a part of the larger franchise.

Because, you see, here’s where I bring in my own Scream-worthy meta-twist to this review. Unlike other Retro Reviews I’ve written in the past (Contact, The Last Starfighter, and Close Encounters, to make a few cheap plugs!) Scream 4 is the first film I’m revisiting that I actually reviewed upon release. I wrote about it almost exactly 10 years ago at my previous gig at /Film. I can’t say it’s a review I’m particularly proud of, but it exists, and it offers a unique window into my thoughts at the time.

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Gross.
Photo: Dimension Films

Those thoughts were mainly: “It was supposed to be scary.” But dude (and I’m referring to myself 10 years ago here), the Scream movies were rarely ever “scary.” They were intense and occasionally made you jump out of your seat, but that was never the main objective. The point was to subvert the horror genre by making them a whodunit as well as use tropes from other horror films against the audience—Scream 4 does all of that beautifully. Maybe too much so.

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It starts by giving you not one, but two, fake-outs of traditional Scream intros before getting to the actual one, which is largely a commentary on the first two. Making Jill, the main character, the primary killer is also a new twist—though admittedly, that you need to account for her whereabouts makes suspension of disbelief a little more crucial in this sequel. But that’s okay. Making her partner the film nerd Charlie, which is not just obvious but also a callback to Scream 2, makes you sure he couldn’t be the killer. There’s also the whole background thread of the Stab movie franchise becoming so overplayed, it’s now overshadowing reality. In addition, more so than the previous two films, Scream 4 gives indications throughout that almost every single person could be the killer. Well, except maybe Dewey (David Arquette) who is so hilariously playing catch-up the entire time, you can’t help but still love him.

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You may also have forgotten just how impressive and massive the cast is. One of the openings features Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell. Adam Brody and Anthony Anderson play two of the cops. Allison Brie is a slimy publicist. Of course, the main three characters come back (Cox especially is really great in the movie) and the kids throughout are wonderful, especially Hayden Panettiere—who spent many years post-Heroes and Scream in the very un-genre series Nashville. It would be nice to see her show back up in this realm again.

Some of the knocks in my original review do still hold though. It being the fourth film, even the jump scares are nearly non-existent here. The characters are also hilariously unconcerned about everything going on around them (really, you’re actually going to this film festival with a killer on the loose?), but the kills are decidedly grosser in this installment. Plus the multiple layers of these kids being fans of movies based on books based on reality, which is just actually a movie for us, the audience, makes the whole thing almost hard to watch at times because there’s so much going on. But that actually makes it pretty refreshing.

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Don’t kiss him Hayden!
Photo: Dimension Films

In the end, I think I’d probably move Scream 4 into either my second or third slot in the Scream rankings after this 10-year revisit. Nothing will ever touch the originality of the first, but Craven and Williamson really stepped it up here to make a film not just worthy of the franchise, but an evolution of it. That it ended up being Craven’s final film as a director is, obviously, sad no matter what. But it gives me a nice feeling knowing his last film wasn’t the mediocre waste I spent the last decade thinking it was. It’s actually a hugely entertaining, wildly smart, and way ahead of its time as a dissection of a future that had not yet come to fruition. Scream 5 has huge shoes to fill.

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Scream 4 is currently not streaming on any service (though it pops on and off every few months) but is available for digital download and rent in all the usual places.

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Entertainment Reporter for io9/Gizmodo

DISCUSSION

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Still trash for me, and it all starts with a terrible new cast save for Rory* Culkin (who can’t help but be good in everything, and the best newcomers are in the all-too-brief cameo walk-ons). Besides the “meta” humor that was as stale in 2011 as the genre itself when Scream freshened it up in 1996, there’s something...I guess you can say mean-spirited about the whole thing that I disliked.

Not that a horror movie should be a pleasant walk through the park, but there was a comic zeal and the way the material truly liked its characters in the original movies that gave me an attachment to those characters, so it felt like something was on the line when the stakes began to raise. Here, the violence and attitudes towards its characters is so ugly, it feels...it’s hard to articulate, but I guess “distasteful” is the right word. I didn’t care about the newcomers, the cast was too weak to elevate the material, and all the ingenuity of the first two movies (I also didn’t care for 3) were gone. And judging by the box office apathy (Scream 3 made more in its opening weekend than Scream 4 did in its whole US run despite a decade of inflation), I certainly wasn’t alone in being unmoved by the whole experience.

*I meant to say Rory; both Culkins are terrific in everything I see them in.