NOTE: Heavy spoilers for the first 15 minutes of Scream 4 follow, plus some vague spoilers for the rest of the film.
Since I've devoted several posts to the Scream franchise in the past, one as recently as last week, I wasn't surprised when I got a few Tweets and emails asking for my take on the latest entry in the series, Scream 4. Not wanting to ruin the surprises of the film, I went mostly radio-silent about it on Twitter, except to say that I enjoyed the film. I didn't think it was the equal of the first one, but let's be honest - topping the first one would have been almost impossible. I was hoping it would be better than Scream 3, and on that order it delivered, coming in more or less even with Scream 2.
I've harped a lot on the importance of a strong opening in a film. The best specs I read usually have an opening sequence that defines the film and its world in an incredibly effective way. The worst tend to just lazily drop us into the world and trot the main characters out one by one. The original Scream had an unforgettable opening that just oozed tension. Once you watched it, the only way you weren't going to stick around for the rest was if you scared easily. In both Scream sequels, the opening kills have often been some of the better executed sequences in the film, so the new movie had it's work cut out for it.
The opening scene initially left me disappointed, until I got what the creators were going for. We open with two teens - played by Pretty Little Liars' Lucy Hale and 90210's Shenae Grimes - who pretty much embody everything the original Scream characters weren't. One is dumb enough to keep talking to a Facebook stalker, and another one when faced with a threatening phone call from the killer, first hangs up, and then later passes the phone to her friend. (Grimes by the way, makes ZERO effort to distinguish this character from her 90210 role, right down to the same acting ticks.) Moments later, these girls are dumb enough to actually open the front door when it might as well be flashing "KILLER ON THE OTHER SIDE."
So it's no shock when these two are swiftly dispatched, and just as I'm thinking "Wow, that was oddly tensionless for a Scream opening," the title card for Stab 5 comes up and I realize the joke is on me. It puts a clever spin on what we just saw. After all, in a world where Stab 5 is supposed to be of questionable quality, Shenae Grimes WOULD be its Drew Barrymore. Consider that a point for the casting people. (This is probably the best place to note that Scream 4 continues the series tradition of strong casting, not just for the genre, but for a feature in general.)
Enter Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell as the viewers of the aforementioned Stab sequel, cue the usual meta speech about how horror films are trapped in their old habits and aren't surprising anymore. (The meta perhaps is carried out a beat longer than necessary, but again, I'm betting that's intentional) Then, surprise the hell out of the audience by having Bell stab Paquin and ask, "Are you surprised?" As I'm thinking, "Are they really tipping their hand on one of the killers this early?"cue the title card for Stab 6.
Inspired. Rather than go for the scares, Williamson and Craven take more of a chance and go for the in-jokes, making it clear that whenever someone criticizes the Stab films, we should read that as "every bad horror film of the last ten years." Just as I'm thinking, "Wait... how can Stab 5 be happening inside Stab 6 and still be a coherent franchise" the film literally verbalizes my thoughts through the character played by Britt Robertson, who's watching Stab 6 with a character played by Aimee Teegarden.
That instilled me with a lot of faith that the film was in the hands of people with a mindset like mine, and who were going to ask the questions that a smart viewer would ask. Scream was the godfather of staying one step ahead of the audience and then using that lead to confuse the hell out of them. After Robertson and Teegarden do some due diligence on exposition, they're dispatched rather quickly. As a scary scene, it's easily the least impressive of the four films, likely because the creators realized that it would be impossible building up any sort of tension immediately after the two false openings. Overall, I think the opening works.
From there we move on to a scene that introduces Sidney's young cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), and her friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe.) Given that Olivia looks a good five years older than the girls and seems to have stepped right out of a modeling catalog, you'd do well to wager that she's going to be the "early kill who ends up in a state of undress." The girls chatter about Jill's creepy ex-boyfriend bothering them all, and any fan of this series knows that means he's being set-up to be either the killer or a red herring that'll be called into service throughout the film. Not bad for a guy who hasn't even showed up yet. Then we go to school and meet even more new teens, in a way that doesn't precisely mirror the original Scream even as it evokes the spirit of those scenes. It doesn't feel like Scream so much as Scream: The Next Generation.
And that is probably the slickest bit of misdirection here. By going straight into the new cast, complete with proto-Sidney in the form of Jill, we're made to subliminally see this film as a passing of the torch. The opening seems to be saying, "Here's the new cast - enjoy the cameos by your old friends, but you'll be seeing a lot of these young faces in the inevitable sequel."
After all, that's how these franchises work. Slasher films are largely a teen-driven affair, and when the actors outgrow their parts, they're replaced by new ingenues. Actually, that's true in other genres. One day you're playing Danny in Grease, the next you're playing the DJ at the dance. Basically, by bringing in so much fresh blood, we seem to be primed for the old-timers to drop one-by-one.
And yet, once again, Williamson and Craven find a way to use our expectations against us. If you saw the film this weekend, you know EXACTLY what I'm talking about.