Note: The second half of this article contains many spoilers about who does and doesn't survive Scream 4, (as well as Serenity.) You have been warned.
When writing a thriller or an action movie, one of the most important things a writer can convey is the sense that the script might have the stones to do the unpredictable and actually knock off a main character or two before the end. I believe this is what Blake Snyder called, "the whiff of death."
One recent film that really conveyed this feeling was Taken. Part of the reason I got drawn into the script is there was just something about the tone that gave me the sense the filmmakers would have the balls to end the film on a dark note. It was the kind of film that could have ended with Liam Neeson failing, and his daughter winding up either dead or sold into sexual slavery. The brilliant thing about that is that once you convince the audience that the unpleasant is possible, the "happy ending" is so much more of a relief and release.
Sometimes in order to make these stakes real, you've got to sacrifice a beloved character. The thinking is that if the audience sees you gun down an audience favorite, you've proven that affection for the characters alone won't save them and everyone is fair game. Supposedly, when Return of the Jedi was being developed, screenwriter Lawrence Kasden was a major proponent for killing off one of the core characters at some point in the story. He felt it would have been more powerful for the Rebel victory to come at some cost, and he was a major advocate for killing a character early in Act Three, so that the audience would worry that they were just the first of several.
In most accounts, Lando is the character considered most expendable, and he would have been killed after detonating the Death Star and failing to escape the blast in time. Harrison Ford was also a major proponent of killing off Han Solo, feeling the character had nowhere to go, so he might as well die and give the whole story some resonance. As you know, all the heroes came out unscathed, and it's possible the film wouldn't have been as big a hit if Han bit the dust. Then again, if that had been part of the plan from the start, perhaps it would have helped set the tone of the film more in the vein of The Empire Strikes Back. (Or it would have clashed like hell with the kid-friendly Ewoks, making the film even more uneven as a result.)
Serenity is a good example of this detail being executed properly. The film was spun off from the TV series Firefly and was hoped to be the first of several films with the TV cast. This made it all the more shocking when little more than halfway through the script, the Shepherd Book is killed. Even more traumatic to fans, less than half an hour later, beloved pilot Wash is swiftly killed after getting the ship on the ground mid-battle.
Two much-liked characters dead - and what does the film gain? Tension. Writer/director Joss Whedon used those deaths to set the stage for a climactic final battle where most of the survivors are in the middle of a pitched battle against the ravenous Reavers. Suddenly it doesn't seem unlikely that Whedon might go for an ending that has ALL of the Serenity crew go down in battle, and sure enough, as the fight progresses, there's a moment where it seems everyone's in mortal danger. Even when River ensures everyone else's safety and takes on the horde herself, we're still not sure that her noble sacrifice won't be a permanent one. There's only one thing we're sure of about the ending - anything can happen.
Fans still call for Whedon's head for killing Wash, but what that loss did for the climax is immeasurable. The alternative would have been a case like the original Star Trek, where very week you knew that if someone was going to die, it'd only be the nameless extra who beamed down to the planet with Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Kill a core character, and suddenly everyone feels like fair game.
Which brings me to Scream 4. Last week I said that I hoped that Neve Campbell's Sidney wouldn't be killed off over the course of the film, especially as part of a bid to hand off the franchise to younger characters. Even after seeing the film, I still stand by that thought. Sidney IS the franchise and the neatest trick of this latest sequel is that rather than diminishing that, it's a flat-out confirmation of that fact.
I might as well just say this flat-out - the film completely cleans house on the new teenage cast. None of the fresh-faced CW types make it out of this film alive, nor do any of the other new characters, save for Marley Shelton's Deputy Judy. The returning characters of Sidney, Gale Weathers and Dewey Riley all survive to the final fade-out. After seeing the film, I feel like there should have been one core-cast death ala Wash, as it would have lent more tension to the climax when Sidney seems VERY likely to meet her maker.
There's a scene about halfway through the film where Gale encounters the killer and gets stabbed a few times. Dewey is quickly on the scene too and has a brief tussle with the killer before he (or she) gets away. Despite a very brief attempt to convince us that Gale might die, it's pretty clear by the time we see her at the hospital that if they were going to kill her, they'd have done it already.
One of Scream 2's best decisions was killing off Randy. No one wanted to see Randy die - he was one of the fan favorites from the first film. He was part of the core group who returned from the original so there was the sense that he was a bit more invincible, and he CERTAINLY wasn't supposed to be killed mid-movie. When Randy was killed partway through the film, it lent the sense that an even bigger casualty was possible later.
In my humble opinion, that's what Scream 4 was missing, but I'm not naive enough to think that the option was never discussed. I've worked in development when these sorts of franchise films are being developed and there's always a point where the possibility of killing a core character is considered. Maybe the filmmakers still regretted killing off Randy and got gunshy about offing another "regular." Maybe the actor in question balked at coming back just to die, or maybe the studio worried about what would happen if one of the core three died. We can't know, but I'm sure it was on the table at some point.
The issue is made a little bigger by the fact that neither Gale nor Dewey have an especially integral role to the story, and there's very little they have to accomplish after their brush with Ghostface (save for their role in the climax.) Killing one of them might have energized the character arc of the other, and given that character a stronger emotional arc to play.
My preference probably would have been to use Gale's horrible wound as a red herring and then - while the audience is still reeling at the possibility that she might bleed to death - have the killer finish off Dewey. This helps in several ways. First, Dewey's survived severe stabbings in all of the other films. When he first goes down, the audience might expect another fakeout - giving his death that much more impact. Secondly, as the only "new" character to survive to the end is the Deputy, we've already got someone who can fill Dewey's role in the climax of the film. Finally, it means that Gale gets the story she's been trying to find, but it comes at the cost of her husband.
And of course, this means that when the killer stabs Sidney in the gut and it looks like we're seeing the series heroine bleed to death, the first thing in our minds is, "They killed Dewey, Gale's hanging on by a thread, so they're probably cleaning house and this really is it for Sidney."
(I will admit that I'm so used to trying to out-think the creators that when Sidney was stabbed, I didn't dismiss it as a fake out, for I assumed that NOT killing Gale earlier was to lull us into a false sense of security that our old friends would make it out alive. Basically, I didn't trust them not to reverse the reversal.)
In the end, I don't think this is a huge black mark against the film. In fact, given the way the Cox/Arquette relationship talk dominated some of the press for this film, actually killing off one of those two might have only lead to some uncomfortable speculation about behind-the-scenes tensions.
But I can't help but wonder - if Dewey died, how would that have affected the reaction in the theater when Sidney takes what appears to be a mortal wound? I bet it would have led to even bigger cheers when she tells the killer: "First rule of remakes - Don't fuck with the original."