Monday, April 18, 2011

The opening of Scream 4 - expectations and misdirection

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.


  1. I disagree... if they really wanted to add tension after those two Stab films, I think they could have at least tried. Instead of giving us a 4 minute scene Britt and Aimee, why not add an extra five minutes and pull of a good scare scene? That's what bugged me about the opening. I really did like the Stab stuff though, funny.

    (P.S. Scream 1 and 2 are my favourite movies of all time -- and I don't think 4 really comes close sadly. It's enjoyable and definitely a fun time, but I kinda hate how it turned into a self-parody -- and also, Kevin Williamson's planned trilogy has seemed to have been scrapped because of the way they deicded to end it... shame)

  2. Given the comedic tone of the Stab openings, I really, really doubt any attempt at tension and horror on the order of the first film's opening could have been achieved with even an additional five minutes. It's too big of a gear change and adding more time would probably more likely just throw off the pacing of the script than get the audience screaming.

    I recall Spielberg talking about how in Jaws, he went back and added the shot of Ben Gardner's head popping out of the boat after some early test screenings. That new shot got bigger screams than the original version of that shot (which was more understated), but there was a trade-off: people didn't scream quite as much at the shark when it popped up next to the Orca. So Spielberg got a bigger reaction early on, but that early deflation of tension tempered the later reaction. And those scenes are about a half-hour apart!

    So I look at Scream 4's opening the same way - they went for the humor, but spending 5-7 minutes on that gag made going for REAL tension attainable as an immediate goal.

    I'd love to know what KW's original plans were for this second trilogy. All Craven has said is that later rewrites made a few things in that plan impossible. Given other statements, I think it's a safe bet that Williamson's final draft featured the same main killer as the final cut, but it wouldn't surprise me if other dead characters were originally intended to make it to a later film.

  3. I would tell you, but I don't want to spoil anything for the readers, lol. Basically, the killer would have lived... and you can figure out the rest.

  4. As a massive fan of the original first three films (especially the first two), I was disappointed with "Scream 4."

    My biggest strike against it is that, to me, it focuses more on the comedy versus the horror and, therefore, works far better as a dark comedy/horror-comedy versus a horror film with comedy in it.

    For me, there wasn't as much real tension or intensity to most of the proceedings as there was at least in the first two which is part of what made them so great. They were able to balance the horror and comedy so well that neither felt like they were detracting from the other.

    Here, the comedy often takes the wind out of what tension or scariness any of the scenes may have had to begin with, which unfortunately wouldn't have been quite enough (I felt most of the scenes of attack didn't contain much that really stood out or was particularly memorable).

    Still, I like it enough to recommend to at least fans of the series, but it'd be a light recommend. It just for me is the weakest of all of the sequels and the entire franchise as a whole.

  5. To be fair, I was way to scared to see the first three Screams, so I'm sort of going into this a little blind. To that end, I only have one thought to share. The opening reminded me of the cold open to Dawson's Creek 1st season finally. In it Joey and Dawson talk about how lame cliffhangers are, only to end the season on a huge cliffhanger. When it was Dawson's Creek I thought it was super clever. When it was Scream 4, and the tongue-and-cheekiness of it all overtook the whole film (and caused so many false starts that I didn't really care when the movie finally started), I gotta say - I wasn't as much of a fan.

    Overall, yeah I had fun. But I've gotten spooked when my roommates call "boo" in the middle of a conversation, and I walked away feeling like Williamson sent so much time trying to remind us all of how clever he is, that he forgot to remind us of how scary he can be.