Now practically, rightfully, part of the horror canon, Scream hit theaters in 1996 bringing a sense of self-awareness to what otherwise would have been stock horror characters. It is a loving homage to slasher films that’s also a great slasher film in its own right. The follow up is a winking homage to sequelitis, while the third is such homage to bad sequels that it is one.
Scre4m is a back-to-basics slasher picture that also dives deep down the rabbit-hole of franchise metatextuality with all of the wit you’d want to expect from this series. It’s rare for horror fans to get a worthy sequel, rarer still to get one fifteen years after the original. With the same behind-the-camera talent, the film has Wes Craven bringing crisp, suspenseful direction and Kevin Williamson bringing a frighteningly fun script. Together, they approach the level of terrifying snark that makes Scream such a great entry in the horror genre, and the lack of which causes the other sequels (especially 2000’s Scream 3) to feel so discouragingly rote.
But Scre4m, recognizing and exploiting its own status as a cultural memory, pulls off the unexpected feat of feeling at once old and new. It’s old because the Scream veterans, perpetual final girl Neve Campbell, bumbling cop David Arquette, and reporter Courtney Cox, return to see a new bloodbath. It’s new, because they’re set up in tension with the changing times. Their tragedy, the Woodsboro murders that take up the first film, is now settling into the past, nothing more than a scary story. The films-within-the-films based off of the tragic events are now the source of cult appeal amongst the local teens, for which they feel like a quaint throwback. These kids are of the generation of Saw and Paranormal Activity, after all.
Rather than address the found-footage and torture horror head-on, this new film brushes them aside. This isn’t a Scream movie for our time; this is a Scream movie in our time. It cleverly works as a hybrid remake and sequel with a new mysterious Ghostface killer patterning a killing spree on the original film’s events. The new group of teens is centered on Emma Roberts, Julia’s niece playing the niece of the original film’s final girl. Her friends include a number of hot young starlets like Hayden Panetiere and Marielle Jaffe along with Erik Knudsen, Rory Culkin, and Nico Tortorella. In fact, this slasher film has so many characters on hand to be both victims and suspects (with little comedic turns for the likes of the very charming Alison Brie, Adam Brody, and Anthony Anderson and roles for Mary McDonnell, Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin) that the cast sometimes seems to be lining up for a much more sprawling film.
What we get, however, is nicely focused, no matter how cluttered it seems to get along the way. The new cast of vulnerable horror-savvy high-schoolers mixes well with the old favorites and Craven and Williamson are smart enough to keep both parts of their two-pronged plot lively and complementary. They feed off of each other and comment upon each other, much like a sequel (or remake) feeds off of its original, which is part of the point.
The movie is, in the best Scream tradition, energetically entertaining with jump scares and laughs, some surprising kills and at least one truly unexpected (and also surprisingly thematically satisfying) twist. In fact, I would venture to say that Scre4m is the best of the sequels. It’s a devilish delight that I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing. I doubt anything in this series will ever get back to the shock of the original, especially its masterful rug-pulling opening scene, but this is about as close as we’re likely to get.