Blu-ray Review: Scream 4 (2011)

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What sets the Scream franchise apart from the rest of the blockbuster horror movie genre isn’t the fact that it’s so cleverly witty and pop-culturally self-referential – a postmodern comment of the genre it’s lampooning while at the same time taking itself seriously as though we were watching the feature presentation complete with filmmaker commentary from start to finish.

No, honestly what sets the series apart is how damn surprising it is or more accurately how startled we are on a multitude of levels as audience members – how it manages to take not just the scary movie formula and veritable genre goal of scaring the ever-lovin’ popcorn and goobers out of us and manages to move beyond that to thrill us in an entirely new way.

The Scream movies work so well because they blur the line between viewer and cast member – vicariously putting us in the film as co-conspirator one minute and victim the next and changing our role often.

In the course of a single onscreen phone call, we move from voyeur spectator to participant faster than we ourselves were aware of the change in point-of-view. And the process repeats frequently as director Wes Craven changes perspective to cover terror from all angles -- similar to the way the shower scene plays out in Psycho in making us see the events unfold through the eyes of both Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh.

Except this time around in the meta pop-culture world of Scream where characters comment on situations they’re in while they’re in them, we’re also aware of the camera, the tricks, the audience and the deceptive reality of each and every point-of-view, knowing we shouldn’t simply trust our eyes or ears. Time and again in Scream, Wes Craven uses celluloid as though it were an entirely new sense.

Obviously given the limits of the genre on a predator/prey primal level, we’ve seen it all before and Scream is further challenged by the fact that this is its fourth time at bat and they were always too cool for school in that they’d had the bases covered in the first hyper-aware act of the first film.

And because we know that when the phone rings, it’s going to be Ghostface instead of a friend playing a practical joke, it’s going to take a lot more than a simple scare to set this Scream apart.

Furthermore, to their immense credit, Craven and company swing for the fences in the latest and second greatest installment, sending the first of several curveballs right out of the park from the minute the movie begins – exactly like they did roughly fifteen years ago in the opening of the inaugural Scream when Drew Barrymore answered the original call.

Presenting us with everything we’re accustomed to while commenting on it, Scream 4 deceptively kicks off with a “business as usual” vibe before scripter Kevin Williamson reminds us that postmodern begins with the word “post” for a reason.

In a wildly weird introduction, Williamson (in addition to uncredited script polisher Ehren Kruger) fight against the very foundation upon which Scream was built, dissecting the franchise’s formula by simultaneous parody and homage, avoiding and confronting the movie-within-a-movie paradigms that served the first two Scream pictures so magnificently.

Immediately challenging your perception of what’s real – before you begin to get your bearings, the film builds on a beginning you didn’t expect before pulling the same bait and switch again and again to ingenious effect, once again calling up sights and sounds of earlier Screams for a new plan of attack.

Yes, it’s the same routine. The killer is on the other end of the phone after all but are we in the same place? Is the right person on either end of the line? Is technology adding a new layer or more confusion?

Similar to the way that Sylvester Stallone’s sixth entry in the Rocky series succeeded so wonderfully by essentially going back to its roots to ignore the trappings of movie sequel limbo altogether, Scream 4 operates on a similar level, playing to fans as the ultimate bookend to what was originally supposed to be a horror trilogy.

Augmented by an ingenious screenplay and assured direction, Scream 4 builds on signature scenes from Screams of the past as well as structure mandates of the widely recognized formula modus operandi complete with those epic standalone openers, violent showdowns and villainous pop-ups following a multiple talking-killer reveal in the end.

From not one but three fake-outs to spoof their tendency to serve up false-starts to the bold use of old locations and character-driven confrontations of mistaken identities and horror movie trivia employed to outsmart the killer and/or save a life, Scream 4’s a meta mix-tape movie. And amazingly, this particular Scream manages to walk a fine line of revisiting familiar territory instead of opting to completely reinvent the wheel while simultaneously never copying itself.

Even though we’ve seen some of the exact same set-ups before, they’re freshly crafted in Scream 4 to the point that we marvel over how effectively Craven manages to pay off on viewer assumption to diabolically surprising effect.

While admittedly the momentum does slip slightly following the jumpy beginning in order to acquaint us with the film’s newest additions in the form of Sidney Prescott’s high school cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) as well as her soon-to-be-Ghostface-prey pretty girl posse of friends and film buff hangers-on, Scream 4 picks up speed as it continues, deftly balancing the old and the new once Sidney returns to Woodsboro.

Having published a survivor memoir following what she believed to be the end of Ghostface, Sidney arrives on the anniversary of the tragic crimes that set Scream in motion fifteen years earlier along with her ethically challenged book editor in tow (Alison Brie), only to discover that you can’t go home again without old skeletons tumbling out of the closet to provide the 111 minute film with enough murder and mayhem to put Woodsboro on alert once again.

Teaming up with series favorites – the writer’s block plagued reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Gale’s deputy turned Sheriff husband Dewey Riely (David Arquette) – as well as her cousin’s targeted circle of friends, Sidney tries to unmask Ghostface once and for all.

While the final act doesn’t quite have the same energy apparent in the first two franchise films, Scream 4 is still light-years better than the third installment, eventually developing a major twist that unlike previous entries, we couldn’t see coming (at least to some extent) a mile away.

Although the first movie is still the best (despite some genre trappings that have dated it slightly), the fourth film ranks a close second.

Thus the thrill of redial is far from gone when it comes to Scream thanks to a stellar sequel it’s easy to get hung up on. With Ghostface dialing "M" for murder, switchboard operators Craven and Williamson shock us into a fun frenzy.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the brothers Weinstein aren’t putting their heads together to produce a second standalone Scream trilogy with the hopes of developing another one of this generation’s favorite scary movies to watch with the phone off the hook.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.