Even with the monopolizing traditions of CG family fare, it was truly jarring to look at the box office numbers for the April 15th weekend and find that Rio, a kaleidoscopic spectacle complete with jive-talking birds resurrected from Dumbo, had snatched the top spot from Scream 4, a far more noteworthy resurrection of one of the most popular franchises of our time. Or, perhaps I should speak for myself. For someone so anxious to keep in step with the new, now and worthwhile, I feel grossly out of the loop in the wake of Scream 4’s release. It’s hardly just the film’s poor numbers that have me thrown, as following such things is folly that undermines a movie’s value anyway. It’s that Scream 4 seems to have come and gone in a flash even more fleeting than most of what’s churned out in our on-to-the-next society. Not only did people fail to peel themselves away from Shark Tank to catch the return of Sidney Prescott, most people, it seems, didn’t even really care to talk about it. EW ran a cover story, Neve Campbell got a five-question interview in Health, the reviews were middling, the end. Before it opened, I asked my partner’s 16-year-old brother what he thought about the movie, and he said, “It kinda looks okay, but I’d rather see Sucker Punch.” His best friend said, “They’re all the same anyway.”
My lack of shock from these specific boys’ sentiments notwithstanding, amidst all this godforsaken apathy, there’s definitely a voice inside me wailing, “What the fuck is wrong with you people?!! It’s fucking Scream!!!” But, then, that voice comes from a place of semi-irrational bias. The first Scream came out when I was 12 and I was certifiably obsessed. Within days I’d begged a movie theater manager to sell me the poster, and then I watched my age restrictions flex their dirty muscles as the film completed its initial run, unseen by me. Luckily, buzz had grown, and a theater more than an hour away had extended its showings. One friend’s astonishingly cool father opted to buy a group of us tickets, pack us into a van and drop us off. Someone had long since spoiled the ending for me, but hell if I cared. I’d arrived. By then, my enjoyment of the film was practically incidental, like video geek Randy’s motives-at-the-turn-of-the-millennium philosophy. The catharsis was sweet. But the precise reason why I was so enamored has been an elusive one, as I’ve never been much of a horror fan and Scream is no masterpiece. Perhaps I can chalk it up to an early appreciation of hip material that’s at least moderately articulate. Perhaps it’s my inclination toward female-driven action—I’d found my new Ellen Ripley saga. Or perhaps Scream emerged at just the right time for me, at the edge of my fantasy-filled youth and at the dawn of my house-party socialization. Scream was Dazed and Confused with a spectre at its center.
The series surely hasn’t given me cause to stay loyal. It is fundamentally a celebration of movies, but hype turned it into a celebration of itself, and it’s one of the very worst offenders of post-phenomenon navel-gazing (if only every big trilogy had the backing of The Lord of the Rings, and could be shot in one go, with one vision, largely untainted by public reception). The movie-within-a-movie conceit seemed a natural and inevitable development of the franchise, but it was a near-immediate shark-jump, fatally shifting the humor from tongue-in-cheek to foot-in-mouth. The arrogance of Scream 2 leaps out at you in its opening scene, with Miramax regular Heather Graham starring in in-text movie Stab (which, we’d later learn, was “directed by” Dimension Films maestro Robert Rodriguez). Though an intermittently competent sequel, the in-jokey, no-reigns blunders of Scream 2 continue right on through to its finale, with a wildly miscast Laurie Metcalf vying for histrionics medals as a villain as scary as David Arquette. Scream 3 was exponentially worse, handing script duties to genre doctor Ehren Kruger and moving the whole mess to Hollywood for the ultimate exercise in self-reflexivity. Actors like Campbell and Courteney Cox got to act alongside other actors who were playing their characters in the in-movie movie’s second sequel. The backstory of Sidney’s mother morphed into a Saturday-morning-cartoon joke. The brand was folding in on itself like whoa, all in a desperate attempt to stay relevant alongside the army of I Know What You Did Summers it unwittingly birthed.
And yet, sometimes a good first impression is indelible enough that even the worst subsequent sins can go ignored. Almost blindly, I’ve kept the franchise among those to which I’m most personally attached, even though I haven’t seen much good come of it in close to 15 years. Whispers of a fourth installment caught my ear, but only casually, as for the longest time they seemed the product of diehard hearsay, fueled by fan-made trailers and poster art. Besides, raised hopes about a Scream sequel would be like buying stock in Blockbuster. But a release-date confirmation, a bona fide preview and one-sheets featuring a familiar Munchian mask woke up that overzealous 12-year-old, and it seemed in my mind that a true movie event was on its way. Surely the distance from the sequels and a learned retrospect would prove beneficial. And I liked Scream 4. Quite a lot, actually. It does surely possess, as Slant’s Nick Schager put it, the “air of smug satisfaction about supposed cleverness” that we’ve come to know quite well, but, for this viewer, it was nostalgic and more than a little wrong-righting, reviving the guts of part one right down to the Haddonfield-esque setting. It sets up a new generation of doppelgangers, which is less Scream 3-meta than it is franchise-logical. And while it’s easily the least straining of the sequels in its attempt to integrate chic elements (it’s instantly dated, but astute), the worst parts of the film are those that strive to top the excesses of 2 and 3 or, worse, speak to the new norm of blasé mutilation: the preposterously layered, Inception-style intro; a doomed hottie flagrantly reduced to a bloody pile of entrails.
Which will likely be among the things my partner’s brother and his bemused friend like best, if indeed they ever get around to seeing Scream 4. However cautionary, my excitement for the film, and even favorable response to it, distracted me from the fact that the audience for this movie isn’t all that big after all. We are not legion, we are cult. We are not, generally speaking, part of the millions keeping the Saw folks in business. Which, of course, supports the bemused friend’s remark about sameness, in a context far greater than simply the Scream brand. For these guys, and for most anyone in the target 20-ish bracket, Scream has essentially come out every other weekend for their entire lives. Why rush to another? They’re all the same anyway. But that wasn’t always so, and while Scream was itself merely a nudge-nudge revival of forebears, those who caught it pre-Jigsaw, pre-Ju-On and pre-Eli Roth staked a certain claim in the slasher genre as we know it. Those who caught it at the right age even had their teen-film template. But how stealth the passing of time, and how curious how something that once had such mighty influence can suddenly barely crack the top five trending topics. Turns out that seeing what you found personally seminal sprout its gray hairs, onscreen and off, can give you a disorienting, even poignant, bout of whiplash. I should have known something was up when I felt a twinge looking at a Botoxed Gale Weathers.