Scream 4 does something pretty remarkable for a slasher sequel by capturing everything we loved about the original movie while also staking a claim for itself as a compelling, fresh take on its mythos. Slasher movies are rarely known for their heart, but the Scream series has endured precisely because we care deeply about the characters and their frequently bloody fates. Now, on the cusp of a fifth installment in the franchise, the first without maestro Wes Craven at the helm or Kevin Williamson tackling the screenplay, it’s high time we took stock of just how brilliant Scream 4 is. Also, the film was released ten years ago today so we’re all getting old.
Starting with that killer opening, which manages to be hilariously meta, packed with sharp commentary about modern horror – the Saw movies are fundamentally flawed because we don’t care about the characters, in stark contrast to Scream where they are a massive selling point – and yet super scary too. It deftly wrong-foots us with a parade of instantly recognizable 2000s-era starlets (one of whom is now dating OG star Skeet Ulrich!) before dropping us down spectacularly in the middle of a night alone at home that, obviously, goes terribly wrong. The sequence ends brutally, Ghostface reveling in torturing his victim before she lets out one final, bloodcurdling scream, confirming we are in familiar territory while simultaneously whetting our appetites for the carnage to come.
What makes Scream, as a series, so great, so special and unique, is the genius manner in which Craven and Williamson confidently and consistently play with our expectations. Horror-comedy is a notoriously tough genre to pull off, mostly because filmmakers typically overdo one side of it while neglecting the other, but this particular franchise is one of the best, if not the best, examples of how well the formula works when done correctly. The comedic elements are laugh-out-loud funny, but the tense moments are charged with danger – we know not to feel completely safe when Ghostface is around, but the near-constant banter puts us at ease, ensuring the horrific murders hit us right in the pits of our stomachs.
Marco Beltrami, who scored all four Scream movies, doesn’t get enough credit for how much his eerily trendy music complements the action. His soundscapes are a hugely underrated element of what makes this series in general, and Scream 4 in particular, work so well, with Beltrami swiftly moving from creepy strings to surf rock style guitars as his inspired notes give way to a low-key pop song, the picture turning from nighttime to daylight in the process. Again, it’s another clever trick to put us at ease before unleashing something far darker and more sinister. Most slashers are content to pick everybody off with ruthless efficiency, but Scream makes us care, ensuring each kill hits harder.
Bringing back the original trio – Neve Campbell’s Sidney, Courtney Cox’s Gale and David Arquette’s Dewey – is a stroke of genius that elevates everything immediately, as the question of who will survive becomes more pressing. Looking back, it was highly unlikely any of the originals would be dispatched in this fourth installment since the whole message, as Sidney memorably states in the film’s final moments, is don’t f**k with the original. However, it’s not a Scream movie without these three (all of them are slated to appear in 5, natch) and the utterly believable character progressions from each of them – Sidney is now a published author, famous for being a survivor, Dewey is the town sheriff, etc. – provide many of Scream 4’s most touching and impactful moments.
For instance, the flailing marriage between Gale and Dewey is finely sketched and sensitively played by a couple of actors who had married and separated IRL long before the movie came out. The addition of Marley Shelton’s Deputy Hicks provides a further interesting wrinkle. Her tussles with Gale, who believes, rightly, that Hicks is after her man, are hilarious and charged with hostility, particularly when the former news anchor is kept out of the ongoing investigation. Hicks also has an uncomfortable moment with Sidney, during which it’s revealed she’s an old school chum whom the local legend doesn’t recall, suggesting this scorned woman might actually be Ghostface.
The best whodunnits gradually convince us everybody is a suspect but Scream 4 takes this one step further by acknowledging not just established slasher rules in general but those specific rules the films themselves set out in previous installments, such as the idea the boyfriend is really the killer, or that it’s someone with a grudge against Sidney. Adding fuel to the fire, characters routinely disappear and reappear after the murders have occurred, further muddying the waters. Naturally, it’s even more enjoyable watching the movie knowing who the killers are and trying to spot when each crime occurred while guessing who perpetuated it — the first thing Kirby says to Jill is “you’ve got to promise not to kill me” and, in classic Scream form, she doesn’t (‘cause Charlie does).
Jill’s whole plan to get famous is eerily prescient, especially considering Robbie’s argument that everybody will be filming themselves constantly before too long has proven queasily accurate in the years since Scream 4 was released. Her manifesto – “I don’t need friends, I need fans” – could be applied to plenty of our so-called celebrities nowadays, the kind of kids who will do anything for likes but have a tenuous connection to the real world. Technology is cleverly integrated, and omnipresent throughout the movie. It’s often played for laughs, such as when Ghostface tells a future victim he’s “not an app.” The original movies were unfairly dismissed by those totally fun people who watch horror just to pick it apart because, like, just hang up the phone, idiot. Here, though, the ubiquity of cellphones doesn’t help matters.
If anything, they make things worse, particularly for the teenage characters. Classic slashers tend to assemble a group of horribly unlikable kids, typically little more than one-dimensional archetypes, whom we can enjoy getting picked off one by one in increasingly gruesome ways. But the Scream series has always flouted this setup. The cast of newcomers here are great, from Emma Roberts’ ruthless Jill, who initially seems like a prototype Sidney – she even slept with her horrible boyfriend, played by the darkly alluring Nico Tortorella – to Hayden Panettiere’s Kirby, so beloved of fans that there’s a whole movement dedicated to proving she didn’t actually die in Scream 4. This time around, we also essentially get two Randys as Erik Knudsen’s Robbie, who films his entire high school experience for an audience I’m not entirely sure exists, and Rory Culkin’s Charlie jostle for control of the school’s Cinema, not Movie, Club.
When Gale suggests it’s a nerdy horror fan committing the Ghostface murders, Charlie enthusiastically agrees with her, knowing full well it is because he’s one of the killers. Filming the crimes adds a whole other layer of uneasiness to proceedings, nodding to the torture porn epidemic we’re still feeling the effects of today while keeping the most hardcore footage at arm’s length. Still, it’s easy to imagine if these were real killings and Jill had gotten away with her master plan that there would be plenty of sickos sharing the footage on Reddit accordingly. It’s worth noting, too, that the execrable Scream TV series – it’s not canon, and we’d all do well to pretend the blasted thing doesn’t exist – was heavily criticized by horror fans and journalists alike for revealing a genre fanatic as the killer in season 3, because those who love horror movies must secretly want to commit atrocities too, right?
The worst thing about that reveal, aside from the myriad ways it made no sense, was that it betrayed everything Scream stands for, and has stood for since Billy told Sidney not to blame the movies for creating serial killers, but rather for making them more creative. Scream 4 plays with this idea through the character of Charlie, a Randy wannabe who falls for a psychopath and doesn’t realize she’s the one holding the camera, not him. Culkin, who would go onto much darker fare with Lords of Chaos, is perfectly cast here as a shy nerd who comes into his own in Cinema Club or while hosting the annual Stabathon. He is utterly believable as a horny teen who’s been radicalized. Likewise, Roberts, who came up on Nickelodeon lest we forget, has a lot of fun tearing off the Ghostface mask and detailing her master plan – watching her ping-pong around Kirby’s living room to create the requisite injuries to sell her ruse is iconic.
The adult additions are great too, particularly Anthony Anderson and Adam Brody’s cops who enjoy some fun times quipping back and forth before dying in equally horrifying ways. The standout has to be Alison Brie’s ruthless agent Rebecca, though. Whether she’s getting her ass handed to her by Gale or reasoning that Sid’s problem is that “she never gets laid” or even “a little shit-faced” after her star author fires her, Rebecca is a wonderful creation brought to life by a never-better Brie (I’d gladly dedicate 2,000 words to her alone). Although Scream 4 pivots to be more of an ensemble piece, and rightly so, this is still Sid’s story and Rebecca’s interactions with her exemplify how difficult it’s been for the infamous survivor to make a life for herself outside of what happened to her all those years ago.
Ghostface is intent on punishing Sid for being the so-called Angel of Death, informing her that she’ll only die when he decides it’s time but, until then, she’s “going to suffer.” Everybody in Woodsboro feels the impact of what happened to Sid, even more so now that she’s back, and Campbell shows the well of emotions bubbling just underneath the surface in her clipped line delivery, jittery body movements, and darting eyes. She inhabits the character in a way that pays homage to the original film but also fills in the blanks about everything that’s happened to her since this whole ordeal began. It’s an idea that’s eloquently dealt with in 2018’s Halloween, where Jamie Lee Curtis is given the freedom to fully explore everything that makes Laurie Strode tick. Campbell doesn’t have the same kind of time because Scream is a very different series, but she tells us plenty with those eyes alone, making Sid’s final triumph over Jill not just a punch-the-air moment of victory but an emotionally charged one too.
Scream 4 is loaded with callbacks but it never feels like a retread. There are plenty of great, nerdy details sprinkled throughout, meaning the movie demands repeat re-watches especially for diehard fans, just to make sure you spot every little thing. This is also the goriest Scream movie thus far, with Olivia’s guts-out death nodding to Casey’s in the original movie while also taking it a step further for a modern audience more attuned to body parts flying everywhere. There are lots of bloody mouths on display too, a classic bit that should be utilized more often in horror movies, while the actual stabbing, although not at Rob Zombie levels, is brutal and intense. It’s impressive that a movie originally intended to kick off a new trilogy also feels like such a perfect closing chapter. By the end of Scream 4, Ghostface has been defeated once again, the original trio is back together, and Sidney is finally free to carry on with her life.
The original ending, which saw Jill emerge victorious, would have been a bold move but it doesn’t capture what makes this series so enduring – it’s loaded with heart, as well as guts.