‘Scream 4’ – The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2011.

Honestly, we needed another “Scream” movie. Since the original was released back in 1996 (YIKES!), we have had dozens upon dozens of horror movies thrust upon us. Many of them had an endless number of clear-skinned teenagers and were given PG-13 ratings which, after a while, indicated the horror genre was being watered down too much. Of course, there is the “Saw” franchise which makes the MPAA go nuts with all the copious blood and guts on display, but those plot twists always give me a massive migraine. Horror went at times from being laughingly lame to hardcore bloody, but they could never top what Asian or Japanese movies achieved. However you look at it, we needed Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson more than ever to give us their take on the continually evolving rules of surviving a horror movie.

Each generation has its own ongoing horror franchise(s) along with the occasional “remake” or “reboot.” When I look at movies from decade to decade, I eventually come to see the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is definitely the case with “Scream 4” which, while having a strong level of suspense, also has a weariness about it. In the process of dealing with a new generation of horror fans, this sequel feels no different from ones which preceded it as the old rules still apply when new ones should be installed.

So, the whole gang is back along with Craven, Williamson (sorely missed on “Scream 3”) and composer Marco Beltrami. Neve Campbell returns as Sidney Prescott who arrives back in her hometown of Woodsboro to promote her new self-help book, and she is reunited with her friends Dewey (David Arquette) who is now the Sheriff in this town, and Gayle (Courtney Cox) who has long since gotten married to him and retired from tabloid journalism. Soon after Sidney arrives, the Ghostface killings start up again. You might think this killer would be more imaginative and use another mask instead, but horror sequels are not heavy on originality, are they?

This time though, the focus of the killer’s rage appears to be on Sidney’s cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts), and it also puts her best friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe) in the crossfire. Ghostface’s priority targets are usually teenagers, but after a while he (or she) proves to be indiscriminate as adults become easy targets as well. Oh yeah, Jill has an ex-boyfriend named Trevor (Nico Tortorella) who still wants to be a part of her life regardless of the fact she wants nothing to do with him. Does any of this sound familiar?

With “Scream 4,” the chief thing to expect is to expect the unexpected, just like with any Peter Gabriel album. I do have to hand it to Craven and Williamson though because, even after a decade, they still leave us guessing throughout who the real culprit is (or if there is more than one) and of what will happen next. The movie moves along fairly swiftly to where you really have no time to examine the logistics of everything going on. I imagine you could punch a few holes in the plot, but only after you have watched this movie. I also got a huge kick out of the beginning which plays on the reality of what we are seeing on top of the monotony of a franchise which, like Michael Meyers, just won’t die.

But it’s also the inescapable problem with “Scream 4;” we have gotten so used to expecting the unexpected to where while there is tension, the whole thing is not as scary as it used to be. I kept waiting for this sequel to get seriously scary, but it never does. Even the moments designed to make us jump up out of our seats aren’t as effective as they once were. The first “Scream” was more than just a simple satire of the horror genre, but a movie going experience which was more intense than we expected, and it reinvigorated the horror genre at a time where it was not particularly popular. With each installment, the filmmakers gleefully deconstructed horror movies while scaring us out of our wits. But with this fourth film, the enthusiasm and inventiveness are at an all-time low.

It is nice to see Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courtney Cox back as their infamous characters. I could not help but expect Campbell to be this Ellen Ripley/Paul Kersey character by now, so used to seeing people and those closest to her get killed off in brutal fashion to where she now desires to bring her own brand of vigilante justice to whatever nemesis chooses to cross the Prescott path. Perhaps Sidney could have used a bit more of this attitude as Campbell looks a bit worn out from all those sharp pointed knives that always get pointed in her general direction. Let’s face it, running from a demented killer is nothing new for her.

Of all the veterans, Cox shines the most as we watch Gale Weathers emerge from being just another desperate housewife to someone who is desperate overcome an unwelcome writer’s block. Seeing Gale get back to her bitchy self is fun to watch. In the other movies you hated her for it, but knowing Gale for this long makes you long for her inevitable return to greedy selfishness. As a result, it gives this sequel much of its bite.

In regards to the newcomers, they are more or less designed to be types, and part of me wished they were given more dimension and depth. Emma Roberts is fun to watch as Jill Roberts, but she gets the show stolen from her by “Heroes” star Hayden Panettiere whose character of Kirby is part tease, part sharp retort, and part movie geek more than she would ever admit. She’s got a lot of sass about her which reminded me of the girls from my high school I couldn’t stand, and of the heart and soul they do have which I never took into account back then.

It’s also nice to see Rory Culkin here, having made a strong impression in “You Can Count on Me,” “Mean Creek” and “Signs.” As Charlie Walker, he represents the chief movie geek Randy Meeks was in the previous “Scream” movies. Charlie is not exactly a geek nor is he exactly one of the cool guys. In the end, he’s kind of in between those crowds like most people I know. Culkin is truly one of the perfect actors to play someone very knowledgeable about movies in general, and he gives this sequel some of its more satirical moments.

But when all is said and done though, I still came out of “Scream 4” feeling rather weary. I didn’t dislike it, and it did keep me interested throughout to where I wasn’t looking at my watch. But in the process of creating a new formula for satirizing horror movies, it ends up getting caught in the clichés of them all. Also, I felt it could have spent more time examining the endless films which came out in the past few years. This franchise was incredibly influential, and we continue to realize this with the passing years.

Still, I am open to seeing a “Scream 5.” Whatever problems this particular sequel has, I believe and hope they can be compensated for in the future. And like I said, we always need movies like “Scream” because the horror genre will constantly be its own worst enemy from one generation to the next. As it was described before, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

* * ½ out of * * * *

Grindhouse

Grindhouse movie poster

Grindhouse” is a double feature of movies written and directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, and it is their ode to the exploitation movies of the 70’s and 80’s which used to play in all those seedy movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Now a lot of those movies were poorly made and had bad acting, writing and directing, but this is not the case here as this crazy love letter to all things exploitation gets brilliant treatment from two renegade minds of Hollywood cinema. To put it mildly, “Grindhouse” was an awesome experience. How great it is to see some kick ass movies made by two guys who have such a love for movies and who love making them.

“Grindhouse” starts off with the first of four fake movie trailers. This is part of Rodriguez’s and Tarantino’s plan to immerse you in the experience of watching grindhouse movies like they did as kids; the scratched-up prints, those missing reels, the restricted ratings, the film breaking apart, and of course those insane coming attractions trailers which at times were more memorable than the movies they were promoting.

Anyway, the first trailer was for “Machete” which was done by Rodriguez and stars Danny Trejo as a Mexican framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and he ends up going after the bad guys with a bloody vengeance. This was a blast to watch and the best of all the fake trailers in “Grindhouse” as it captures the ridiculous one-liners we gleefully remember from all those over the top action movies from the 80’s. I especially liked how they had Cheech Marin playing a priest who Machete gets to kill the bad guys with him. He almost succeeds in stealing the trailer right out from under Trejo’s feet.

Then things get underway with “Planet Terror,” Robert Rodriguez’s addition to the “Grindhouse” movie. It is basically his ode to all those zombie movies which came out before we met the fast-paced zombies of “28 Days Later,” and it’s a cross between a George Romero movie and a John Carpenter movie. “Planet Terror” even features a score composed by Rodriguez himself, and he wrote and shot a lot it while listening to Carpenter’s music from “Escape From New York.” In fact, you can even hear a small part of Carpenter’s score in “Planet Terror” if you listen very closely.

“Planet Terror” was a total blast, a flashback to those go for broke action and horror movies that didn’t even try to hold anything back. It reminded me of the “Evil Dead” movies among others where everything and everybody were going nuts. Then again, with the characters running for their lives away from zombies chasing them, can you blame them?

Rodriguez has put a great cast together for “Planet Terror.” The one person who will be remembered forever from it is the ever so luscious Rose McGowan who plays Cherry, a dancer at a strip club who can’t keep from crying as she dances in front of customers. As you know from the movie’s trailer, one of her legs ends up getting chopped off and it eventually gets replaced by a machine gun which she uses to gleefully sadistic effect. It makes for some hilarious moments as Cherry doesn’t even hesitate in blowing away as many zombies as she can.

Also great in “Planet Terror” is Freddy Rodriguez who brings a total rebel quality to his role as El Wray who is a very cool customer indeed. You also have Michael Biehn playing the sheriff, Josh Brolin who plays Dr. Block whose wife, Dakota (played by Marley Shelton), has been cheating on him with another woman, and even Bruce Willis shows up as a military commander who knows more than he is willing to let on.

One of the people I was especially impressed with was Jeff Fahey who I have not always been a big fan of as he always seemed to me to be playing himself in every role he takes on. But here he is loads of fun as J.T., a gas station and restaurant owner who continually claims to have the best barbecued meat in all of Texas. It ended up making me look at Fahey in a whole new light, and as a character actor, he proves to be invaluable.

“Planet Terror” is one gory ride, to put it mildly, but then again what do you expect when you have Tom Savini playing one of the sheriff’s deputies? Have you even seen the movies he has worked on in the past? Rodriguez gets all the gross details down like body parts getting blown or ripped off in an ever so disgustingly precious fashion. Those same body parts are, as a man, the last things I ever want to lose! Ever!

After “Planet Terror” ended, we were treated to the other three fake movie trailers that “Grindhouse” had to offer. Edgar Wright, who directed “Shaun of the Dead,” did the trailer for “Don’t,” and it was endlessly hilarious as it showed us all the things we shouldn’t be doing when we’re in a horror movie. Then there was Rob Zombie’s “Werewolf Women of The S.S.” which was as funny as it was bizarre. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil this one for you as there are cameos here that are too inspired to just give away. And finally, there was “Thanksgiving” which was directed by Eli Roth, the same man who gave us “Hostel.” Thanksgiving does seem to be one of the few holidays left which have yet to be turned into a horror franchise where horny teens get slaughtered in a creatively bloody fashion.

Then we get to Tarantino’s addition to the “Grindhouse” movie: “Death Proof.” It stars Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, a serial killer who uses a car instead of a knife to murder young women. No reason is really given as to why he does this, but in a movie like this does it even matter?

“Death Proof” has its share of gruesome moments including a car crash that is shown from different angles as you see how each person gets horribly injured in a head-on collision. Suffice to say, if you have been in a nasty car accident, you probably won’t want to see this. It also features one of the more exhilarating car chases in recent memory where Russell tries to run a Dodge Charger which is occupied by a trio of women off the road. One of these women, Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman’s stunt double in “Kill Bill”) is riding on the hood of the Charger like the insane stunt woman she is. Seeing her struggle to stay on the car makes the scene all the more frightening and exciting as a result. Tarantino clearly has no interest in throwing all sorts of CGI effects at us. He wants to give us the real thing, and that he does.

Of the two movies in “Grindhouse,” I have to say that “Death Proof” was my favorite. Although it takes a while to get to the action, the dialogue is fabulous in a way only Tarantino can come up with. He continues to come up with great lines which make the characters much more distinct than those in your average action movie filled with stock characters. One of the actresses involved with “Death Proof” said Tarantino really knows how to write for women and knows how they think. Now, this might be open to debate for a lot of people, but I think that is absolutely true as it is shown here and in other movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown.”

Russell remains one of the most underrated actors working in movies today as he can go from genre to genre and from playing a good guy to a bad guy pretty easily. He is great in this role where he plays a pure psychopath who is clearly schizoid as he goes after his next trio of soon to be victims, and it resembles the kind of work he did in movies like “Escape From New York.” Russell is perfect as Stuntman Mike that it got to where I just could not see Mickey Rourke playing this same role even though he was originally cast in it. Rourke wouldn’t have been bad, but this role feels like it was tailor-made for Russell.

So overall, “Grindhouse” was a kick-ass experience that I am ever so eager to see again. I already have the soundtracks to both “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” which are fantastic to listen to. Then again, I did actually get them before I even saw “Grindhouse” because I was pretty confident that I would not be disappointed, and I wasn’t. Although it drags a little in spots, it is never boring. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, and it is as politically incorrect as any movie in recent years, but it will definitely appeal to those who have been eagerly and patiently awaiting the resurrection of grindhouse cinema they grew up watching in the past. Many had no choice but to watch those exploitation classics on video and DVD, but with Rodriguez’s and Tarantino’s “Grindhouse,” we finally get to see movies like them again on the big screen where they belong.

* * * * out of * * * *