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SYFY WIRE Wes Craven

Scream 4 might actually be Wes Craven's perfect swan song

By Carly Lane

It's impossible to discuss the impact of horror movies over the last several decades without mentioning the work of the late Wes Craven. The prolific writer, producer, and director has personally played a role in creating some of the most popular franchises ever, and his filmography boasts at least one decade-defining horror movie from the '70s onward. This incredible streak started with the first movie he ever wrote and directed, The Last House on the Left, in 1972, and continued through the years with films like A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, Scream in 1996, and Red Eye in 2005.

Craven has often been referred to as a "master of horror," but based on the seemingly prescient way in which he approached his films, the more appropriate term might be "architect of horror." So many of Craven's movies feel very timely for the year in which they were released, yet also evergreen for the horrors that prey on their unwitting victims. The reason that The Hills Have Eyes' cannibal savages, and Freddy Krueger, and Ghostface all felt and continue to feel so thoroughly terrifying is that they aren't constrained by the requirements of a certain era. They continue to pop up and scare us to this day, but they can all be traced back to the man who helped conjure them into existence in the first place.

Of course, even talking about Craven's legacy is a bittersweet conversation in itself. On August 30, 2015, at the age of 76, the horror auteur passed away of brain cancer. 2011's Scream 4 would turn out to be his final contribution to horror, the last project he completed directing. It was a return to a franchise that carved out a unique niche for itself thanks to its quick-witted, self-referential meta-commentary. But revisited in a way that felt like picking back up with old friends even in the midst of an equally new yet familiar masked menace prowling the streets of the fictional Woodsboro — and as Craven's last film, it might actually be one of his best gifts to the genre.

Let's just get this out of the way: Horror sequels rarely work. Over the years, they've often become a means for studios to capitalize on the financial success of the inaugural movie while frequently overlooking the components of what made the first installment work so well (take, for example, so many of those Friday the 13th sequels, as well as the much-debated Exorcist 2). Granted, there are some movies that prove to be the exception to the rule, but on the whole, it can be difficult to replicate the thrills, artistic vision, or even the flash-in-the-pan circumstances that somehow enable a film's success.

Enter Scream 4, which had plenty of hurdles to climb in this regard. After 11 years since Scream 3, it's safe to say that expectations were high, and had likely been so when news of the project was first announced in 2008. When the movie finally premiered in 2011, reviews were mixed, with some praising it for its familiar blend of horror and comedy and others not quite sold on whether it was an adequate return to form. Arguably, the reason Scream 4 works is that it plays on the classic tropes of the previous installments while, coincidentally, offering its own foreshadowing on society's obsession with celebrity and notoriety — more specifically, online fame. In other words, Scream 4 predicted that the collective fixation around "going viral" would become a thing long before it became the cultural phenomenon that we know and loathe today.

Scream 4

Whereas the first Scream movie operated firmly within the constraints of telephone and very little internet, Scream 4 reflects the modern advancements through devices that characters have access to and communicate with. When A/V nerd Robbie (Erik Knudsen) is revealed to be filming events live via a headset camera, it may seem like the script's way of reminding us that times have changed since Drew Barrymore was tormented by a call on a cordless phone in 1996 — but it's not just for the sake of inserting some cool piece of tech. In a later scene, it's that headset in particular that delivers one of the film's creepiest moments of tension, when Robbie inadvertently knocks it askew and is so absorbed in fixing his livestream that he doesn't notice Ghostface standing in front of him until it's too late.

When the killer is ultimately revealed to be not just one, but two people — Sidney Prescott's cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) and her unwitting cohort Charlie (Rory Culkin) — it comes on the heels of the discovery that the new duo in the Ghostface masks have been recording themselves carrying out murders the whole time. They insist they're orchestrating the events of the perfect horror flick, but rewatching this movie in today's landscape casts this film in a whole new light — one of celebrities who have achieved fame on the success of popular YouTube channels and livestream sites like Twitch. That's clearest in Jill's eventual willingness to turn on Charlie with the aim of becoming that much-beloved sole survivor of this terrible rash of attacks. Jill wants to be remembered for a role she's assigned herself, a part she wants to play, and one she believes the public will believe wholeheartedly if there's enough evidence to support her story — and she's going to control that narrative, even if it means literally killing friends and family to do it. It's hard not to consider a philosophy like that with the internet of today in mind, where users often adopt a certain persona through which to present themselves to the world via social media.

Scream 4 presaged internet culture in a lot of ways, but it's also not a sequel that sacrifices the old, familiar beats and faces for the sake of the new. For all its updates and leaps forward, there's still a reminder that some things still haven't changed, at least when it comes to our stalwart trio of Sidney (Neve Campbell), Dewey (David Arquette), and Gale (Courteney Cox). They've been through it before, and they think they know how it's going to play out again, but they're not the young cast of characters they were the first time around. The movie is a fascinating look at two different generations, one we've grown up with and one we're just getting to know, and how they both react to a former threat that's reached urban-legend status over the last decade, newly resurrected to wreak new terror on the community. But even Scream 4 has something to say about the rash of reboots, remakes, and rehashes that the horror genre can often fall prey to, as Sidney leaves Jill with some particularly memorable parting words.

"You forgot the rule about remakes: don't f*** with the original."

In one sense, Craven's career ended all too soon, but within the decades that his work spanned, his legacy is undeniable. Scream 4 is a worthy follow-up to the three that preceded it, but it's also just a damn good horror movie, especially for those of us who were introduced to the genre via the subversive humor the first Scream is so widely known for. It predicted much more than it often gets credit for, and it definitely bucks the trend of subpar horror sequels while making a comment on its own about why taking a page out of the old playbook isn't necessarily a bad thing. If the franchise is ultimately resurrected by someone else down the line, fingers crossed they'll remember who did it first — and best — by paying tribute to the man who helped craft some of the smartest scares in horror.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.