Scream 4 Ghostface
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Credit: Dimension Films

Why Scream 4 is an underrated franchise and horror sequel masterpiece

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Apr 12, 2021, 5:30 PM EDT

People may complain about remakes now, but a decade ago, it seemed as though we were getting retreads of every old horror movie imaginable. There was a rebooted Friday the 13th, a new The Last House on the Left, and even a revived Children of the Corn, to name but a few. However, it was 2011's Scream 4 that used the reboot format to add something meaningful to its franchise. Original stars David Arquette, Neve Campbell, and Courteney Cox returned for a film that would serve as the perfect satire of the horror remake trend, and also our collective fixation around going viral years before we realized that was a cultural phenomenon.

Though a big focus of the movie's plot and meta-commentary revolves around remakes, Scream 4 has more in common with the sort of reboot we're seeing today in movies like 2018's Halloween. Wes Craven's final film in the Scream world takes us back to the town of Woodsboro on the 15th anniversary of the original massacres, and surprise, surprise — Ghostface is on another killing spree. The original (surviving) cast is back, with Campbell's Sydney now on a promotional tour to promote her autobiography, though she's forced to confront traumas once the killings begin.

This take on Scream finds a balance between remaking the basic plot structure of the first film for a generation too young to have watched the original in theaters, while still acknowledging how the passage of time affected both the characters and the franchise as a whole. Sidney is no longer the terrified final girl, but a seasoned veteran returning home and finding that she no longer belongs there because of the numerous ghosts that surround her. This is also a rare horror film to actually embrace the technology of the time it was made. There is no need for landlines or lack of phone signals, and the internet (particularly social media) is a big part of the plot. The murders are bigger and more violent as the new Ghostface is trying to present their work to the world.

Rather than trying to replicate the success of the original Scream while changing everything that made it unique in the first place, this film dives right into what you love about the original — then asks the audience why exactly they'd want to see that being done again. In the genius opening sequence, we see two girls watching scenes from the in-universe Stab franchise, which recreates the original opening for Scream in increasingly ludicrous ways. One of them describes how the franchise lost its way by introducing time travel, which is even funnier today since the Paranormal Activity franchise would end up introducing time travel in its fifth movie, which came out three years after Scream 4.

The strength of Scream 4, and the way it answers the question, lies in the young cast who now must face Ghostface just like Sidney's generation did. Given that the franchise has always been a bit of a whodunnit, the film anticipates who the audience will suspect by tying the character archetypes to the original film before pulling the rug from under them.

Alison Brie's ruthless and opportunistic Rebecca Walters is a clear stand-in for Gale Weathers, without any of her charm or survival instinct. Hayden Panettiere's Kirby starts out as a new Tatum Riley, the best friend to the protagonist who doesn't really care about what's going on, and is there mostly to support the new final girl. However, it quickly becomes clear that she's more of an inversion on the male film nerd that Randy was in the first one, as she becomes the only character to beat Ghostface's horror trivia while trying to save Rory Culkin's Charlie, and then acts more like Sidney in how she confronts and tries to fight Ghostface. Likewise, Charlie's initial analog for Randy actually ends up as the new version of Matthew Lillard's Stu.

Then there's the film's big bad evil gal, Jill (Emma Roberts), Sidney's estranged cousin and the ostensible protagonist of the film. Of course, in the movie's big plot twist, we find out that she's actually the new Billy Loomis, jealous of Sidney's fame and desperate for her own 15 minutes in her spotlight. Jill is not only a fresh take on the idea of the final girl but a phenomenal villain in the larger slasher genre canon. Getting a female slasher villain is rare enough, but Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson also manage to load the reveal with ripping social commentary on our obsession with fame in the internet age.

Where the original cast of Scream was interested in partying and hooking up, like the casts of classic '80s horror films, Jill and her classmates have one goal in mind: going viral. Robbie Mercer (Erik Knudsen) serves as Vice President of the Woodsboro High Cinema Club, and is seen constantly recording everything he does for his blog in order to gain followers — the film came out the same year Twitch launched and kickstarted a new age of live streaming. Meanwhile, Jill is shown to be very interested in her cousin Sidney's fame, dismissing her traumas but focusing on "Sidney, the famous writer."

At the climax of the film, Sidney asks Jill why she would kill her friends, to which Jill responds "I don't need friends. I need fans." She believes that going to school and get a job is no longer enough in the internet age, you also have to adopt an online persona that people will follow — and the perfect way of getting that is by becoming a final girl. When looking at the trajectory of the Scream movies, this is just the natural step forward from Billy and Stu's original plans: using violence and murder to achieve fame. Watching the film in 2021 creates a new meaning that's scarier because of how real it feels; there's the knowledge that social media can give an audience to someone willing to commit horrible crimes just for some clicks.

Scream 4 came at a time when horror audiences were just getting used to the idea of horror remakes becoming a trend, but before they had seen enough of them to want to satirize and make fun of them. Nowadays, we've seen plenty of horror remakes and reboots both fail miserably and earn enough success to make people want more, culminating in the announcement of a fifth Scream. The question now becomes, can a Scream 5 say anything about "lega-sequels" that Scream 4 didn't already say a decade ago?