By Will Dodson.

Wes Craven’s Scream 4 is in many ways a fitting capstone to the 9/11 decade, thus the title of this essay, “Rip it up and start again: Scream 4 and Post-?”[1] “Rip it up and start again” is a lyric from the great post-punk band, Orange Juice, in their song, appropriately titled “Rip It Up.” The subsequent lyrics are, “I hope to God I’m not as dumb as you make out/I hope to God I’m not as numb as you make out.” I think these sentiments are appropriate to Scream 4, which seems to make this exact plea to its audience. While not a box office disaster, the film was not a hit,[2] and reviews were mixed and shallow in their analysis. God, it would appear, is indeed dead.

The original Scream (1996) stands as an icon not just of horror in the 1990s, but of that entire decade. Its self-conscious irony resists its generic constraints and offers a real, arguably feminist, critique of its genre. Yet, its subsequent success and franchise status immediately co-opted its resistant strategies and twisted its pointed irony in the sequels into empty, self-conscious, ironic wallowing. A quick survey of 90s popular culture reveals several examples of the same cultural cycle represented by Scream, from music –grunge, riot grrl, hip hop – to film – slacker cinema, so-called “indie” film, the wake of hacks like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. In every case, the radical arrives, then gets gutted, and then aped with an empty ironic smirk.

600_scream-4-272Wes Craven’s return to the Scream franchise a decade after the end of the trilogy was inevitably dismissed as a cash-in reunion. But even if that were so, the very reunion of Scream 4 moves beyond genre commentary into an exploration of our screen-mediated lives. Further, the film parses the differences between remakes and “reboots,” (though the film and its characters seem to confuse the two from time to time) and frames these nostalgic reifications of the past in terms of new media-induced social and psychological fragmentation in the form of Reality TV, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Vine, etc. What we have is media that offers a twisted version of George Berkeley’s notion that objects of sense exist only when they are perceived. If a celebrity talks and there is no one to listen, is she a celebrity? Under the obvious critique of “reality” celebrity culture, Scream 4 also criticizes cinema itself, which has become formally lazy and incoherent.

Criticism of Scream 4 was similarly lazy and incoherent. Slant charged that Scream 4 was too meta, and played by the “rules” of remakes, while Empire and The New York Daily News called it too old-fashioned. It’s hard to see how both of those could be true, except to note that Scream 4 is neither a remake nor a criticism of remakes (other than to dismiss them entirely in one character’s rant near the film’s climax), but rather clearly states that it explores the rise of the reboot, which attempts to capitalize on nostalgia while also erasing history. “Reboots” were common in the serial days, and remain so in comic books, pulp fiction, and most significantly in financial terms, in superhero movies like the various Superman, Batman, and Spiderman films, and even smaller superhero franchises like The Punisher (in its third iteration and counting). The reboot concept takes on a new significance in the age of social media, when recognition of names no longer carries any depth of history.

scream_4_movie_image_arquette_campbell_cox_01Historical ignorance and apathy is a problem with which Scream 4 plays and for which it has no answer. Without a fairly intimate familiarity with the first three films, audiences would have trouble understanding the depths and nuances of Sidney’s (Neve Campbell) character, of Gail’s (Courtney Cox) frustration at her professional decline, of Dewey’s (David Arquette) desperation to maintain the health of his marriage and his town. The first three films gave a great deal of attention to character depth, even as the plots grew more outlandish. But Scream 4 gives the three returning characters very little screen time and dialogue. Without an audience that knows the history of the first three films, these characters are as irrelevant as people, and only serve as celebrity symbols, which is exactly as the current high school students see them. Sidney is a professional victim, Gail is a has-been celebrity, Dewey is a forgotten hero. All three, not incidentally, are categories of Reality TV stars.[3] Campbell, Cox, and Arquette are particularly generous actors, giving most of the space and lines to their youthful usurpers.

The plot of Scream 4 is the prototypical reboot. The three returning characters anchor the film with familiar names while their parts are ancillary to a new group of characters. (One of Scream 4’s meta-jokes is the fact that every single one of the new characters dies and we’re left only with the figures of the original.) Sidney returns to Woodsboro as part of a publicity tour for her new memoir, fulfilling the generic archetype of the public victim. Reporters heralding her return call her “local celebrity victim Sidney Prescott,” and Sidney’s publicist admonishes her, “You’re a victim for life. So embrace it. Use it.” Her return coincides with a new killing spree, which begins on the same week as the annual Stab-A-Thon, a party devoted to screening all seven installments of the films based upon the murders in the original Scream. As has been the case in the previous Scream films, the new Ghostface is a partnership of sociopaths, whose identities I will not identify in this essay. One is a film buff, the other a social media addict obsessed with celebrity. The film buff Ghostface preserves the trope of movie trivia, and gets quite specific in the geekery of it all: he or she argues that Peeping Tom (1960) is the first slasher movie because it is the first film to force the viewer to inhabit the POV of the killer.

scream_4_2011_1An important twist is that the rules of this movie are not those of the horror genre, which dooms the film buff half of the Ghostface duo. This film is about the rules of Reality TV. The other Ghostface covets Sidney’s victim celebrity, and wishes to achieve a similar type of victimhood. Thus, the killer’s plot, and therefore Scream 4’s plot, involves placing characters with little connection or past history other than cursorily drawn categories like “geek with unrequited crush on hot chick,” “hot chick with inexplicable interest in geek culture,” “creepy ex-boyfriend,” “hot mean girl,” “hot innocent girl,” and so on, into situations and watching the tensions play out. Characters perform for cameras they know to be there – most visibly with the constantly streaming webcam headset of A.V. geek and Stab-A-Thon co-curator Trevor.

There are rules of reality television codified in Scream 4 – but no Randy (Jamie Kennedy) character type to name them, as he does in the first three films. Sans Randy, I will name the rules now. If you want to become a reality show celebrity, first you must be attractive, but not too attractive. You have to look like you could be a real person. Second, you must talk a lot about yourself. Third, you must have some kind of past trauma or scandal. Each character in Scream 4 talks about him- or herself as a character, and as the killer points out when he or she is revealed, “We all live in public now […] You don’t have to achieve anything. You just gotta have fucked-up shit happen to you.” As the killer prepares to receive his or her fans – the ambulances, police, and newsmedia – she or he pulls out hair and does a little cutting, another nod to the most modern public expressions of trauma and the need for attention.

scream-4-cox_320The Reality TV and social media celebrity themes of Scream 4 are obvious, directly stated in character dialogue. However, I haven’t yet found a single review that explores these themes. The reviews remain mired in the idea of the remake, the sequel, the ground covered by the first film, the snide remarks about the second and third installments, and finally one wonders if the reviewers watched Scream 4 or just tweeted while they sat in the theater. Scream 4’s dialogue announces the genre critique, as it did in the first three films. But the formal elements go far deeper in expressing the larger consequences of the critique.

This film moves beyond Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the mechanically reproduced image, and perhaps even past Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra. Baudrillard’s fourth stage of simulation is pure simulation, one with no connection to any reality. But the constantly streaming media of Scream 4, as well as our shared real world, is reality. It’s a reality simulcast – which is neither simulation nor simulacrum. It’s reality with ratings. The killer points out, “I don’t need friends, I need fans!” We have a paradoxical solipsistic narcissism where we create a self-centered world, but we can’t exist unless we know we are being watched. Scream 4 offers a narcissistic exhibitionism, self-created worlds of trauma and drama solely for the purpose of attracting passive followers or fans. The more they click “I like,” the more concretely you exist. The film critiques a culture defined by a complete ironic detachment, a complete lack of empathy and motivation, and a complete technological dissolve of any boundary between image and reality. The film portrays a complete breakdown of reality as communities of individuals into reality as collections of trending topics. Commodificaction complete.

DSC_3077.NEFThe film begins with two false openings, and these signal themes beyond the confines of the horror genre. First, two young women hang out and prepare to watch a scary movie, though they are both distracted by phone calls and texts. One flirts with a “Facebook stalker,” who turns out to be a Ghostface. Craven is particularly good with frenetically paced kill scenes, and this one ratchets up the tension, but then deflates it by revealing itself to be a scene from one of the Stab movies. A medium shot of celebrity cameos Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin frames them looking out at the audience. Which one is the movie? Paquin drones on, criticizing modern horror and revealing her shallow film knowledge. Suddenly Bell stabs her in the stomach, and yells “Now shut the fuck up and watch the movie!” This is a second false opening, which cuts to a third, and two more high school girls debate the quality of the Stab movies. Now, when Ghostface begins calling, and Craven begins another bravura chase setpiece, the audience has no idea whether to feel tension or await the next reveal. The film undercuts its own scares.

But “This isn’t a comedy, it’s a horror film,” warns Ghostface. And the horror is the very notion of celebrity. “At least Woodsboro is known for something,” muses one soon-to-be victim. The idea of being known, the desire to be known, is in this context the “spectacle horror” identified by Adam Lowenstein in his Critical Quarterly article, “Spectacle Horror and Hostel: Why ‘Torture porn’ Does Not Exist.” Lowenstein argues that “torture porn” is a clumsy misnomer for “the staging of spectacularly explicit horror for purposes of audience admiration, provocation, and sensory adventure as much as for shock and terror” (2011: 42). Craven’s camera self-consciously lingers on the gore, showing more than he usually does, precisely to indicate that the real scares in his films come from the tautly shot and edited chases. The gore is tied to the media spectacle, and the audience does not identify with victim or victimizer; identification is not the point, rather, Lowenstein argues, it is something more akin to Tom Gunning’s characterization of the “cinema of attractions,” which “expends little energy creating characters with psychological motivations or individual personality […] its energy moves outward towards an acknowledged spectator rather than inward towards the character-based situations essential to the classical narrative” (Gunning 1986: 58-9, qtd. in Lowenstein 2011: 44).

scream_4_bloodyAs the film moves on, it loses its mapped geography in favor of location. The spatial logic slowly breaks down, and by the climactic setpieces at Kirby’s house and the hospital, we – both audience and characters – no longer have any orientation of where we are except framed within camera shots. Whereas in the first Scream film, the final party scene carefully established the geography in which the characters would interact, Scream 4 simply cuts from location to location, without giving any sense of how the locations tie together. As geography breaks down, so does narrative and character, and the final scene devolves into an unbelievable, macabre slapstick routine that reminded me of Duck Soup (1933). And this isn’t lazy filmmaking, this is a deliberate evocation of incoherent reality.

So what is the point of this kind of spectacle horror, where the spectacle is not the gore but the media-obsessed narcissists, à la reality television? Craven’s abiding theme throughout his career has been the blurred line between dreams and reality – you can see it in every film, even the ones most altered by studio interference, even in his schmaltzy Meryl Streep drama Music of the Heart (1999) – and with the Scream franchise the dreamscape of media and reality have finally demolished the line completely. This to him is the most horrifying spectacle of all.

Finally, as a filmgoer exhausted by gimmicky “found footage” and unmotivated shaky handheld camera work, I am refreshed by Scream 4’s jab at Hollywood’s formal laziness, and lampoon of Internet film criticism’s substitution of trivia for analysis (in the second false open with Paquin and Bell). Formally, Scream 4 seamlessly incorporates found footage into its classical scheme of motivated camera moves, including minimal and very effective motivated handheld camerawork. Even as it dissolves geographic location through limited continuity editing, it does so with purpose rather than with the jittery jump cutting so characteristic of Hollywood now. Zooming out to a larger context, motivation, the will to act intentionally, gives us connection to the history that allows us to interpret the unfolding present. This connection to history matters, as Clayton Dillard noticed in a blog review when Scream 4 was released. One of the themes of the film is the new characters’ ignorance of, and worse, uninterest in, history and context. In the original Scream, Stu (Matthew Lillard) asks Randy what his motive would be if he were the killer. “It’s the millennium,” replies Randy. “Motives are incidental.” In this brave “grue” world, how prophetic he turned out to be.

Will Dodson is the Ashby Residential College Coordinator at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he teaches rhetoric, literature, and media studies. He is the author of several forthcoming book chapters and articles.

Baudrillard, Jean (1981), Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Benjamin, Walter (2010), The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, CreateSpace. Originally published in 1936.

Berkeley, George (2009), Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues, New York: Oxford University Press. Originally published in 1710.

Dillard, Clayton (2011), “Scream 4”, Last(ing) Impressions, 15 April. Accessed 6 September 2013.

Gunning, Tom (1990), “The Cinema of Attractions: Early film, its spectator and the Avant Garde” in Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker (eds.), Early Cinema: Space—Frame—Narrative, London: BFI. Originally published in 1986.

Hughes, David (n.d.), “Scream 4: New decade. New rules. Old hat”, Empire. Accessed 6 September 2013.

Lowenstein, Adam (2011), “Spectacle horror and Hostel: why ‘torture porn’ does not exist,” Critical Quarterly 53.1, pp. 42-60.

Schager, Nick (2011), “Scream 4”, Slant Magazine, 31 April. Accessed 6 September 2013.

Weitzman, Elizabeth (2011), “‘Scream 4 review: Wes Craven’s slasher flick gets stale with return to old stomping grounds,” The New York Daily News, 15 April. Accessed 6 September 2013.


[1] I am indebted to conversations with Christopher Sharrett, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Clayton Dillard, and Kristofer Woofter, all of which influenced some parts of this essay. Any flaws of logic or lapses of taste, however, are my own.

[2] Though it was apparently successful enough to justify a television series, which according to IMDB.com, is announced for a pilot episode in 2014.

[3] A representative sample incorporating all three archetypes is as easy as a Google search. The cast of the sordid Celebrity Rehab has included Rodney King (professional victim, or forgotten hero, depending on your perspective), Gary Busey (has-been celebrity) among many others, and Ricco Rodriguez (forgotten hero).

4 thoughts on ““Rip It Up and Start Again:” Scream 4 and Post-?”

  1. Great job, Will!! An excellent analysis of the film, which too often gets simply lumped into the rest of the slasher genre, when it clearly operates very much according to a unique set of rules formulated by Wes Craven, who is at this point very much a major force in post 1980s horror, even if his films are often uneven – this is a solid, informative piece, and some great writing, too! More!

  2. You make such an important point about identification NOT being the point here in this largely derided and dismissed film….Your take on social media and/in/of film in the pomo age is well taken and very significant.

    The film both engages in Rabelaisian humor and extreme forms postmodern narcissism, but it also critiques that very same narcissism. This is one of the things that often draws me to genres like horror and comedy–their ability to take part in pop culture while also criticizing societal norms and consumption , even, and especially, consumption of itself as product.

    Your essay demonstrates that Scream 4 in particular is politically very complex, both excessively consuming and revelling in late stage capitalism (and gluttony) and yet subversively undermining it — through exposing and satirizing these things in an engagement of Janus faced narcissism that turns back on itself in a sort of double helix of mirrors. You capture and reveal these contradictions brilliantly here.

  3. Many thanks for your responses. I think this film will age well, and makes cogent critiques of the new, personal screen media age of celebrity narcissism. Warhol’s prediction of 15 minutes of fame never seemed more prescient….

  4. A dense and provocative article. I especially admire the breakdown of distinctions between dreams and reality and the discussion of the formal elements.

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