Sunday, November 13, 2011

Screams within Screens within SCREAM 4

O Courtney Cox, you were my favorite Friend, but now--with lip all Howardly and skin glowing like a radioactive-luminous mask, and your Gail Weathers character still yoked to David Arquette's perma-wincing sheriff Dewey--yours truly is a SCREAM 4 for the Munch. Just as the ghostface killa mask is frozen in a 'Scream' so your once gorgeous face is now Botox-frozen in a world you never made, but which you haunt in a shadow state like that other memorable Munch painting, Madonna.

The rest of the original cast is also back, with changes reflecting the relatively longer stretch since the last installment. Sidney is now a glum memoirist who either doesn't want to talk about it, or does but either way, as self-righteous as ever. Gail has given up journalism to become a struggling fiction writer and stay-at-home wife to Dewey the sheriff, whose bewildered, pleading look lets you know he  has gotten no better at sheriff-ing --he can't even find his cell phone yet remains determined to do all the decision-making for the community with no help from his far shrewder wife. He's the sheriff, Gail! Not her.  If anything, he's almost an accessory to the crime through his sheer incompetence.  Upping the hot mess women ante in Dewey's life: a cute, clueless deputy with DSM-IV-darkened teeth who's so asking for death she doesn't unsnap her gun holster as she's sneaking up on a serial killer she knows for sure is in the next room!

"Bela loves hick sheriffs!"
The last time a sheriff and deputy were this outmaneuvered was in Monogram's 1944 classic, VOODOO MAN (above, my praise here). As happens there and in SCREAM 4, the characters eventually learn to not even bother calling the cops, who would likely just shoot them by mistake, at best. Still, since Dewey's refusal to accept any help endangers everyone in town, it can't even be called well-meaning, just lazy writing. Rather than suss out a believable (one would hope) defense against an unknown stalker/killer, the sheriff's strategy is to just lopes in the direction of one scream after another, trusting his bewildered twinkly eyes and droopy aww shucks good intentions will disarm all comers.

But what marks SCREAM 4 as the logical extension of the first three is media desensitizing. If you recall the first one was all about 80s slasher movies being quoted and turned to in times of copycat killing - the effect was genuinely chilling, like having some creepy guy breathing in our ear behind us at the movies; the second finds the events of the first now a major film adaptation; the third goes to Hollywood to the set of the sequel; this fourth one finds the characters now older and saturated by sequels and new avenues of media (iPads, etc.) on which to watch an inexhaustible slew of sequels, providing a refracted meta chorus to the ongoing events, locking the future and the past in an endlessly tightening Moebius lasso that's continued to tighten, unchecked, via direct-to-video (where they are up to STAB 7) downloads. Everyone is watching them on youtube, even while they're being stalked and stabbed in 'real' life, practically watching themselves getting murdered with the same cut-off apathy. And now the 'Ghostface' voice is actually available (within the film's diegesis) as an iPhone app, you never know if it's the 'real' killer or a tasteless prank.

Focus, please.... focus
We know it's all meta because the characters say the word meta and pretend to be empowered even as they tastelessly prank call each other mere hours after learning their best friends have been gutted. In this, strangely, they are less like slasher characters and more like the eloi in The Time Machine. No one thinks about arming themselves with a gun or a knife, or staying indoors at night, or not answering the door when the person on the other side refuses to identify themselves even when half their friends have been killed in a matter of days. No one calls out for help, or calls he cops, or looks in closets in advance of dropping their guard and popping on earbuds. The film would have benefited from someone who doesn't wait before she is the final girl to pull one of the ever-present butcher knives from out its tasteful wooden counter top knife block, or try to gouge her assailant's eyes when being strangled instead of just overacting with the bugged-out eyes and the gasping.

Another odd grace note is the metatextual terror of aging going on across the original cast, all now long in the tooth, in one way or another. Even the actor providing the Ghostface voice sounds less scary and more just old--a Stuntman Mike from beyond the grave--hackneyed from the ax of over-familiarity. More could have been made of him sounding older, ala Hamlet's father's ghost or Charlie on Charlie's Angels. In fact we never see ANY old people in the film, so Ghostface's voice becomes--even though we know the voice isn't 'his' but some phone app--the film's sole representation of latter middle-age and irreversible physical decay and therefore more sad than scary. Meanwhile there's this business of smearing the lens with Vaseline and deep color washing that makes all the girl's faces glow in a CGI airbrushed blur. It can only be some stipulation in the Cox contract--she wants to be filmed in layers of digital airbrushing to hide some sign of age, therefore all the girls must be filmed likewise, no matter how young. This smartly solves the issue so common in Barbara Streisand movies like Nuts where she seems to exist in a smeary cloud while everyone else looks normal. It's tacky for sure, but it works since no one knows the difference between movie, anime, digital, analog, and real life anymore; the color-style gloss underwrites a miraculous disconnect that helps actors and characters hide from their own aging or sense of self-preservation. They even cheer bloody movies based on their own future deaths, like a man cheerfully devouring his own foot and working his way along the digestive ouroboros centipede until all that's left is a desert snifter of credits and a gluttonous laugh.

There's only one girl who sees past it all, and even looks like she's filmed with a clean lens, the mighty Sidney Bristow (Neve Campbell, au natural) who, like all trauma survivors in movies, is traveling on a self-help book tour. With her grave pout and moistened eyes, Sidney lets us know she's well-aware that the only one who survives these events is the one who takes them super seriously. Alas, even she--who has mucho experience with these things--doesn't bother to employ standard dirty fighting tricks until all of her friends are dead and Wes Craven is making a wrap-it-up gesture from behind the camera. Excluding Gale and Dewey, the rest of the cast live only to die, for their death scenes and have all the survival instincts of Yvette Mimieux and company when la morlocks come calling. Suspense is ratcheted to a point but once these kids are stabbed and bubbling blood out their mouths there's no longer pain or tragedy --they become merely actors game for a throe, even tossing off bon mots before their glorious death rattles. As a kid who died a lot in our old war games and super 8 movies, I appreciate a dramatic death; on the other hand, it helps if they're not total douches.

The sad thing about survival is this: If you're lucky you get old.  If... you're lucky! As Sugur says in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, "that is the best deal.. that you're gonna get" - and that's a very sad, sick deal indeed. In Hollywood it's perhaps better for a legend's longevity to not get this lucky. Marlene Dietrich and Garbo both retreated into exile to spare their fans the shocking Baby Jane-in-the-mirror horror of seeing them play moms and grandmothers. Marilyn Monroe perhaps knew that if she took her life at least her fans would have what they always wanted--an immortal Aphrodite for their icon-stellation--and she could finally get some real sleep far from the flashbulb strobe panic and gossip column groping.

The alternative to death or hermitage is not always good: Hollywood is cruel to those over 30, like that game of 'carousel' in LOGAN'S RUN. Imagining a future where screens and streaming have so overtaken us that we don't even have to worry about a Japanese ghost girl getting us through the screen like THE RING because we're already inside, hoping just to get as much face time with the camera as we can before we get stabbed. Our biggest goal is not to survive but to have the bloodiest, best death scene, because in the simulacrum life is measured not in heartbeats but in hit counts (I'm paraphrasing the killer here). 

In the end, that ducky overbite on Ms. Cox and the Streisand-ish Vaseline fog over all spells out that mummification on the altar of the image is the answer. It's pretty squirmy when Cox makes wry COUGAR TOWN references coming on to nerdy film geeks young enough to be her children's slightly older friends. It's nothing new in Hollywood, just a scary look at the pyramid reversal created by that great arbiter of eloi equality, the web. The horror nerd fan base was never meant to have this much power, or get hit on by this kind of weird, desperate onabotulinumtoxin Mrs. Robinson. They don't know how to handle it, yet handle it they must, for suddenly they run the world... or at least they run the screen... through... with a ripppppp...

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