Scream’s Ghostface Killer, and the Pleasures of a Villain Who Keeps It Simple

Photo: Phil Bray – ? 2011 - The Weinstein Company

Scream 4, which opens Friday, isn't quite a remake or even a reboot; instead, it's more of a remix. Suddenly, the series that famously referenced other movies is in the unique position of paying homage to itself (or more precisely, its 1996 original), and though new characters are introduced and all the cell phones are appropriately updated, the setting, characters, and set pieces — many of which are callbacks to the first movie — remain the same. While that may seem like wheel-spinning, it actually comes as something of a relief: Finally, after an era of villains who devised elaborate traps more suited for impressing Rube Goldberg than dismembering their nubile young victims, we can return to a simpler time when a horror-movie slasher just needed a knife and some moxie.

To be fair, Wes Craven should share some blame for the convoluted killers we found in movies like Saw, Hostel, and Captivity, since Freddy Krueger in his A Nightmare on Elm Street series was a big proponent of the "creative kill," a murder where the who and the why wasn't as important as the over-the-top method that dispatched the victim. The peril in going down that route is that the sequels always have to promise bigger and badder traps, and before long, Jigsaw's limb-losing mechanisms in Saw were so elaborate and self-parodying that they resembled immunity challenges and obstacle courses from Survivor.

It's a relief, then, to find that Scream 4 prizes suspense over gratuitous torture porn and overly elaborate dismemberment. That's not to say the movie isn't violent — it is, and it opens with one of its bloodiest kills yet. But after that, it settles down into a pleasing rhythm where the thrill of the usual Ghostface encounter comes before the victim is killed. The pre-kill taunting is deliciously psychological, not physical, and the deaths come as a punctuation mark at the end of the scene (the bulk of Scream 4's characters are killed through a relatively bloodless, single stab to the gut) instead of serving as the movie's entire raison d'être. It's telling that when stars sign on to a Scream movie, we wonder which will be killed, not how — and that each installment has at least one death that really hits home because we liked the character, not because the kill was particularly vicious. (In Scream 3, that admittedly had more to do with how the expendable Parker Posey was the film's sole comic bright spot.)

Can it be, then, that despite its modern-day trappings, the Scream series has actually become quaint? Even Wes Craven can hardly believe it, and as he told us, the MPAA battle for this film was his easiest ever: "I went to them, and we got an R without any contest. I think that's the first time that's ever happened to me. I can only think that after the Saw films and everything, ours suddenly seemed acceptable." Or maybe the panel thought that in today's recessionary times, there's something laudable about a villain who downsizes the expensive traps and just gets down to bloodletting business.