Looking Back on ‘Scream 4,’ the Harbinger of Franchise Fatigue

By  · Published on October 8th, 2014

Dimension Films

It’s 2011 and we’re already tired of franchises. Well, at least the throwaway characters about to get gutted in Stab 6 are, as one of them sarcastically writes off Saw IV as “gross, not scary” and lacking “character development.” But then the scene we’re watching pulls out to reveal itself as opening scene to Stab 7, wherein Anna Paquin (who’s watching Stab 6) becomes the exact character type she complains about: “a bunch of articulate teens sit around and deconstruct horror movies as Ghost Face kills them one by one.”

She scathingly notes, “It’s been done to death.”

And while it might be hard to say that Wes Craven’s Scream 4, of which these movies within movies within movies are a part of, predicted the current atmosphere of franchise fatigue, it at least has the hipster-like sense of being tired of franchises before it was cool.

Scream 4 was more of a response to the numerous reboots and sequels of horror genre staples like Nightmare on Elm Street that were announced or made prior to the film’s release, but watching it again now, it also feels like a general statement on the option-shoot-reboot mindset infiltrating the mainstream. Scream 4 was intentionally niche-y at the time, with Paquin opining about the “postmodern, meta shit” in a postmodern, meta way, but more than a few other films have adopted that same kind of approach to milking their stories.

Does the fact that Kristen Bell’s nameless blonde stabs Paquin in the gut mean that we, the ones tired of the repetition (and essential monopolizing of the storytelling industry) should shut up and get over it? In that brief scene, their ideologies about movies are made very clear: Paquin wants something smarter and more original, alluding to things outside of the horror genre. Bell’s view is more myopic, finding jump scares and familiarity appealing. As blood spurts out of Paquin’s mouth, she asks, “Why?” Bell retorts, “Because you talk too much. Now shut up and watch the movie.”

With that, screenwriter Kevin Williamson lays out the two schools of thought in a franchise that already existed as a savvy examination of its own genre. Now he and Craven want to use the Scream franchise as a way to comment on franchises across the entire industry.

Though the film is certainly reliant on its past manifestation as that horror film that was about horror film tropes, its self-awareness is amped up here to a point where Ghost Face’s normally banter feels lackluster, predictable and very “I watched Scream when I was in high school.” Franchise jargon is hard to escape, and now nearly impossible to avoid in the vernacular of anyone who loves the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the DC Comics movies. What used to be arguably niche culture is now extremely popular culture, and it’s tiring. On the other hand, though Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy grossed more than $300m this summer, it’s still half of what The Avengers made in its domestic run in 2012, not to mention the fact that 2014 was the worst summer in terms of box office gross since 1997.

While this undoubtedly is due in part to the different infrastructure of how we ingest and consume media (streaming, etc), the gross differences between Galaxy and The Avengers feels telling. Yes, the characters of the latter film are better known, but both of them are still part of a specific popular franchise, and it’s impossible to imagine those films losing money. The gap is there, though, and the rest of the top 10 highest grossing films of 2014 are filled with 9 already existing properties (sequels, reboots, etc.) And though 2013 was no better in terms of original properties, the top grosser (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) was nonetheless well above the $400m mark.

Short of the Week

This infographic goes to 2011 (the year Scream 4 was released), and it doesn’t look good. All of the top 10 highest grossing films of 2011 are parts of franchises, and number one (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2) grossed $381m. This may have been the start of our fatigue.

Scream’s shtick is being aware of its structure and tropes, and so “The Rules” are something to be constantly commented upon, particularly throughout the original trilogy. In Scream 4 there’s the air of overfamiliarity with The Rules not just in a postmodern sense, but in the way that they’ve permeated the culture to become a component part of it. (They worship these rules; the teens of Woodsboro throw a Stab-athon party, binge-watching the entire series in a night.) On a similar front, part of Guardian of the Galaxy’s supposed strength was its awareness of the Marvel formula (which, honestly, didn’t stop it from being generic).

Not only do all of Scream 4’s returning characters understand how to go about their masked killer business, every new character understands The Rules because they’ve been force fed them by repetitive pop culture. In other words, they’re just like you and me. “Modern audiences become savvy to the rules of the originals. So the reversals become the new standard,” says film nerd Charlie (Rory Culkin) explaining the possible new MO of the killer. And it’s not just horror films and their killers that exist on these terms. Very few blockbusters are earnest in the same way that they once were (or at least how we perceived that they were), where even romantic comedies trot out references to older romantic comedies, and brooding superhero movies like Man of Steel are aware of how dark they are just as their lighter counterparts exist to comment on that solemnity.

At one point in Scream 4, Dumb Cop (Anthony Anderson) calls Other Dumb Cop (Adam Brody), “Dead man walking.” An echo from the first film, the two briefly discuss The Rules before Other Dumb Cop foolishly leaves the car in violation of them. The insinuation is clear: if the Keystone idiots understand The Rules, you’d have to be living under a rock not to. The same, essentially, goes for comprehending the simplified plotlines of various franchises. (“What do you mean you don’t know who Thanos is?!”) And such intimacy with the horror movie genre in particular causes other characters to predict plot points within the story they’re living in, no different than the self-referential quality of certain pieces of dialogue in Iron Man or Guardians of the Galaxy or The Avengers.

And this fatigue regarding continuing series more cleverly manifests itself through the weariness of the characters. It’s been about ten years since the events of Scream 3, and the reality of life has settled in. Dewey (David Arquette) and Gale (Courtney Cox) have been married for a decade and their relationship encounters some friction. Sidney (Neve Campbell) reinvents herself through a memoir (a reboot, of sorts, since the Stab series is seven films in) but Gale is unable to do so (a failed reboot).

One of the later scenes in the film has Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), yet another movie nerd character, up against Ghost Face on the phone, repeating his life or death quiz schtick. He asks, “Which remake…” but before Ghost Face finishes asking, she exhaustively rattles off title after title, one after the other, right off the bat. She names fifteen of them.

So, though Scream 4 is as much a culprit as it is a critic of its primary thesis, Paquin’s line from the opening still stands: “These sequels don’t know when to stop.”