Why Scream 4 Is Much Better Than You Remember
This post contains spoilers for all the "Scream" films so far.
As "Scream 6" looms near, the narratives around the first three "Scream" movies seem increasingly set in stone. Everyone loves the first movie, and people generally agree that "Scream 2" is a solid sequel. (In fact, some might even say it’s the best of them.) The fandom is a lot more divided on "Scream 3," though the consensus has grown more positive over time. Once you accept the different tone the third film’s going for, most of its flaws are pretty easy to forgive.
Then there is 2022’s "Scream," the fifth film in the franchise. It’s rarely anyone’s favorite, but most people don’t seem to hate it much either. It’s a solid entry, though most of its appeal is in the way it pushes the franchise in a new direction. "Scream 5" — as it’s also known — sets the necessary groundwork for the next film, which will no longer feel the need to drag poor Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) back into the lion’s den. Instead, "Scream 6" looks like it’s mostly focusing on a group of survivors who are familiar, but who don’t have Sidney’s invincible, tension-killing status.
As a standalone film though, 2022’s "Scream" might be one of the weakest in the series, as it spends a lot of its time setting the groundwork for a new series of films. It dedicates valuable screentime to having Sidney pass the baton to Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) as the new final girl, at the expense of fleshing out its other new characters. Much of the fan consensus around the movie is based on the assumption that it’s leading the franchise to a better place, so if "Scream 6" turns out to be a flop, "Scream 5"’s reputation is going down with it.
But what about Scream 4?
Luckily for the fifth film, "Scream 6" looks promising so far. If it is a good movie — especially if it manages to rival 1996’s "Scream" and 1997’s "Scream 2" — then that just puts 2011’s "Scream 4" in an increasingly awkward position. The fourth film is already the odd one out in the series. Were "Scream" 5–7 to end up being the successful trilogy fans hope they become, "Scream 4" will only be overlooked even more.
Admittedly, it makes sense that the fourth film is overlooked — it’s the one with the least impact on the rest of the series. It’s the only "Scream" film where no pre-established character is murdered, and it’s the only one where it looks like someone smeared Vaseline over the camera lens. The weird filter, in how it seems to make the corners of the screen blurry and everyone’s faces look extra bright, is a little distracting. It also doesn’t help that "Scream 4" is the only one in the series that wasn’t a box office success.
Looking back at it in 2023, it’s easy to dismiss "Scream 4" as the film that tried and failed to do what 2022’s "Scream" eventually pulled off. But is that a fair assessment? Although "Scream 4" is a messy film, it might also be the series at its boldest and most subversive. It might not be the best of them, but it’d still be an essential installment to the series even if we didn’t know Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere) was returning.
Doesn’t try to have its cake and eat it too
2022’s "Scream" has a lot to say about requels, aka movies that are half-reboots and half-sequels. Mindy Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown) notes that when you’re trying to liven up an old franchise, you can’t just do a hard reboot and ignore all the original characters because that would upset the internet. But you also can’t keep bringing back the same characters over and over again, as that gets repetitive. So these movies are forced to do a delicate balancing act, one where a new young cast is introduced and the old cast sticks around, catering to the audience’s nostalgia while still shifting the series’ focus.
Basically, you have to do what "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" did. Introduce a new generation of characters while bringing back the old set, and maybe kill off one member of the original trio to keep the stakes high. This is the playbook the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy followed, with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Leia Organa dying one by one across "The Force Awakens," "The Last Jedi," and "The Rise of Skywalker." And in the middle chapter, Rian Johnson expertly upended fan expectations.
Although "Scream 5" pokes fun at this trend, it doesn’t actually subvert it in any meaningful way like "The Last Jedi." It points out how predictable and calculated requels are, and then it goes right ahead and follows the requel playbook. The movie’s most biting social critique is not directed at the requel trend, but instead at toxic fandom members — it’s definitely a fair target, albeit an easy one. "Scream 4," on the other hand, doesn’t pull its punches.
A more uncompromising route
"Scream 4" has a lot to say about requels too, and its plot actually follows through on those critiques. Even back in 2011, requels of beloved horror franchises were incredibly common, which is pointed out in the tense phone call scene between Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and one of the killers. Kirby thinks if she gets the answer wrong, Ghostface will kill her tied-up classmate Charlie Walker (Rory Culkin). The final question starts off as, "Name the remake of the groundbreaking horror movie in which the villain…" but the killer doesn’t get to finish. A panicked Kirby just starts counting off a long list of all the big-name horror movie remakes we’d had over the years.
Panettiere’s delivery is so tense and emotional that you may not recognize it’s just one big joke being made at the expense of the horror genre. "Scream 4" is noting how tired and predictable the remake strategy is for a horror franchise, which feels particularly pointed considering how much "Scream 4" initially sells itself as a quasi-remake. More accurately, it sells itself as a requel, but the script sticks to "remake" because it was the closest word we had at the time.
It’s why the big twist was shocking for a lot of viewers, even though in hindsight, it should’ve been obvious. Before the reveal, Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts) is never attacked alone like Sidney was in the original film. By the time you hit the midpoint of "Scream 4," it becomes clear that Jill, Kirby, and Charlie are basically the only new cast members with a personality distinct enough to give their killer reveal an impact.
Pretending to be a little worse than it is
And yet, most fans can attest that they were caught off guard by the twist. That’s chiefly due to how hard "Scream 4" originally leans into the idea that Jill (Emma Roberts) is the new final girl. She is Sidney’s teenage cousin who looks and acts a lot like Sidney did in the original, and one can easily see how a bunch of out-of-touch studio executives would think that’s what fans would want for a replacement.
The fact that Jill doesn’t get enough screen time, and her friend group isn’t as fleshed out as Sidney’s was, don’t seem like giveaways that she’s the killer. It just seems like the movie’s falling for the usual requel trap of dedicating too much time to the "safe" legacy characters, instead of fleshing out the new ones. Just like Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega) or Chad Meeks-Martin (Mason Gooding) — introduced in 2022’s "Scream" — look like they’ll be fleshed out more in "Scream 6," it was easy to assume "Scream 4" was merely introducing Jill and saving a proper standalone story for the next movie.
Jill’s creepy ex-boyfriend Trevor Sheldon (Nico Tortorella) feels like a more boring version of Billy Loomis, and Jill’s friend Olivia Morris (Marielle Jaffe) feels like a more generic version of Tatum, but that’s sort of the point. "Scream 4" pretends to be a generic requel that lazily checks off all the studio-mandated plot points, before pulling the rug out from under us and doing something completely unprecedented.
Best killer in the franchise?
Although Emma Roberts has since made a name for herself as someone who’s uniquely good at playing terrible people, at the time she was best known for her star role in the Nickelodeon teen sitcom "Unfabulous," and for playing sympathetic characters in movies like "Valentine’s Day," "It’s Kind of a Funny Story," and "Hotel for Dogs." Going into "Scream 4," we knew Roberts was a good actress, but we’d never seen her play anyone this delightfully evil.
Jill (Roberts) works in part because her motives are so different from the other killers. She has no secret connection to her aunt and Sidney’s mother Maureen Prescott. Nor is she out for any sort of revenge. Jill just wants to be famous. It was a motive that proved divisive back in 2011, but as influencer culture has tremendously grown over the past decade, it seems more and more believable. The idea that someone would do something immoral for the sake of online clout? It’s not exactly a stretch of the imagination.
But beyond the performance and the killer monologue, Jill works because of what she represents. The pre-reveal Jill is meant to represent everything wrong with requels. She’s just a younger, less complicated version of the legacy character we’ve come to love, seemingly chosen because the studio executives didn’t trust audiences to get behind a new final girl who didn’t have all of Sidney’s general traits. But by making Jill the villain, "Scream 4" is a clear condemnation of requels and everything they stand for.
Jill’s reveal is surprising, but it’s outdone by the moment when she stabs Sidney for a second time and nobody stops her. In all the other "Scream" movies, the killer had never made it this far. For a significant chunk of "Scream 4" after this point, right until Dewey Riley (David Arquette) explains that Sidney’s pulling through, there’s truly no telling what will happen next. The idea that the villain might have actually won — which is what writer Kevin Williamson had gone for in the original script — was disorientating in the best way possible.
There’s also something particularly unnerving about the way Jill goes about hurting herself to make her story seem believable. She pulls out part of her hair, claws up her own face, and throws herself into a glass table. We’ve seen gore in these movies before, but we’ve never seen self-mutilation on this scale. Even when the other killers were stabbing themselves, they’d still have the other killer holding the knife. Jill’s the only one capable of doing it on her own.
Jill is spoiled, shallow, and short-sighted, but she’s so driven toward her goal in this scene that you can’t help but root for her a little. Or rather, you can’t help but feel a little bit of pity — the harm she’s doing to herself and others is not worth it, but she clearly believes it is without any doubt whatsoever. All we can do is watch as she barrels through her plan with unflinching motivation. When she’s escorted out of the house on a stretcher and all the reporters are asking her questions and calling her a hero, she seems so happy that we almost — and I mean, almost — want her to get away with it.
Standing on its own two feet
Of course, the moment Jill finds out Sidney is still alive, it’s very clear where "Scream 4" will go next. You can nitpick the final sequence to death if you want to — why is this hospital so empty? — but thematically, it all ties together well. "You forgot the first rule of remakes," Sidney tells Jill’s corpse at the end. "Don’t f**k with the original."
Though it largely pretends to be a requel, "Scream 4" instead serves as a bold condemnation of requel culture. Audiences may have been disappointed that the movie ended with no new surviving characters (except Judy Hicks), which would put the next "Scream" movie in an awkward position. How will the franchise continue if there isn’t a new pool of survivors to carry it forth? But "Scream 4" doesn’t care. It doesn’t exist to set up some future film — it is its own thing, to be judged entirely on its own merits.
"Scream 4" is far from the best in the series, but it also doesn’t deserve to be the forgotten entry. In a Hollywood landscape where every franchise seems interested in running indefinitely, where so many movies are written at least partly as teasers for future movies, "Scream 4" deserves credit for having the nerve to be different. It may not have revived the franchise, but there’s so much more to a movie than that.