Scream 4‘s failure at the box office is still something of a mystery. With a budget of $40m (which in today’s market is fairly modest), it took back only $38m (discounting DVD & Blu-ray sales). The general rule of thumb is that a film must earn back double what it cost to make if it’s to be considered a success, so taking back $2m less is a hugely disappointing result – and a result which has all but shattered hopes of getting a fifth instalment from Ghostface.
So what was it that people didn’t take to? Was it just not the right time? Had the throng of meta, pop culture-referencing Scream wannabes tarnished its style? Were audiences just unwilling to think too hard? It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason, but if I had to guess I would venture it’s because it played like an original to a completely new generation who just weren’t willing to go with it. Scream 4 came a whole eleven years after the rather weak (though still fun) Scream 3, which is a long, long time in Hollywood. People had just forgotten about it; Scream had gone down in history as a classic of horror cinema, but people weren’t really thinking about it any more, so when Scream 4 came along trying to play to its original audience as well as a new generation through the utilization of smartphones and the internet, only one group paid attention. Clearly there weren’t enough of us.
But the financial failure is deceiving. The correlation between loss of money and the quality of the film itself in non-existent, and that’s not just coming from a subjective standpoint. Seeing Scream 4 in a packed screening with a totally willing audience was, to this day, one of the best cinema experiences of my life. While certainly playing host to the odd misstep (the “fuck Bruce Willis” line still doesn’t work), Scream 4 is a brilliant addition to the series. Right from the wickedly deceptive opening sequence, everyone was into it, loving it, enjoying the ride. It was almost like watching a Stab-a-thon (for you uneducated Screamites, “Stab” is the fictional film which appeared in Scream 2 based on the events of Scream – that’s the meta bit – and by Scream 4 there have been about seven of them). The rest of the film played out just in the ways we expected from a Scream film; it was smart, sassy, full of humour and packed with pop culture references. The kills were inventive and unexpected, the nods as to who might be the killer ranged from subtle to so obvious it can’t be them (but could it?), and the cast was excellent – both original and the newcomers.
Because of that experience, I find it hard to understand just where the film faltered. Clearly not every screening would have been that way, but from my experience on that night, there was a buzz not just in that one screen, but the whole cinema. If my aforementioned guess at the film’s box office failure being a result of failing to gain a new audience is wrong, I really can’t figure out what it could be because demonstrably people were enjoying it. Another thing Scream 4 got absolutely right was the formula. Scream 1 and 2 walked similar paths in the way they reeled the audience in, entertained and scared them, then revealed. Scream 4 thankfully did the same thing while still accomplishing an air of freshness thanks to the technological plot devices it was able to use. Scream 3 deviated from that path and ultimately paid the price. The film was admirable with its intentions but disappointing with its results. While enjoyable enough, it lacked that oomph of its two predecessors, and ultimately its successor.
Undoubtedly one of the foremost reasons for the series remaining so strong is Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Together they’ve helmed all four films, giving the series crucial stability. It’s unlikely we’ll ever get to see a fifth from them, but really who cares when one thing is guaranteed: Scream 4 is a great bloody film.