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Scream 4: The killer watches us watching him

"Don't you ever die!?"

This is what Scream's exasperated killer, Gale Weathers-Riley, (played by Courteney Cox), demands of Neve Campbell's character, Sidney Prescott, who returns to Woodsboro to promote a quasi-feminist memoir about surviving.

When you read that Cox's character was the killer, did your blood race a bit? Or did you feel nothing at all?

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She may or may not be the killer. If her identity concerns you, you are either a slasher-film devotee, or nostalgic fan of the 1990s franchise: Wes Craven unleashed the Ghostface killer in 1996, and with him, a formula that this reboot uses, and enlarges.

What made Scream allegedly a new kind of slasher film was its self-reflexivity. The main characters watch scary movies and cynically list their conventions, while, simultaneously, dying at the hands of the kind of psycho they affectionately satirize.

I take exception to this film being deemed the first example of historiographic metafiction, to use postmodernist maven's Linda Hutcheon's phrase. The underrated, and largely ignored Jason Lives: Friday the 13th, Part VI, released in 1986, is rife with this sort of parodic gesture: When Jason is approaching a cabin filled with child campers, for example, one of them is anxiously reading Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. In another scene, Jason appears on a deserted road, and a hot, female counsellor declares, as she accelerates her car, "I've seen enough horror movies to know when a guy in a mask shows up, it's time to go!"

In perhaps the most meta-moment of all, Jason rises from the dead in order to rip the heart out from the grating and wretched Ron Palillo's chest (once Kotter's Arnold Horshack). At this moment, we are one with the masked killer, and painfully aware of the actor's terrible, slashed career.

And Craven's film was less subtle; the bloody equivalent of a grad school panel discussion, the latter being horrifying enough in its own right.

Scream 4, which opened second to the animated Rio this weekend and grossed almost $20-million, ramps up the critical theory. The teen slasher fans and AV geeks are fully on board. "It doesn't get any meta than this," one youth puns, a bizarre boast in a film which is still, essentially, about a thick, sharp blade entering hearts, soft bellies, and, in one case, eye sockets.

The heavy meta, again, occurs in the form of Ghostface, whose sneering telephone calls are always half-homicide-threat and half-mini-lectures about the slasher genre, and the AV kids, who make a cult of the film genre and, in this case, webcast their every move.

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Spoiler alert-ish: the killer also webcasts the crimes and is, as such, making the movie.

Scream 4 is complicated by a lot of movie within a movie play (old school by now): Within it, the kids watch, avidly, a series of Stab films, directed by the new pulp-king, Robert Rodriguez. Stab 7 becomes enmeshed with, then virtually inseparable from, Scream 4. The chief AV geeks disparage the Stab franchise, noting that one film took place in space, which "wasn't very pretty." The slasher pedant in me objects that it was Jason Voorhees who entered space, and wonders why the first masked maniac is not given any respect here.

Scream 4 is a film about neo-celebrity, ultimately. The killer is revealed to be hungry for viral-fame, via the webcasts, and then, by surviving in Prescott's bestseller.

Modern fame is characterized in the film passively, as the result of horrible or strange things happening to you. It's a not-terribly original observation, but expect more and more films to function as the guard in the Panopticon, watching everyone watching back.

Critic S.T. Karnick has observed that Friday the 13th changed the slasher genre by ignoring the victims' back-stories or personalities, and focusing instead on the life and times of the slasher. This is fairly true of the Screams too, as, of course, the killer muses to Sidney, via cellphone: "You're a survivor, aren't you? What good is it to be a survivor when everyone close to you is dead? You can't save them. All you can do ... is watch."

The same is true of fame, one supposes. The stars we like to follow the most are living out their own horror films and we have so little affect any more that we barely flinch when the knife enters and finds the true life, waiting in its dark hiding place.

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