Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Come In Number 4

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

This week sees the release on DVD of the fourth instalment in Wes Craven’s Scream series. The unsurprisingly named Scream 4 reunites director Craven, screenwriter Kevin Williamson and a bunch of the series’ stars for yet more postmodern horror fun. It joins the swelling ranks of film series which have managed to stretch to four films (and oftentimes many more beyond). These are not essential fourth instalments in sequences – not Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or Twilight: Breaking Dawn. They are honest to goodness sequels – sometimes unplanned, perhaps unexpected and often entirely uncalled for fourth films.
The place of the third sequel, fourquel or whatever one wishes to call it has always been a complicated one. The first number 4 film worthy of note is Ghost of Frankenstein, from Universal Studios’ monster movies of the 1940s. We had already been introduced to Frankenstein, his Bride (yes, I know, not really his bride, but take it up with the screenwriters, not me) and his Son. With a lack of family members to meet, the series stopped focussing on the unfortunate Frankenstein family and brought the monster itself to the fore, adding good old Ygor for good measure. The next adventure for the poor, misunderstood beast (Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman) would see him meet up with Lon Chaney Jr’s poor, misunderstood Wolfman Larry Talbot. Something of a step down from the films preceding it, Ghost of Frankenstein marks not only the moment in which the series begins its sharp decline in quality, but also the point at which studio executives started looking beyond films being of inherent worth in themselves and saw the value in franchise branding, something which continues into the recent day where remakes sell on name alone, and Freddy vs Jason needs no explanation.

It is probably within the horror genre that the fourth sequel is most commonly found. Besides the Universal series which saw Dracula, The Wolfman, The Mummy and Frankenstein all rack up at least four films, we have examples such as the postmodern Bride of Chucky, which sees an increased humour content, as does A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: Dream MasterHalloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers brings back series icon Donald Pleasance to once again do battle with the titular masked maniac, but the rest of the supporting cast are new. Friday the 13th Part 4: The Final Chapter turned out to be nothing of the sort, but it does have a sense of effort being put in to end the series on a high note.

Sometimes the fourth part of a saga is the moment when it goes completely insane. Leprechaun goes into space, as does Hellraiser (at least in part). Saw 4 went to great, convoluted lengths to get round the fact that the series no longer had a lead villain, and in a desperate attempt to keep the franchise going and escape the criticisms levelled against the complicated plotting of the previous two films, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides transposes characters from the Pirates trilogy into the plot of an entirely unrelated novel.

Another thing one finds in the fourquel, often made much later than the original trilogy, is a comment on how time has affected the protagonists. Aforementioned Halloween 4 turns Donald Pleasance’s Dr Sam Loomis into a mad, scarred and embittered creature, sometimes almost as frightening as his quarry. The recent clutch of fourth instalments following popular 80’s action franchises brought us RamboLive Free or Die Hard (or Die Hard 4.0 if you must) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (however much we wish it didn’t happen), with each one including some element of meta-narrative commentary on the surprising continuation of the careers of John Rambo, John McClane and Indiana Jones respectively.

So what can be said about the fourth film in a series? Is it emblematic of a successful series looking to diversify? Does it mark the point at which the rot sets in? Must it always comment on what has gone before? It sometimes means a change in a series – this might manifest in a new set of lead actors, the rewriting of the understood rules of the series or an attempt to reboot a franchise. However, many fourth films do not stray too far from what has gone before: Scream 4, for all its pre-release spin promising reinterpretation, actually stays close to the established formula, only offering a glimpse at something new in its closing minutes. Similarly, despite the new cast of perfectly capable actors, the film’s most vibrant moments are those in which the focus is squarely on the stars of the original trilogy. The lesson may well be that if a series is strong enough to reach a third sequel, then the elements which led it to this point are in no need of changing. In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


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