The Scream movies have always been about writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven wanting to have their cake and eat it too; on one hand, these are “smart” horror parodies where the characters know that they’re in a slasher film and all the rules of the game, and on the other, the filmmakers abide by said rules in an attempt to get away with delivering the cheap thrills of a traditional slasher film. You can’t have it both ways, sez me; it’s amusing when a character points out the cliché of a car not starting, and then her car won’t start. But it ain’t scary.
Regardless, the original Scream is a landmark of the genre, and here’s part 4, which comes a belated eleven years after the previous installment. In that time, the horror genre has seen everything from Saw to Saw 7; plenty of fodder to work with. Onscreen title: Scre4m, which is also (at least) a decade out of fashion. Short version of review: this is more of the same, and equals or betters the last two installments. Fans should dig it.
A decade after the events of the previous film, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to her hometown of Woodsboro (on the fifteenth anniversary of the events that occurred in the first Scream) to promote her new book. Immediately, bodies start dropping. Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette) is on the case, while author & wife Gale (Courtney Cox), struggling to come up with some fictional material, starts her own side investigation.
The Ghostface killer seems to be stalking a set of highschoolers that eerily mimics the main characters from the first film: Sidney’s young niece Jill (Emma Roberts) and her friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe); Jill’s ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella); and film geeks Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin).
Scream 4, like the previous films, simultaneously sends up and pays homage to the horror genre; like those films, however, it isn’t really a horror film, save for the killer-in-a-mask conceit. It plays out like an Old Dark House (or Scooby-Doo) mystery, keeping us guessing at who the killer is as bodies fall and suspects are eliminated.
As one of the characters says during the film, “the unexpected is now the expected;” to really surprise us, Scream 4 would have to play things straight. But it’s far too late for that. Instead, the film successfully obscures who the killer is, but by revelation time, we’ve been guessing so long we no longer care.
The first Scream film gained some notoriety for its opening scene, which unexpectedly killed off a major star in particularly gruesome fashion. Scream 4’s opening sequence is the best part of the movie – it’s a real gas, cleverly layering Stab (the movie-series-within-a-series, based on the events of the Scream films) into the proceedings and featuring cameos by Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell.
The movie that follows it, however, is bloated and tiresome: we’ve seen all this before, in the earlier Scream films, the films that they parodied, and the films that have since parodied them. There’s nothing new here.
To differentiate from the previous outings, there’s a greater emphasis on comedy, which only sometimes comes off – a scene with the killer, right after all is revealed, is (accidental?) comic genius. But it’s at the expense of the horror/thriller elements; Scream 4 is in no way scary (outside of a few boo! moments, there’s nary an effort to scare us) and the suspense is dialed down a few notches, too.
Williamson crams a lot of ideas into his script, including thoughts on horror sequels and remakes and throwaway references to classics like Peeping Tom and Suspiria. After four films, they only provide fleeting amusement for the horror aficionado.
Scream 4 makes for an interesting comparison to Craven’s last film, My Soul to Take, which was basically the same movie played straight; that film was better directed and more atmospheric, but lacked Williamson’s self-referential creativity. The end result, however, is the same.