Anyone wondering whether there was a burning creative urge that led the filmmakers of Scream 4 to take up the franchise again after 10 years can rest assured: There wasn’t. At best it feels like a comfortable return to a familiar story, but it never feels necessary. This film is well-made, an improvement on the lackluster third installment and about on par with the second, but despite having a few interesting things to say about the nature of franchise filmmaking, it mostly feels perfunctory and bland.
It’s the 15th anniversary of the first series of murders. Perpetual victim Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) has written a self-help book and has come to her hometown of Woodsboro with her publicist, Rebecca (Alison Brie), for the last stop of her book tour.
Dewey Riley (David Arquette) is now the sheriff, and is married to Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox). The two are having some marital issues (lent a little extra mustard by the couple’s real-life woes) as Gale, formerly a famous newscaster, is bristling in a small town with no stories to cover. Luckily for her, things are about to get very exciting in Woodsboro.
Of course, you can’t build a horror movie around a bunch of old fogeys like them. Teenagers are the necessary grist for the slasher mill. To that end, we have Sidney’s teenage cousin, Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts), who has her own circle of friends who are just waiting to get stabbed, including Kirby (Hayden Panettiere, sporting a Christopher Walken haircut) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe), as well as Jill’s ex-boyfriend, Trevor (Nico
Tortorella), and Robbie (Eric Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin), two movie geeks who run the high-school cinema club.
With Sidney in town, murders begin that ape the style of the original ones, with a killer wearing a Ghostface mask calling up teenagers before he carves them to bits. Despite the fact that this is a sequel, the movies nerd characters start talking about how the killers regard this as a remake or reboot and start outlining their rules.
The first movie was lauded for being selfaware and poking fun at horror conventions, but in the 10 years since the third film came out, being meta and self-referential has become a matter of course. Shows like Community (co-starring Brie) earn a good chunk of their laughs from metareference humor. Scream 4 does manage to go further down the hall of mirrors, referencing the horror scene of the last 10 years, dismissing the Saw movies and other “torture porn” out of hand and making mention of the found-footage genre. The characters say that the killers this time around will likely film the murders, although this is never satisfactorily integrated into the plot.
How does a series that began in the days of VHS and cordless phones adapt to the technological advances made since then? The movie points out how technology is advancing so fast that it’s hard to keep up, but the filmmakers seem to have taken that as an excuse not even to try. Passing mentions are made of Facebook and Twitter and text messages, but the only real difference is that the killer calls people on their cell phones instead of landlines. And the Internet is represented by a character who walks around with a webcam on his head. The script often sounds suspiciously like old folks trying and failing to sound like they understand the kids these days. I did, however, like that you can get a phone app to make your voice sound like Ghostface.
Besides the veteran cast members, the film also marks the return of director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson (who sat out the series’ third, and worst, installment). Williamson’s script starts the film strongly, with a clever sort of Russian nesting doll series of scenes that keeps pulling the rug out from under the audience until the movie proper starts. It’s probably the most effective opening sequence since the first Scream. The film also has a strong ending, which is truly surprising and, even if it isn’t adequately set up beforehand, has something interesting to say. It’s the rest of the film that is the problem.
The movie talks a lot about how, in the current horror landscape, the rules are no longer valid and anything is possible at any time, but hardly feels dangerous itself. For the bulk of the film, things feel decidedly familiar, with the same slicing and dicing of secondary characters that we’ve come to expect, but not much else. The characters now all seem to know the rules of horror movies, but it doesn’t help them very much. They spend a lot of time opening doors and wandering off alone when they know they shouldn’t. One says, “You just want me to walk past an open doorframe so you can jump out and get me,” and then goes ahead and does it.
The movie is proficient enough, with slick direction from Craven and an enthusiastic cast (Panettiere is particularly entertaining as a girl who’s a horror expert without being a nerd or weirdo). Fans of the series will be entertained, but there are no real storytelling advances made, and despite how much everything has supposedly changed, some things have ossifiednamely, the returning characters. It’s nice to see the actors returning to these roles, but there’s no depth or development to speak of here. Sydney is still blandly noble and stoic. Dewey is a well-meaning goober. And Gale is ambitious and annoyingbut not too much; we’re supposed to like her, after all.
Williamson also has a hard time integrating the returning characters into the story with the teenage characters. Mostly, they just stand around waiting for all the youngsters to die.
Of course, much of the reason for the flatness of the characters is the sheer number of new people that are introduced, providing us with plenty of victims and red herrings. Could the killer be the foxy Deputy Hicks (Marley Shelton), who is inexplicably attracted to Sheriff Dewey? Could it be one of the two movie-obsessed nerds? Perhaps one of the returning characters finally snapped? In carrying on the theme of remakes, maybe the killer is the equivalent of the killer in the original?
Scream 4 is well-made enough that fans of the series won’t be disappointed, even if nothing particularly new or interesting happens here. It’s hard to dislike the film, which begins and ends well, despite an often disappointing center. Seeing the cast return to their familiar roles, doing familiar things, is pleasant and comfortable, kind of like an old shoe. But much like an old shoe, it also kind of stinks.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.