Scream 4 (United States, 2011)

April 16, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Scream 4 Poster

Eleven years after Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and her posse last tangled with a mad slasher/killer, the Scream series has been exhumed. Ignoring or forgetting that the final part of the original trilogy, Scream 3, underwhelmed in terms of popular reaction and ticket sales, the filmmakers have exhaled a last, rattling breath of desperation and returned to a well that ran dry last millennium and hasn't gained any moisture since then. There's no real story here; Scream 4 offers little more than a group of familiar characters wandering around a horror movie setting and uttering self-referential one-liners as the body count mounts... and mounts... and mounts. Scream's brand of horror, which lampooned the slasher genre while simultaneously embracing it, was fun and breezy in 1996. In 2011, it's about as fresh as the whiff of something stale and rank from a crypt.

Time in the Scream world has moved on in lock-step with time in the real world, so when we revisit the lazy town of Woodsboro, everyone who survived Scream 3 is older (although not necessarily wiser). The Stab series of films, created by former reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), remain popular, having reached installment #7. Meanwhile, Woodsboro prepares for the unofficial "celebration" of the anniversary of the original massacre - something that irritates Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) to no end, since he alone thinks mass murder shouldn't be feted. Sidney, now in her early 30s, has returned for this event to promote the publication of a book about self-healing and to make peace with her past. The Ghost Face Killer has chosen this year to emerge from hibernation, and his targets appear to be Sidney and those few remaining family members: her cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts), and her aunt, Kate (Mary McDonnell). Of course, Jill's teenage friends, like Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Charlie (Rory Culkin), might as well get fitted for body bags rather than prom outfits.

Scream 4 is so obsessed with the self-referential element that made the original Scream unique that it loses the capacity to be genuinely scary or funny. As in the recursive opening sequence (which features cameos by the likes of Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell), it tries too hard. The first two Screams worked because they were effortless. Scream 4, like its predecessor, shows the screenwriter's seams. The story is thin and belabored - more an excuse to encounter old friends and revel in new gore than the "revision" promised by the promotional material. The tag line is "New Decade. New Rules." But it doesn't seem like much has changed, except that the word "reboot" gets mentioned a few times. Despite regurgitating elements from its predecessors, Scream 4 is not a reboot; it's a sequel.

Toward the end, there's an opportunity for Scream 4 to break from the monotony of Horror 101 and, at least for a moment, I thought it was going to do it. Just as the glee was beginning to well up within me at the audacity being displayed by everyone involved (the actors, director Wes Craven, scriptwriter Kevin Williamson), the bubble burst. It's a cruel tease, more frustrating that the pieces of fruit in Austin Powers. The near-brush with boldness makes the flaccid conclusion all the more disappointing.

The returning actors deserve commendation for sliding effortlessly into personalities they have not donned for more than a decade - not that the characters were all that rich or substantial to begin with. The newcomers - Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Rory Culkin - have been chosen because of their connection with a younger audience. (Roberts was in kindergarten when the original Scream was released.) While it's understandable why the veteran actors might be interesting in revisiting Scream (nice paychecks), the reasons for Craven's involvement are less clear. This is a comedown for one of horror's Iron Chefs. The most the director can cook from this screenplay are a few weak "boo!" moments and one instance of jump-in-your-seat startlement (which is a throw-away near-miss auto accident). There's a casserole of blood and viscera, but it's all routine. Maybe the "torture porn" era of horror has left audiences jaded about that element.

I doubt this is the last we'll see of the Scream series since horror franchises are as incapable of being killed as their monstrous stars. It is less likely that Craven will be back for a Scream 5. To quote Danny Glover, he's getting too old for this shit. Scream 4 will probably prove sufficiently profitable that the Weinsteins will dial up another one, and this series will transform into what it once gleefully parodied - if it's not there already.

Scream 4 (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2011-04-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1