Time hasn’t been kind to the “Scream” franchise, with the original film’s novelty effectively scraped away by imitators, parodies, and sequels, diluting the position of pop culture powerhouse the 1996 film achieved. We’re up to “Scream 4” now, and it’s a completely unnecessary update/reboot/reheat that essentially rehashes previous pandemonium, deploying the same nudge-nudge self-referential screenwriting and graphic kills fans have come to expect and perhaps resent. It’s a tired, overstuffed, overlong picture that labors to revitalize a comatose concept. The scream has effectively become a yawn.
In the years since the devastating Woodsboro Murders, Sidney (Neve Campbell) has put her life back together, writing a self-help book about her experiences, looking to heal through literary therapy. Returning to her hometown to promote her work on the anniversary of the incident, Sidney is handed a harsh reminder of the slaughter when chatty fiend Ghostface returns, picking off the locals one by one, taunting his victims via phone. Springing back into action is Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette) and frustrated author Gale (Courtney Cox), who attempt to stay one step ahead of the masked murderer. Also in the mix is Sidney’s cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), her pal Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), and two nerdy high school cinema society members, Charlie (Rory Culkin) and Robbie (Erik Knudsen), who’ve decided to stream their every waking moment online for the world to see.
After the anemic reception to 2000’s “Scream 3,” it appeared that was the last we were going to see of Ghostface, seemingly retiring his foot-long blade, morphing into a clownish figure for the dopey “Scary Movie” pictures. Over a decade later (roughly a lifetime in horror movie years), writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven have resuscitated the formula for another installment, though not much has changed in the weird world of Woodsboro, outside of omnipresent cell phone usage, a younger cast, and a new wave of horror remakes to make fun of.
“Scream 4” is an obese motion picture, endeavoring to reach out to the fanbase by returning Campbell, Cox, and Arquette to the action, while Roberts, Panettiere, Culkin, and Knudsen are here to black out the gray streaks. Williamson’s script is all over the map, feverishly establishing and arranging these characters, building a mystery with an ocean of red herrings, with performers such as Mary McDonnell, Marley Shelton, Adam Brody, and Anthony Anderson also competing for screen time (Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin appear in the film’s opening). Frantic to obscure the identity of the killer, “Scream 4” crams in characters, creating a blurred sense of community and an even looser feel of suspense. There’s no chance to know these people, leaving their fates unremarkable — a crude slaughterhouse ambiance pervades the picture, with Craven more interested in murder choreography than manufacturing a vivid portrait of madness reawakening. It doesn’t take long for Sidney, Dewey, and Gale to become background figures in their own movie, there to sprint and squeal, not to provide some sorely needed personality.
Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of the “Scream” series, finding its ultra-cutesy “scary movie rules” structure more defeating than innovative, with Williamson lazily indulging in the clichés he’s razzing through painfully arch dialogue and sleepy slasher staging. “Scream 4,” despite constant “reboot” talk, is content to recycle the formula, once again pitting a team of aware characters against the hackneyed moves of a nimble killer. The jokes about sequels (“Stab,” the movie-within-the-movie, plays a critical role in the feature’s opener and overall sense of humor) are numerous, playing up the staleness of repetition and overexposure while Craven executes the same old macabre moves. It’s a joke or a comment or a whatever that was rendered flaccid 10 minutes into the first picture, stroked once again in this fourth installment, which looks to update the source of cynicism by peeking into the voyeuristic habits of the wi-fi obsessed Generation Z and their endless appetite for attention. Admittedly, an intriguing idea, However, Williamson and Craven are too winded to do anything substantial with it, shoving all the pointed commentary into the slapdash grand finale.
The “Scream” series has always soared when playing it straight (e.g. “Scream 2”), doing away with superfluous mischief and crummy satire to pull off vicious moments with widescreen intensity, making a sweet slasher commotion. There’s not enough urgency to “Scream 4.” Instead, it feels made up on the spot, always random and unfocused, depending on the old mocking mojo to manufacture predictable goods. Ghostface isn’t a raging monster anymore, he’s clockwork. Fans of the series should be able to see the carnage coming a mile away.
And, truthfully, would you honestly trust the integrity of any cinema society that displayed posters of “Deep Impact,” “The Green Mile,” and “Feast” in their headquarters?