By Christopher Kelly
Wes Craven’s gleeful postmodern thriller “Scream” (1996) introduced us to a generation of teenagers raised on horror movies who couldn’t stop talking about the genre’s cliches. Fifteen years later, the kids in “Scream 4” haven’t just seen the classic horror movies, they’ve also seen the remakes, reboots and postmodern glosses – these days, to embrace a cliche is its own form of creativity.
This new effort tries to function as both an extension of the franchise, with the original characters once again asked to square off against the murderous Ghostface, and a quasi-remake, with new teenagers who correlate to ones in the first film. The investigative reporter Gale Weathers-Riley (Courteney Cox), who has appeared in all the “Scream” pictures, sums it up thusly: “How meta can you get?”
It almost-but-not-quite works. “Scream 4” – directed by Craven and written by Kevin Williamson, who also collaborated on the first and second films in the series – begins with an inspired flourish, pulling us into a rabbit hole of movies-within-movies-within-movies.
Years earlier, the Woodsboro killings depicted in the original film were turned into a movie-within-a-movie called “Stab,” which in turn spawned a “Scream”-like franchise, which a new generation of Woodsboro teens now watches obsessively. When two of those teens are gruesomely murdered, though, the town has good cause to believe that notorious killer Ghostface has returned.
After this terrific opening sequence, though, “Scream 4” never quite finds a steady groove; the filmmakers strain so hard to bring their double-layered conceit to life – and to top the postmodern tomfoolery of the previous three films – that they forget to have much fun. (This might very well be the plague of our cinematic age _ see also “Inception,” “The Adjustment Bureau” and “TRON: Legacy,” to name three recent offenders).
Ghostface’s new killing spree coincides with the publication of a memoir by Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who is determined to put the past behind her and stop being a victim. The last stop on Sidney’s book tour, of course, is Woodsboro, where she reunites with her raven-haired teenage cousin Jill (Emma Roberts).
Just like Sidney once did, Jill has a shady-seeming boyfriend (Nico Tortorella, in the Skeet Ulrich part), a quick-witted best friend (Hayden Panettiere, in the Rose McGowan part), and a horror movie-obsessed classmate (Rory Culkin, in the Jamie Kennedy part). Oh, and don’t worry Scream die-hards: Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) is now sheriff.
With so many characters to keep track of, “Scream 4” has trouble making us care about any of them. For long stretches, Sidney, Jill and Gale drop out of the story – the movie doesn’t seem to have a center. (It doesn’t help that the older actresses, especially Campbell, trudge through the film with an air of paycheck-collecting weariness.)
Most dispiriting of all: Craven resorts to the sort of gored-up violence that for the most part this series has elegantly avoided, with entrails spilling out and blood splattering the walls. His attitude toward the past decade or so of “torture porn” horror titles like “Hostel” seems to be: I can’t beat ‘em, so this time I’ll join ‘em.
What made the original “Scream” so special was that it used the grammar of classic horror to conjure up a new kind of scary movie language. “Scream 4” just seems to be spinning in circles.