It’s been 11 years since the supposed last installment of the Scream movies hit theaters, an unheard of, Rip Van Winkle-scale gap in franchise land (imagine seeing previews for Saw VIII or The Hangover 3 in 2022). And since Scream 3 was, critically speaking, the weakest of what was then considered a trilogy, the genre-revitalizing series didn’t exactly go out on a high note. But it’s back—if not better than ever, certainly no worse than before—delivering its patented formula of real scares interspersed with funny, satirical dialogue aimed directly at horror movie clichés.
If the concept doesn’t seem fresh, it’s because the original Scream spawned a generation of funny, self-aware horror flicks, from Scary Movie to Shaun of the Dead. In 1996, characters who knew the “rules” of surviving a slasher film were novel; now, they’re de rigeur. But as Sidney Prescott herself says during the bloody climax of Scream 4, “You don’t fuck with the original.” Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson set the standard for the modern horror movie, and while the latest Scream is uneven, they haven’t completely lost their touch. The gory, elaborate opening scene, for instance—the series’ trademark—mocks the predictability of cheesy “torture porn” franchises, which only get worse as the numbers following the title get higher. And while the movie that follows is fairly predictable, at last it knows it’s predictable … so that’s something. Right?
Scream 4 picks up, fittingly, 10 years after the original Woodsboro murders. Sidney (Neve Campbell, looking like she emerged from a mid-’90s time capsule, nary a wrinkle on her 37-year-old face) has written a nonfiction bestseller about her terrifying plight, and makes a book-tour stop in her hometown, conveniently arriving right on time for the massacre’s anniversary. Dewey (David Arquette) has since become Woodsboro’s sheriff, and is married to former tabloid journalist Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), now a washed-up writer who goes by her married name, Gale Riley. Since Sidney’s all grown up, a fresh batch of teens has been assembled to bear the brunt of the bloodshed, led by Sidney’s cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), her best friend, Kirby (Hayden Panettiere); Jill’s moody ex-boyfriend, Trevor (Nico Tortorella); and lovesick film geek, Charlie (Rory Culkin, the newer model of Jamie Kennedy’s Randy from the first two Screams).
The basic plot is the same: A killer in an Edvard Munch-ian mask and shroud picks off townies one by one, harassing them with threatening phone calls moments before the slaughter (the first few calls are made to land lines, but thankfully Scream 4 dips a toe into the 21st century and eventually has Ghostface call victims on their iPhones). There is no real rhyme or reason to the killings, except that they happen in close proximity to Sidney, who no longer seems like a real target so much as the subject of acute psychological torture (among the people who bite it this time around: her aunt, her book publicist and two cops assigned to keep her safe). Despite the ever-present danger, the Woodsboro denizens never seem to remember to lock their doors, and like to wander out onto their patios to investigate suspicious noises. Every principal cast member gets stabbed at some point, and when the killer/(s) is/are revealed, they offer lengthy explanations of their motives so that Sidney has time to lick her wounds and summon the strength for a final showdown.
I’ll admit that I enjoyed Scream 4 up until the big whodunit reveal. For all of its quick wit, it’s still dumb, but fun enough that I can forgive most of its flaws—except one. Ever since the original (it was her boyfriend all along?!? Wait—two killers!?!) the villains have been decidedly lame, and this installment is no exception. “Sick is the new sane,” says the unmasked killer, as if that’s a decent explanation for mass murder (and, what, do motives have to be short enough to Tweet now? Please.) The only thing that saves Scream 4 from descending into a total third-act meltdown is an unexpected, kick-ass encore that, in true Scream fashion, pokes fun at its own clichés while giving its audience moments of authentic terror. It’s almost enough to make you want more… at least, in a decade or so, when everything old is new again.