The SCREAM series has always been self-aware and genre savvy. It's that aspect of the films that redefined and revitalized the “slasher” sub-genre of horror movies in the nineties, giving us characters who knew they were essentially living in a horror movie, and understood the rules they had to play by. So when director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson return to the franchise after 11 years with SCREAM 4 and tell us that the horror genre has changed, along with the rules that govern it, we expect the film to deliver on that promise/premise. And honestly, it has to, at least if the producers are serious about SCREAM 4 being the first of a new trilogy.
In the time that has passed since the events of SCREAM 3, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) seems to have moved on from the horror and tragedy she endured in the original trilogy. She's even written a self help book about her experiences, and as part of her book signing tour she's come home to Woodsboro where it all began.
Sidney's return is somewhat to the chagrin of Gayle Weathers-Riley (Courtney Cox). She's suffering from writer's block trying to write her own next book, this time a work of fiction rather than another tabloid style cash-in on the “Ghost Face” murders. Gayle is also having difficulty in her relationship with Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette). Now that Dewey is in a position of authority, he and Gayle aren't the team they once were.
In addition to our returning champions, we're introduced to a new cast of high school students: Sidney's cousin Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts), Jill's friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe), Jill's ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella), and a couple of movie geeks (Rory Culkin and Eric Knudsen). Other potential victims/suspects include Dewey's pretty blonde deputy Judy (Marley Shelton) and Sidney's publicist Rebecca (Alison Brie). Par for the course with this series, if SCREAM 4 were a lake and one were to go fishing there, the nets would be full of red herring.
So here's the problem. For all it's talk about how the game has changed in the era of “Shriek-quels” and “Scream-makes” (their bad puns, not mine), SCREAM 4 feels, well, kind of dated. There's talk of the inventive kills in movies like the SAW franchise, but all we get here is the same old stalk and slash, and in a fairly half-hearted fashion at that. There's certainly nothing with the visual and emotional impact of Drew Barrymore's death in the first SCREAM. Mention is made of the killer(s) recording and web streaming his/her/their kills, but that doesn't really pay off (maybe they're saving that for the “shriek-quel). This is a movie that needed to take some big chances and shake things up, but instead it plays it safe. For better or worse, this feels like just another installment in the franchise rather than a film designed to truly reinvigorate and reboot it.
There are other problems, too. For example, while the characters in these movies have always had a certain amount of emotional detachment considering what was going on around them. That kind of goes hand in hand with the series' wry post-modern humor about itself. Still, it feels even more pronounced here. Maybe it was the strained relationship between Gayle and Dewey, maybe it's the way everyone, even Sidney, could be the killer, but there just didn't seem to be any emotional center to the film, anyone to really invest in and root for.
All that said, SCREAM 4 isn't a total disaster. It's not like the 4th installment of any horror series has ever been much to write home about, (although I know FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 4: THE F
INAL CHAPTER has it's boosters), so what can you really expect? Whatever the film's shortcomings, it's at least reasonably entertaining. And while the horror aspects may not live up to expectations, the film does a better job when it comes to the deadpan humor and satire the series is known for. 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.