Scream 4 exists. It offers inspired performances from its most familiar leads, and even unleashes a medium scare now and again. It is torpedoed by three-toed screenwriting that thinks it knows a lot about movies. It doesn’t.
First, the good. Neve Campbell, good old Sidney Prescott, delivers her best performance of the series, and perhaps the most enjoyable of her career. This Sidney is not the victim she’s been in every installment but the first; here, the character’s confident, healed, and more than a little reminiscent of Ellen Ripley when the going gets tough. That’s high praise, and Campbell deserves it. By all accounts, she’s resisted returns to the Scream franchise, and her phone-in work on Scream 3 is yet another glaring element of that picture’s ugliness (though defensible, as Campbell was working at the time with James Toback and Robert Altman). None of that here; Sidney is as present as anybody in what’s a genuine ensemble cast, and she centers the scene every time she’s onscreen. Director Wes Craven loves this character more than any he ever has, and 4‘s most effective argument for existence may well be the chance for the franchise heroine to go out stronger and sexier than ever. For all the movie’s foibles, Campbell made the right decision in coming back.
Courteney Cox is even better. Who knew? Funnier and looser than she was on most seasons of Friends, Cox brings heat, sass and brass to what’s previously been a thankless role. There aren’t many real laughs in Scream 4, and Cox delivers more than half the slim pickings. She also goes gamely along with a low-ball marital-strife subplot, opposite the husband from whom she’s real-life estranged, David Arquette. Deputy Dewey is now the sheriff (aww!), but the character’s the same, all sad eyes, earnestness and inevitable failure. He also has two times the heart than the rest of the movie combined. These characters, and actors, deserve better.
A jumble of blog-friendly ringers fill out the hollow high-school throwback cast. Rory Culkin, Emma Roberts, Alison Brie, and so forth. Adam Brody and Anthony Anderson turn in inexplicable cameos as bumbling cops. Hayden Panettiere, of all people, makes the only impression outside the original cast. She’s a riot, and she deserves better, too.
Craven does his damnedest to gin up the proceedings. There’s a relative grace to his brand of self-reference. The Prescott home from Scream has been rebuilt with real detail. Sidney’s cousin’s boyfriend (eugh) matches Skeet Ulrich mark-for-mark, dipping in and out of the bedroom window (opposite Sidney’s old U2 Joshua Tree poster, of all things). Sidney reacts to and adjusts a windchime, throwing back to the finale of Scream 3 (that film’s sole effective scene). And the climax…well, even the cabinetry feels rather familiar. Craven at his best is a craftsman, and that neurotic eye is present in Scream 4‘s best scenes.
He also delivers some beautiful scares, and lets the camera linger reportorially on some of the kills, including a shot of disemboweled innards that needs nothing more than its presence to have an effect. Scream 4 doesn’t have much respect for what it and everyone else calls “torture porn,” yet Craven uses 2011’s loosened standards to shoehorn in the only shot of the Scream series that could legitimately be called “Cronenbergian.”
Then there’s the writing.
For starters, Scream 4 does all it can to ignore the existence of Scream 3. Dewey gets a Die Harder-like “This happened three times before” crack (wokka wokka!), but 4 scribe and franchise originator Kevin Williamson skirts any explicit reference to the plot of 3, a disastrous film with which he had little creative involvement (despite a lucrative production credit). There’s a precedent here; Williamson ignored three sequels when he guided Halloween: H20 to production. He almost got away with that move (Jamie Lee Curtis’s presence in H20 rather lubricating the conceit), but this time around the blind spot mentality smacks of bitterness. Scream 3 was a genuine debacle, which Williamson surely knows. Instead of clearing his throat with a backhanded barb or two, though, he ignores the elephant in the room, that this particular franchise, self-annihilating in every other way, delivered one of the lousier horror sequels of recent years. The exclusion feels stubborn.
The “discussion” of cinema in Scream 4, too, is no less asinine than its been in any of the previous films, which have always been overrated in this regard. The blend is familiar: wink-nudge character names (Marnie! Perkins!), expensive clips from recent hits (this time it’s Shaun Of The Dead, which the dialogue is kind enough to mention by name three times after the clip in question), endless mini-monologues dissecting tropes that we’re thusly sure to see unfold three scenes hence. It’s insufferable. Smug and self-satisfied without an iota of respect for character or audience, Williamson’s script is less a screenplay than a low-rent game of Scattergories, where plot is abandoned in lieu of bar-regular trivia-brandishing. Scream 4 has its share of minor pleasures. None of them can be attributed to Williamson, who returns to feature screenwriting for the first time in six years with his laziest effort yet.
He also manages to rip off Halloween: Resurrection, for more than a few minutes of screen time and plot. This is not a good thing.
Campbell, Cox, Arquette and Panettiere should be proud of their work in Scream 4. Craven’s medium accomplishment would be far more admirable had he not covered this territory some time ago to far superior effect. New Nightmare, the seventh installment of the Elm Street series, is a whimsical metafiction wherein the stars of the original Elm Street play themselves and deal with Freddy Krueger’s inexplicable entry into the “real world.” In that film’s first act, a talk-show host asks Heather Langenkamp (playing herself) whether she would allow Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger portrayer, present in New Nightmare as both) to babysit her toddler son. That single line outflanks anything from any of the Scream movies, all four of them, even the first, and makes one wish Craven had left his meta-slasher interest at that. Or at least wish that he’d had the idea for Scream, and not Kevin Williamson.
The original Scream remains a lively, fun watch. A rich-man’s Can’t Hardly Wait for the easily-startled, it held up to repeat reviewing and to this day can trigger a few laughs. If only for nostalgia, then, it’s nice that this latest sequel exists. It’s the best since the first, and its principal players make the experience slightly better than unremarkable.
In other words, it’s a sequel.