The Scream series started back when I was in high school, and was obviously a pretty big deal for me given my love of horror (then again, Scream seemed to be a big deal for everyone, as it was that rare horror series that actually managed to suck in a lot of non-horror fans as well). And so watching a new Scream movie, now eleven years(!) since the last one sort of feels like visiting an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time. Of course, visiting an old friend can go a lot of ways – sometimes you have a blast and remember what it is you liked so much about hanging out with the friend, other times you realize that in the intervening years one or both of you has changed, and you don’t really have too much in common anymore. Scream 4 is kind of a mixture of the two.

The film concerns Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returning to Woodsboro for the last stop on her book tour (a book, obviously, all about her experiences in the previous three films). Unfortunately, Sid barely has time to reconnect with old friends Dewey and Gale (David Arquette and Courtney Cox) before the town is once again being menaced by creepy phone-calls and a Ghostface-clad killer. This time out, the killer seems to be trying to recreate/pay tribute to the murders of the first Scream, which in the film’s universe were also recreated in the popular movie Stab. And then, well, the movie pretty much proceeds along like every other Scream movie, with our returning heroes this time joined by a new group of Woodsboro teens – most notably Sidney’s cousin, played by Eric Roberts’ daughter, Emma Roberts (most people call her “Julia Roberts’ niece, but Eric > Julia in my book).

That Scream 4 follows the Scream formula so closely is both its curse and its blessing…but mostly curse. Whereas the first film seemed fresh at the time, and was satirizing a type of movie (the “slasher” film) that then still defined the genre in the eyes of many, this fourth film now feels incredibly dated and out-of-touch with the modern horror scene. There were actually a lot of interesting ways they could have gone with a new Scream movie in order to try to once again re-invent the genre, but it seems to actively resist that. Passing mention is given to “torture porn,” and the film makes a pretty piss-poor attempt to also include the “found footage” style into the mix, but at the end of the day it’s still just another slasher film, which feels even more tired now than it did at the time of the first film (thanks in large part to the number of Scream-clones that followed in its wake).

The movie tries to make up for that by upping the ante on its Meta-approach. Scream has always been a Meta series, what with its characters’ knowledge of the “rules” of horror movies. But it wasn’t until the third movie (which I don’t hate as much as everyone else, by the way) that the series became Meta about itself. That continues big-time in this one. Scream is no longer a series about horror movies; it’s now a series about the Scream movies. In a way, it makes perfect sense for the first Scream in over a decade to come back with a movie that treats its own predecessors as reverentially as the other slashers that inspired the first film, but it’s a tight-rope to walk. The extreme-Meta approach can at times be very clever (as evidenced by the fun movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie opener), but can also get pretty exhausting. Quite frankly, by the climatic third act the movie’s constant referencing of itself (and the first Scream, in particular) is almost aggravating. It also doesn’t help that it seemingly betrays/forgets its own purpose once the ultimate motivation of the villain is revealed, as said motivation doesn’t really feel like it has much to do with the whole “recreating the first film” idea. If there is a Scream 5 (and let’s face it, there WILL be), they need to leave behind the Meta stuff and come up with a new motivation for the killer that has nothing to do with the other Scream and/or Stab movies. I’m laying that challenge down to Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson.

My other problem with Scream 4, oddly enough, is the use of the same main characters. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that Campbell, Cox and Arquette are the stars of this franchise, and I don’t really have anything against them returning (though I do wonder if maybe they wouldn’t have been better off just leaving them out of it and instead starting over with a completely brand new batch of characters). The problem is they’re just not given much to do here. In fact, if you pay attention you’ll notice that there is almost no real reason for any of them to be here. Gale’s supposed story arc is her excitement at getting to help solve a mystery again, but she doesn’t really accomplish anything before being taken out of action (you’ll have to see the movie to learn what I mean by that – no spoilers here). Dewey, now town sheriff, is almost never involved in the film’s events other than showing up at the crime scenes after the fact. Sidney is most frustrating, though – this is HER series, and I thought this movie would really play with the idea of a kick-ass survivor girl who runs into danger rather than away from it. There’s one early scene where it looks like that will be the case (Sidney charges into a home she knows a murder is occurring in), but then the film forgets all about that and she spends the rest of the movie just running away from Ghostface again. The movie doesn’t really add ANYTHING to the overall story of Sidney Prescott, which is a shame. Both Campbell and her character deserved better.

As for the new characters, I don’t know…they’re largely forgettable, both in personality and performance – though I have to admit I did have a soft-spot for Hayden Panettiere as film-geek Kirby. Sure, the “hot horror nerd” seems an obvious nod to win over fan-boys, but what I can say? She IS super cute in the movie. I fell for it.

I know it sounds so far like I just want to diss the hell out of this movie, but actually, the truth is I didn’t hate it. Sure, I think there are a lot of things they could have done better, but at the same time it still more-or-less works as a fluff-horror film, which is all I expected. I long ago stopped looking at the Scream movies as real horror films, and instead treat them as goofy horror satire. On that level, Scream 4 mostly gets by well enough. Yes, it feels kind of unnecessary, but it’s inoffensive and doesn’t hurt the series, either. It loses a lot of steam in its second half, and it often misuses its best characters, but it’s still sort of fun to catch back up with them. Like I said, sometimes its nice to hang out with an old friend, even if the night has some rough spots.



This review was originally posted at Trevor Likes Movies on October 6th, 2011.