"You've overthinking it!"
"Am I? Or is the person writing this underthinking it?"
—Anna Panquin and Kirsten Bell in Scream 4
The original Scream, still the best in the series, is one of those films that's not quite as witty and clever as it thinks it is (the second act plods a bit) but was so fresh at the time that it quickly found both box-office and critical success. Of course, it helped that it brazenly flattered its audience with a whole lot of wink-wink, self-reflexive humor.
More importantly, Scream became a gateway to horror films for people who previously shied away from the genre. It made violence jokey and hip, allowing director Wes Craven to lace in some subversively sadistic and uncomfortable bloodletting. The opening scene is a veritable master class in suspense. And rewatching the big reveal where Billy stabs Stu, it's disturbingly clear that, for all the movie's snarked-up yucks, the sharp end of a butcher's knife still hurts like a motherfucker.
Narratively, however, the Scream movies have always been Scooby Doo with dead bodies and gore. And like the cartoon, they never really play fair with the mystery. Ghostface's ability to be everywhere and anywhere (while chattering away on the phone) isn't any more convincing than Old Man Jenkins dressing up as the Creeper and popping up behind Shaggy and Scooby on a rollercoaster. The truth is, Scream is a lot less meta than critics give it credit for. Far from an enlightening postmodern inquiry into the genre, it's mostly a series of self-aware fake-outs and cheeky stabs at deconstructionist humor.
Now, 10 years after the abysmal third sequel, Scream 4's shortcomings are much more apparent without the first-time novelty of its elbow-to-the-ribs shtick. The original has inspired so many imitators (including its own sequels) that the joke has worn thin. Still, as an act of cinematic grave-robbing, this latest iteration is an entertaining follow-up flirting with interesting ideas.
Opening with a series of trademark jokey riffs on the rules of horror films — episodes of "Stab" nested within one another like blood-spurting Russian dolls — the movie picks up a decade after the last, with Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returning to her hometown to promote her new self-help autobiography. Of course, as soon as she hits Woodsboro, so too does the Ghostface Killer, slicing and dicing a path through a gaggle of ironically inclined, slasher film-loving teens. Not to fear, Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and his unhappily retired wife, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), are on the case — and ultimately as ineffectual as ever. Worse, the killer is also after Sidney's teenage cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts) and her friends — a mix of B-cup hotties (Roberts, Hayden Panettiere and Marielle Jaffe) and movie nerds (Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen).
Craven's direction is sure-handed but lacks the sinister tension he brought to the first two installments, where opening kills took an almost voyeuristic approach. Those movies were never scary per se, but they had moments that unnerved and thrilled. This time the peril's more detached and self-satisfied, never balancing suspense, mockery and violence. It's engaging enough, but as several teens in the movie point out: "It's all been done to death." And still, no one listens — including screenwriters Kevin Williamson and Ehren Kruger. While they invert ideas from the first film in a few smartish ways, they overfill the cast with thinly developed characters and rely on an endless succession of false scares and red herrings to keep things going before revealing who-done-what.
Where Scream 4 gets interesting is in its examination of fame, the Internet and the shallowness of pop culture. While it never fully realizes its intriguing ending — thematically or dramatically — there's a savage critique of our obsession with unearned celebrity and an honest, if too gentle, admission that franchise filmmaking — sequels, reboots and prequels — are often worthy of exasperated mockery (including the very film you're watching).
As a next generation "Dead Teenager" movie (thanks Roger Ebert), Scream 4 will probably find a willing yet mostly unimpressed young audience. For those who delighted in the first go-around, it's a bit like those TV reunion shows — funny, familiar, and forgettable. They weren't willing to kill off the original stars either.