As befitting a third sequel that plays by the “rules” of remakes, Scream 4 proves doubly redundant and uninspired. Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s return to the wink-wink horror well opens with an exaggerated movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie gag that bluntly speaks to the tiredness of such “self-aware postmodern meta shit.” Yet for all its self-referentiality, the most telling aspect of this latest film is its conspicuous refusal to address the bottom-line cash-grab motivations of most slasher-saga follow-ups, which its pointless tale—arriving 11 years after Scream 3, and with its three headliners absent from the big screen for much of that time—most certainly and depressingly exhibits.
Reportedly reworked by Scream 3 scribe Ehren Kruger, Williamson’s script is a typically knotty beast that, abandoning any serious desire to screw with classic-chiller conventions, primarily fixates on its series predecessors, a focus that allows for much twisting inward on itself, but little in the way of actual deconstruction. Similar to the majority of its prior two installments, it’s a hollow, fright-free riff on its own lineage, one that exudes an air of smug satisfaction about its supposed cleverness, and mistakes articulating, before then embracing, clichés as subversiveness.
As always, the plot is a Scooby-Doo-style whodunit, casting about doubt with such red-herring impunity that it negates interest in guessing the identity of this fourth stabby Ghostface fiend trying to murder Sidney (Neve Campbell), now a self-help author back in hometown Woodsboro for a book tour, as well as her teen niece, Jill (Emma Roberts), and Jill’s high school friends. Despite chronologically picking up after the last story, Scream 4 doesn’t investigate sequels so much as modern reboots, with Jill and her texting/web-streaming classmates functioning as contemporary proxies for the first film’s characters, including blond bestie Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) as the Rose McGowan busty-BFF and two cinema-club geeks (Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen) as Jamie Kennedy know-it-alls.
What this structure results in, however, is simply more aimless navel-gazing, with the original Scream‘s template serving as a collection of bedrock principles that—per remake dictates—must be augmented to an even crazier degree. Of course, Scream 2 already claimed that up-the-ante imperative as its own, but then, this unnecessary trifle only cares about simulating self-awareness, so that for every overt joke about its ancestors, there’s an act of unremarked-on repetition, as with the sight of a pretty blonde fleeing first to a locked front door and subsequently upstairs, a path mocked in Scream and dutifully dramatized by Sarah Michelle Gellar in Scream 2. To maintain some sense of continuity with the past, bumbling cop Dewey (David Arquette) and has-been journalist Gale (Courteney Cox) also return; he’s now the town sheriff and she’s his struggling novelist wife, though they remain as cartoonish as before, not to mention just as incidental to Sidney’s ultimate survival.
Whereas Craven elevated the first two Scream movies via sinister opening sequences that wrought escalating tension from silky camerawork, a cheeky sense of humor, and staging that subtly implicated his audience as complicit in slasher-movie mayhem, here he barely has the energy to do more than orchestrate a few tepid jump scares. Scream 4‘s writing, meanwhile, name-drops Suspiria and Peeping Tom (as well as Harry Potter, for those less in-the-genre-know), but has nothing left to say on the matter-of-horror tropes. As a result, it merely rehashes the very formulaic elements (groups splitting up, people stupidly wandering off by themselves) that the franchise—at least at its inception—sought to playfully undermine. Feigning genuine meta inquiry in favor of familiar, if amped-up, bloodshed, complexity, and fake-outs, the film unwittingly becomes a kindred spirit to the trivial Halloween 5s, Nightmare on Elm Street 6s, and Friday the 13th Part 7s of the world.