Wes Craven is at his best when he’s being most subversive with films like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and The People Under the Stairs (1991), and while he gets close to that with Scream 4, it’s more in the nature of a near miss than a direct hit. This attempt to jump-start the long dormant Scream franchise is entertaining and splattery enough, but there’s a sense that Craven wanted it to be something more—something that either screenwriter Kevin Williamson didn’t get, or something that Craven just didn’t pull off.
The original Scream (1996) is credited as starting the whole business of the self-referential, self-aware horror movie, and that’s probably true enough, though there are traces of it in earlier movies (e.g. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives 10 years prior to Scream). The question of whether or not that’s something to be proud of is quite another matter. A little can be refreshing, but too much reduces everything to mere smart-assery. It’s wisecracking with film—and it’s not very scary. The idea of characters in a horror movie knowing they’re in a horror movie—yet still doing the same old dumb things—has its limits. Scream 4 tries to push those limits with its film-within-a-film-within-a-film structure with varying degrees of success—enough to make the film interesting.
The premise finds Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) coming back to the town where she barely survived the original murders. The town is a natural stop for a tour promoting her book about surviving the murders—murders which it might be said put Woodsboro on the map through a series of novels based on them by fellow survivor Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and the seemingly endless series of movies spawned by the books. It’s understandable that Gale—whose thunder Sidney has stolen with her book—is not that keen on Sidney’s return. It’s less understandable why everyone else is, since where Sidney goes the Ghostface killer is bound to show up with slicing and dicing on his mind. And that’s what happens here, which is given since otherwise there’s no movie.
All this is perfunctory, but enjoyable enough—assuming you like this sort of movie. The murders are well-staged and plentiful, and the characters are sharply drawn. Plus, the who’s-doing-it aspect is fairly well handled, though you’ll probably guess it correctly about five minutes before the film tells you. However, the follow-up scenes make up for that in over-the-top lunacy. But the movie’s out for more. It wants to be an indictment of social media, cell phones, text messaging, unearned fame, notoriety passing for fame, and torture-porn horror movies. All these are admirable targets—at least in my mind—but the film either spreads them too thin, or is hesitant to go too far and risk alienating its own audience. In either case, it’s more a game try than a success, but it does help keep the film watchable. Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some teen drinking.