In 1996, writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven brought slasher flicks into the post-modern era with Scream. It was a smart, self-aware horror film with a great sense of humor and a hip and sexy cast. It was an instant hit that spawned a strong sequel and a mandatory, mediocre third act to round out the trilogy. Now, a decade and a year later, Williamson and Craven are back, and Neve Campbell returns to the big screen as Sidney Prescott to be harried and haunted by Ghostface all over again. Scream 4 is not merely surprisingly good—it is the most fun I have had at the movies so far this year.
The movie wastes no time making fun of itself, opening with a double movie-within-a-movie frame narrative, featuring three ominous phone calls. The ensuing dialog mocks everything from torture fetishes to relentless “sequelization” to horror movies that mock other movies.
One of the great strengths of Scream 4 is that it can be enjoyed as a direct sequel to the original or as a continuation of the series. If it suits your fancy, you can pretend that Scream 2 and Scream 3 never happened.
After the initial murder scene, we see series’ survivor girl Sidney Prescott return to her hometown of Woodsboro, promoting her self-help book Out of Darkness. In it she describes her struggle to be more than a victim in life. Courteney Cox and David Arquette also reprise their roles as Gail and Dewey Riley, now married and living in Woodsboro.
We are also introduced to Sidney’s niece, Jill Roberts, played by Emma Roberts, who is made up to bear a striking resemblance to Sidney in the original Scream. She even has the same conflicted relationship with her boyfriend and the same group of sassy yet senseless girlfriends who are ripe for murder.
These soon-to-be victims are reasonably fleshed-out and well-acted, though this is mostly thanks to spot-on casting as opposed to great acting. Hayden Panettiere puts in a likable performance as Jill’s best friend Kirby, and Alison Brie, who you may know as Annie from Community, is perfect as Sidney’s peppy and presumptuous publicist. These are characters worth shouting at the screen for. We want to warn these people, almost as much as we want to watch the bad guy slice them apart.
The film’s plot is surprisingly coherent, mirroring the original movie’s general structure but deviating from it with subtle variations. There are isolated murders, followed by a party, followed by a bloodbath. The film revisits the discussion of horror movie survival rules that made the first Scream so recognizable, in a scene at the high school cinema club. The dorky leaders of the club observe that horror films have become incredibly convoluted in their attempts to surprise viewers, and that the old rules about moral behavior governing victim’s chances of survival are almost entirely irrelevant.
Furthermore, they suggest that the only way the current Ghostface could surpass the infamy of his predecessors would be for him to videotape his murders, and make his own movie. This observation is the conceptual lynchpin of the movie. While the first Scream featured a murderer who was inspired by horror movies, Scream 4 is more concerned with a murder who aspires to the celebrity status of horror villains. The film’s social commentary is shallow and silly in its delivery, but the overall spirit and underlying message is scathing; the millennial generation displays a narcissism and desire for notoriety that is literally psychotic.
Scream 4 is a comedy first, a mystery second and a horror film last of all, but the movie still has a handful of kills that will make you flinch. While stabbing and slicing is undeniably grizzly business, the violence thankfully never succumbs to torture levels of gore. Sidney and Gail also demonstrate refreshing levels of capability when it comes to fighting off and tracking down Ghostface. Seeing how this is the fourth time they have been plunged into a bloody massacre, it is refreshing to see them take a more proactive role in their own survival.
As with the first Scream, this self-awareness is the Scream 4’s central strength. A few unaffected clichés abound, but for the most part, the film realizes when it is being absolutely ridiculous and it capitalizes on those moments with snarky one-liners. If you are a fan of the franchise, or even just the first movie, Scream 4 is well-worth the price of admission.