(Note — This review is spoiler-free until after the cut. Obviously I don't count stuff like "there's a masked killer slashing people" as spoiler material, nor do I count common knowledge about the fifteen-year-old original Scream, but info about who lives, who dies, and who the killer is in Scream 4 is safely tucked away.)
It's no secret that straight-up body count horror is probably my least favorite film genre. I think I've given it more than a fair shake — I've watched most of the essential "classics," and in the last couple of years alone I've seen the assorted reboots and remakes of Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Sorority Row — and I'm yet to be convinced that the genre consists of much more than turgid exercises in formula.
But then there's Scream; a slasher movie I not only like but consider a classic and probably one of my top ten films of 1996. It's just so funny and so instantly watchable and has such a great lineup of characters by the standards of the horror genre, and it achieves all that without even being particularly gory beyond the opening gutting of Drew Barrymore. The collegiate Scream 2 was also pretty good — not great, but still well above the ninetieth percentile as go slasher flicks — but Scream 3 sucked donkey balls.
And that brings us to Scream 4, the decade-later third sequel I'm not sure anyone asked for. But it turns out Scream 2 and Scream 3 aren't so relevant — the filmmakers understand that it's Scream people carry fondness and nostalgia for, so while the events of Scream 2 and 3 are barely mentioned, Scream is so integral to Scream 4's plot and so frequently and intimately referenced that the film might as well be in Latin if you aren't familiar with the events that went down in Woodsboro circa 1996.
Sidney Prescott is back in Woodsboro on the anniversary of the original killings for a booksigning (she's an author now, kind of random, but whatever), along with her publicist, awesomely played by Community's Alison Brie. The now-married Gale Weathers and Officer Dewey are around too, as is Sidney's teenaged cousin Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts) and a plethora of Jill's teen friends (most notably Hayden Panettiere as a horror buff, but also Marielle Jaffe, Erik Knudsen, Rory Culkin, Nico Tortorella, Friday Night Lights' Aimee Teegarden, and so on). And, well, I think you know what happens next: a Ghostface killer starts calling people, asking about scary movies, and slicing them up.
If you're looking for bloody kills, they're definitely here; quite a few more than in the original Scream. If you're looking for commentary on scary movies (including lip service towards torture porn and the remake bonanza), it's here every bit as much as ever, in close enough to every single scene. And if you're looking for nostalgia for the first movie, you're covered.
Unfortunately, other key components of the original's greatness aren't so well-represented. Likable characters, for one. I loved Alison Brie on account of, well, being Alison Brie, and I kind of enjoyed the cops played by Adam Brody and Anthony Anderson, but the new teen cast is so, so uninteresting. At no point was I ever actually concerned for any of their lives or upset when one of them got offed, in contrast to, say, Randy Meeks from the initial Scream trilogy. There's also a strange lack of menace and energy to the film — teenagers are getting butchered, yet everyone seems to be simply going about their days and hanging out without a care in the world.
The horror film commentary, while undeniably present, no longer feels like they're playing with clichés so much as just acknowledging that they exist and then immediately adhering to them. Even by slasher standards, there are too many scenes that require characters to suffer sudden, intense bouts of retardation to get them where the plot needs them to be (and I have more thoughts on specifics beyond the spoiler cut).
Overall, the movie is absolutely better than Scream 3, which had a cast of characters that far exceed this one in sheer dullness and a final reveal that was astounding in how apathetic it made me feel. And it's also better than Sorority Row or the new Nightmare on Elm Street. It's watchable. It just fails to match the first two in freshness, wit, or, since it's difficult to care about the characters, scares. Check it out if and only if you love Scream, but don't expect anything special.
2 Stars out of 5
But we ain't done yet! Full spoiler talk beyond the cut! Pun partially intended!
Okay, spoiler time. Let's start with Ghostface her / himself. I have one big problem with Ghostface's identity and another with her actions.
First off, the Ghostface killer is a big, tall, physically intimidating guy. Frighteningly strong, flinging people across rooms, kicking down doors in one or two powerful strikes, brushing off blows to the face and getting thrown down the stairs like nothing, stabbing Anthony Anderson right through the skull. So the reveal of Ghostface being Emma Roberts and Rory Culkin, the two littlest, most physically unintimidating cast members, was kind of impossible to buy. I could stretch my imagination enough to believe it in the first three films, but no. That was clearly not Emma or Rory under that mask and black cloak at any point. Absolutely not.
Furthermore, the film relied on extreme villain stupidity to bridge the gap to its happy ending, which I hate. Jill slipping up by mentioning Gale's shoulder wound I could sort of buy, sure. But after what must have been months of planning for the events of this weekend — all the time and all the effort and all the coordination to murder these people, frame Trevor, and achieve fame and fortune — for Jill to fuck up by accidentally giving Sidney a little love poke in the tummy that Sidney was out of bed from the same night rather than fucking killing her was just impossible to believe. There's no way. Jill would have stabbed her through the goddamn heart. And I hate when filmmakers have to rely on illogically dumbass villains for the heroes to win.
Question now is whether or not there'll be any more sequels. Rumors were swirling that this was going to be the first in a new trilogy, but now I'm wondering if that was a red herring on account of every single new character except for Marley Shelton's police deputy being put to the knife (even the innocent mom didn't make it — brutal!). If they decide to move forward with Scream 5 and 6 and continue killing the supporting cast while letting the Big Three make it out alive every time, this shit is gonna get boring, fast.