The first follow-up to the original trilogy in a decade, “Scream 4” proves too much of a once-good thing. Overblown, overlong and overstuffed with genre self-referentialism, yet undercooked in terms of credibility, worthwhile new characters and memorable scares, it’s not the razor-sharp reboot fans were hoping for. Nonetheless, their anticipation should make for stellar opening numbers worldwide, and the pic delivers enough of the expected goods, if seldom with the wit or panache of the series’ best, to avoid total word-of-mouth kill-off. Ancillary returns will be terrific.
Scenarist Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven, whose continued teaming has kept the bar fairly high, deliciously exploited and parodied slasher-pic tropes in the original “Scream” (1996). The following year’s “Scream 2” was arguably even better, with 2000’s third part weaker but still enjoyable.
If “Scream 4” seems the nadir to date, that may be partly because fans have had years to ratchet up expectations — and because its predecessors were at least a few brain cells above other long-running horror franchises. But mostly, pic disappoints because its wit feels tuckered out, and various cards are drastically overplayed by the end.
The opening pushes Williamson’s acknowledged “whole postmodern meta shit” (as several characters put it) to strained excess. Three successive pairs of young women (Lucy Hale and Shenae Grimes, Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell, Aimee Teegarden and Brittany Robertson) suffer the usual phone call-preluded fates at the hands of the Ghostface Killer (voiced once again by Roger Jackson, with body by stuntman Dane Farwell).
The first duos turn out to be mere characters from previous scenes of the endless “Stab” slasher series inspired by the original “Woodsboro Murders” and related books by opportunistic reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox). Unfortunately, the third pair are present-day Woodsboro high schoolers, home alone watching “Stab” movies when the phone rings.
The grisly results aren’t discovered until the next day, when perennial Ghostface prime target Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is back in town for the first time in a decade. She’s kicking off a book tour for her own tale of survival, and when news hits of a copycat killer (or killers, as is apparent early on), she’s horrified. Due to investigative procedure, her old pal Dewey Riley (David Arquette), now sheriff, can’t let her leave town, even if her presence imperils everyone else.
Among those overexcited by this turn of events are Dewey’s restless small-town spouse, Gale — who’s tapped out her journalistic cash cow and itches to regain the spotlight — as well as Sidney’s publicist, Rebecca (Alison Brie), who views new murders in terms of skyrocketing book sales.
Under police protection, Sidney stays with her aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell, scantly used) and young cousin Jill (Emma Roberts). Other major characters this time around include Jill’s best friends, Kirby (unflatteringly coiffed Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe); her creepy, stalker-ish ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella); their high school’s horror-obsessed film club geeks (Erik Knudsen, Rory Culkin); and Woodsboro deputies Perkins (Anthony Anderson), Hoss (Adam Brody) and Hicks (Marley Shelton), the last infatuated with Dewey.
Needless to say, given the body count, few of these thesps need keep their schedules cleared for “Scream 5.” Throughout, characters behave stupidly — strolling outside houses, visiting friends, sitting in open-windowed cars despite known danger — which might be amusing if this were “Scary Movie 5.” But instead, we’re asked to simply swallow all gaping credulity gaps straight.
“How meta can you get?” Gale asks at one point, and “Scream 4” answers: too much. Direct references to other movies and antic discussions of slasher rules feel like tired shtick here, despite the odd zesty line. Williamson tries to keep things up-to-date by emphasizing communication technologies not yet widespread during earlier chapters — camera phones, video blogging, texting, et al. — but that too feels so five minutes ago. A villain’s climactic speech critiques a new generation’s sense of entitlement and addiction to fame in ham-fisted fashion. And all this happens before a second climax prolongs “Scream 4” even further.
Agreeable veteran thesps were more so when the writing was better; newbies are fine within script-prescribed limits. Packaging is slick, though Peter Deming’s widescreen lensing needn’t have been quite so gauzy.