Scream 4 (2011) – marketed as Scre4m, but I think that just looks stupid – marks a return to a story that I have to think most people felt was over and done with. Scream (1996) introduced the concept – or made it more mainstream – of the inhabitants of a horror/slasher film understanding the "rules" of such a film, and trying to use that knowledge to understand their situation. Moreover, the killers are just as aware and feel compelled to make the right kind of spectacle of their killings to scare and entertain. This kind of self-aware, winking knowledge has been well received by many and absolutely hated by others. While there may have been little cause for a Scream 2 (1997) other than to make money – like the first installment, it grossed more than $100 million in the U.S. – it did continue the story in a plausible way. Scream 3 (2000) couldn't generate the same box office, even with a larger budget, but it also seemed stretched further from the basis of the story than necessary. Still, it seemed filled out as a trilogy with no need to bring any of the characters back for more terror and threat of death.
A decade is a long time to wait for a horror sequel. The longest the Friday the 13th franchise (1980-2009) went without a new installment before the reboot was the nine years between Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993) and the inexplicable Jason X (2002). The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (1984-2010) didn't go three years without a sequel until the gap between Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) and Freddy vs. Jason (2003). Both franchises felt the need to reboot after Freddy vs. Jason (which becomes a completely different movie after Gibb is killed, going for wacky and morbid comedy instead of any kind of horror). The Halloween franchise (1978-2009) didn't go more than six years without churning out another film.
Scream 4 is not some disconnected tale featuring only the "killer", but has the same central cast of characters – Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), now Sheriff Dwight "Dewey" Riley (David Arquette), and former TV Tabloid Reporter turned Crime Journalist turned unsuccessful novelist Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) – who must navigate the killers in each installment. People die all around them, sure, but these characters are at the heart of the story (especially in Scream 2 and Scream 3). Unfortunately, much of the time in Scream 4 is given over to other characters who are only peripherally related to these stalwarts. It isn't that Scream 4 couldn't benefit from an injection of fresh blood, but the additions are not handled especially deftly.
Part of the problem with Scream 4 may be the idea that the children of Woodsboro celebrate the killings of the original film as part of the local lore. This is aided by the standard horror film conceit that adults (particularly parents) are largely absent from the lives of the potential teenage victims, but in the case of Scream 4 it begs the question of what kind of message did the parents give their children about the murders. The Stab movies of the franchise may have brought a crass commercialization and celebration of the murders to the general public, but it is difficult to believe that long time residents would embrace and celebrate the movies (not even die-hard horror fans). Where Craven crafted high school relationships that felt more organic is his widely ignored My Soul to Take (2010), he and returning scribe Kevin Williamson offer up a rather bland rehashing of the characters from the first film. Only Rory Culkin (as Charlie Walker) and Hayden Panettiere (as Kirby Reed) seem to have any sense of their characters, though it is just as likely that they filled in the gaps themselves (something most of the cast didn't do). Both Charlie and Kirby are among those who celebrate the fictionalizing of the real murders (for different reasons, though both come across as very damaged individuals), but no one seems shocked at this trend (not even Sidney).
The killings in Scream 4 are rather lackluster, and there isn't much in the way of suspense. Some characters are completely wasted (see Alison Brie as Rebecca Walters) while others are remarkable for their absence from any of the previous installments (see Mary McDonnell as Kate Roberts). With a known killer running loose, Sheriff Riley calls in no extra help – at some point it should be pointed out that Woodsboro is one of those small towns that is really just a separated suburb, and that Dewey should be the Chief of Police who could call in the County Sheriff for help – even though he has the worst trained officers seen in the 21st Century. Then there is the issue of motive, which might have seemed clever if the film were released in 2002, but feels preachy and false (a tough combination to achieve) by 2011.
Only two things really bothered me in regards to Scream 4. The first was the look of the film. It was oddly dark, and not in a way that added anything to the mood or tension. Hell, there wasn't any tension because I couldn't care about most of the characters (and just assumed that the three central characters wouldn't die). The other was how long the movie was. It is almost two hours long, easily twenty minutes longer than it needed to be with how it was structured. The last two acts – this assumes that I can characterize the movie as having four acts – drag along until the credits roll. I am aware that there are others (mostly people who are about 15+ years younger than me) who found the last two acts to be explosive and riveting. Good for them, but it just didn't work for me. Maybe it is because I have a small amount of knowledge about psychopathy (hey, at least I completed a college course on the subject) and have done research on murders, but the payoffs were joyless and incongruent.
I didn't hate Scream 4. It is a decent movie that isn't trying to run away from the previous installments, but at the same time it does little to honor them. My first impression was that it felt like Craven and Williamson were both angry at the franchise and wanted to make an ugly film, one that was a little soulless and devoid of the kind of (sick) humor that powered the first two movies. I have backed off this a little, but I do think that Scream 4 ended up somewhere between being faithful to the spirit of the franchise and appealing to the next generation of horror fans. If I rated in grades (sometimes I do), I would give it a C+. It is not a must see, even for devotees of the franchise, but it doesn't feel like a waste of time. A waste of some characters, sure, but those same characters end up wasted, some it comes close to balancing out in the end.