Coming after not only a ten year hiatus, but also after the rise of torture porn, remakes, and reboots, Scream 4 is almost a breath of fresh air. Series creators Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson (whose absence from the third film in the series was wholly apparent) are back with another entry in the lucrative yet entertaining franchise, with a bit more material to chew on this time around. It is very hard to talk about a film that is part of a franchise as a stand alone film, especially when dealing with a horror series, but to break it down into terms genre fans like the characters in the film will understand, Scream 4 matches the intensity of the original, the wit of the second film (as evidenced by a really clever opening sequence), and quite sadly, the plot structuring of the third film.
Returning to the sleepy hamlet of Woodsboro after a prolonged absence and getting caught up in two further killing sprees, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) heads home as part of a promotional blitz for a self help book she has just written. Her sweet friend and guardian Dewey (David Arquette) is also back home and has been promoted to sheriff, while his wife, former news reporter Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox) is stuck at home with a crippling case of writer’s block. At just about the same moment that the old friends are reunited bodies start piling up again and the creepy phone calls start pouring in (made easier by the fact that there just so happens to be a Ghostface app for the numerous iPhones scattered throughout the film). All signs point to the killer targeting Sidney’s somewhat estranged remaining family, including her cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) and her aunt (Mary McDonnell). The killer in this film seems to be aiming for an almost straight remake of the original incident (or of the original Stab films within the Scream series). It helps that many of the people in Jill’s life aren’t that far off from the people who went through the original massacre from the best friend (Hayden Panettiere) to the no good ex-boyfriend who sneaks in and out of Jill’s window (Nico Tortorella) to not one, but two film nerds (Rory Culkin and Eric Knudsen).
Despite an occasionally wonky script, Scream 4 is more enjoyable than the previous entry in the series and far better than most horror films that have flooded the market in recent years. Craven and Williamson seem to get how inherently ridiculous it is that the same characters get caught in the same situations over and over again and that sense of playfulness serves the film well. Craven shows once again that he is the master of the cat and mouse sequence and manages to match the tension of the original film at least on a visual level. The director also seems to be playing a prank on the viewer with the number of jump scares in the film. It might be the first time a film ever intentionally loads the film with scenes of things jumping out at characters. Much like how a good joke can get repeated over and over again and become funny through sheer repetition, the jump scares in this film actually loop back on themselves and become scary again.
The performances are great across the board especially from Roberts, Panettiere, and oddly enough, Arquette, who does his best work of the series here (probably because Dewey is a bit less of a joke this time around). There are some great small supporting turns from Marley Shelton, Adam Brody, and Anthony Anderson as Dewey’s deputies and especially from Community’s Alison Brie who steals every scene she is in as Sidney’s incredibly greedy PR rep. The only person with curiously little to do is Cox, who it seems was given the attribute of a stumped writer because Williamson just didn’t know what to do with her character this time around.
The biggest problem with Scream 4, however, is the all important final act, which is satisfying, but curiously drawn out to include a societal message that doesn’t quite take hold. Also, unlike the first two films, the ending doesn’t quite stand up to close scrutiny. It makes sense in terms of character motivations and for resolving the plot, but in terms of spacial relations and sheer laws of physics, it manages to defy everything that came in the film before it. It’s not something to be discussed here, but upon viewing the finale it might be kind of obvious why the big reveal could never happen the way the plot sets things up.
The message at the end of Scream 4 is hammered home by an undeniably powerful final shot which feels curiously like a finale to the series. If Craven and Williamson stopped here, it is doubtful viewers would hold it against them. This is a more fitting bookend to the series than the previous entry, but even after taking a decade long break, this series is still a little long in the tooth.