Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson reinvigorated the horror landscape back in 1996 with Scream; a part-scary and part-satirical postmodern commentary on slasher films featuring a handful of characters well-versed in pop culture and the "rules" of horror movies who wind up in their own slasher. After a solid sequel and a disappointing third instalment, Scream 4 thankfully continues the franchise in style. Benefitting from a whip-smart, savvy screenplay by Kevin Williamson (with uncredited rewrites by Ehren Kruger), Scream 4 is as much as reinvention of the once again worn-out slasher genre as the original Scream was 15 years ago. With the horror genre having entered new phases, and with both audiences and technology having further developed since Scream 3 entered multiplexes back in the year 2000, there was a metric fuckload of new tropes and clichés for Scream 4 to comment about. Despite a few missteps in the scripting department, Scream 4 is a marvellous juggling act between humour and thrills without either tone lessening or overwhelming the other.
In the years following the events of Scream 3, Sidney Prescott (Campbell) has managed to put her life back together, and has written a self-help memoir about her experiences. Meanwhile, the Stab film series (inspired by the "real-life" events of the first Scream) remains popular, having reached instalment #7. As the anniversary of the original Woodsboro Massacre draws close, Sidney returns to her hometown to promote her best-selling book. Unfortunately for Sidney, the Ghostface killer chooses this time to emerge from hibernation; picking off the local teenage population in a grizzly fashion. Ghostface's focus this time appears to be Sidney's remaining family and friends, as well as the friends of Sidney's cousin Jill (Roberts). Also back in action is Sheriff Dewey (Arquette) and reporter-come-author Gale (Cox), both of whom attempt to stay one step ahead of the masked killer.
The original Scream's satirical target was scary movies (or slashers to be precise), while Scream 2 took a self-aware jab at sequels and Scream 3 set its sights on movie trilogies. While Scream 4 arrives with a numerical appendage, it specifically targets the most popular Hollywood horror trend of the past decade: remakes and reboots. With the murders of Scream 4 occurring in Woodsboro and with a new crop of teens being killed, it is not lost on the characters that a real-life "remake" of the first film is occurring (a very funny one-liner stems from this). It's all very sly. Liberal reusing of the typical Scream formula may seem lazy, but Williamson's script subverts expectations and keeps us guessing about who the killer/s is/are. Not to mention, employing the same formula is a splendid way to poke fun at the horror franchises which always use the same tiresome formula ad nauseum. Added to this, there are a few shrewd jabs at the never-ending stream of torture porn horror pictures which have inundated movie-goers in recent years.
The Scream series is renowned for thrilling, clever opening sequences, and Scream 4 announces its arrival via a brilliantly-conceived opening. The less spoiled about the masterful opening sequence the better, but suffice it to say it works on multiple levels and immediately promises that the Scream series is going to continue having postmodern fun with contemporary horror clichés. However, the opening half an hour or so following the opening is genuinely lousy; playing out as if Craven was handling a subpar fan script with moments of poor, forced character interaction. Things thankfully begin to pick up once the killings start proper, though. Another reason the Scream franchise has always been so popular is because it takes satirical jabs at the horror genre and provides big laughs whilst simultaneously providing the thrills and chills associated with the genre. In this sense, Scream 4 delivers once again. Additionally, the filmmakers behind slashers rarely go to the extra effort to develop the characters past shallow knife fodder, but the Scream characters have always been fully-realised humans. Again, in this sense, Scream 4 is a home run.
In spite of last year's severely panned My Soul to Take, Wes Craven proves with Scream 4 that he still has the ability to shock and thrill despite being in his 70s. Scream 4 is not quite as ferocious as the first film, but Craven pulls no punches - this is an unapologetically R-rated slasher, with ridiculous amounts of blood and gore. However, while a number of thrills are scattered throughout, the film lacks genuine moments of skin-crawling, goosebump-provoking terror like the original film’s opening with Drew Barrymore which had movie-watchers gripping onto armrests for dear life. Also, the scary set-pieces of Scream 4 often drag on a tad too long. The main offender in this sense is the climax, which (like the finales of Scream 2 and Scream 3) is of an interminable length. Even with these missteps, Scream 4 definitely works as a fun thrill ride if you are a fan of this franchise.
Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette deserve to be commended for effortlessly slipping back into the personas they hadn't adopted for over a decade. Too often, stars find it challenging to relocate the soul of a past character they've portrayed, and the results feel shoddy and surface-level. Fortunately, this is not the case here - the ten-year gap has not negatively affected the acting skills of the central trio. (Though Dewey had a limp in the last two films which he does not retain here... What happened to that?) Meanwhile, the new group of actors are equally impressive. Out of the females, Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere stand out the most as Jill and Kirby. Roberts is essentially the new Sidney, and she was up to the task - she's beautiful, but there's an edge to her performance which was essential in order to nail the role. Alongside her, Panettiere emanates cool with ease. Also of note are Rory Culkin and Justin Michael Brandt as the film nerds of the picture (their roles are ostensibly a replacement for Randy, who was killed in Scream 2). Fleeting mention should be made of Anthony Anderson, too, who is his usual amusing self.
With Scream 3 being regarded as such a disappointment, it's terrific to report that Scream 4 is so solid. Despite its prolonged gestation period as well as all the behind-the-scenes nonsense, this fourth Scream film is the best slasher in at least a decade. Granted, the quality of slasher films of late (Prom Night, anyone?) makes this a rather backhanded compliment, but this shouldn't undermine the solidness of Scream 4. It may seem that money was the main motivating factor behind the revival of this franchise, but Williamson and Craven have managed to deliver a fresh, smart, funny horror film that should please fans of the series and introduce the slasher genre to a whole new generation of film-goers.