'Scream 4': Still (A Bit) Scary After All These Years
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"How do you think people get famous?" one lead character asks another lead character in the middle of the climax of "Scream 4." (That's not a spoiler, is it? Reviewers were asked specifically, and in a very well-mannered fashion, via a photocopied text distributed after the critics screening, not to drop any spoilers. I endeavor to comply, but then again I try to stay spoiler-free as a general rule.) This is a crucial question that perfectly captures the gist of just why screenwriter Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven have chosen to revisit the "Scream" mini-franchise (because really, at only four films -- seems like there have been a bunch more, doesn't it? -- this really doesn't yet quite qualify, at least as far as the horror genre goes) a full decade after "Scream 3" (which Craven directed but Williamson did not write). I mean, besides the fact that they were getting paid.
If the duo have repurposed their material at all, it's to bring it into the age of Lady Gaga and Snooki. This film's existence is essentially a case of onetime zeitgeist definers deciding to cock a snoot at a culture in which they no longer have as much of a stake. Whoopee. But they have the advantage of working in the horror genre, so they're obliged to provide some semblance of scares and gore while aspiring to something resembling relevance.
One surprise of the film is that, overall, it doesn't play nearly as tired as you think it's going to. With various viewer fake-outs strategically planted in the film's front end, the new movie dispenses with a lot of the misgivings one might bring to the table concerning the particular kind of self-aware horror film the "Scream" series represents. Various young nubile soon-to-be stabbing victims express disapprobation of "the whole self-aware postmodern meta s---" before the story proper begins, bringing the viewer back to this series' own Elm Street, that is, the small town of Woodsboro, where what theorists might call the series' "final girl," Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), has returned to flog a survivor's memoir on the anniversary of the massacre that traumatized her, inspired the fictional "Stab" film series, and so on. And so a series of killings starts again, mobilizing dumb lawman Dewey (David Arquette) and his now-wife, former muckraking journo Gale (Courteney Cox Arquette), now a blocked fiction writer, and re-spooking Sidney while delighting her venal book publicist (Alison Brie). And since this is a pastiche, as we remember from the first "Scream," of a/the slasher film, and slasher films have "rules," "Scream 4" adheres to said rules by introducing new principals in the persons of a bunch of high school kids. And their roles, as such, parallel those of the high school kids in the first film: a couple of rule-savvy film geeks (Kieran Culkin and Erik Knudsen), a slick macho hottie boyfriend (Nico Tortorella, who I could have sworn was really named Peter Facinelli Jr., but never mind), the smokin' but kinda quirky chick (Hayden Panettiere) and Sidney's nice, resourceful cousin (Emma Roberts), among others. The new dumb cops are played by Adam Brody, Anthony Anderson, and Marley Shelton.
What follows is kinda-sorta along the lines of, well, a "Scream" film, only with a slightly different stress with respect to the whole self-awareness aspect that sometimes makes the film play like a somewhat lighthearted soap opera that just happens to contain an occasional violent disemboweling of a character. The suspense and action bits occasionally do produce a reasonable amount of tension percolation, even though the production frequently displays a certain editorial slackness. (One scene crosscuts between two similarly angled shots that have different focal points for no apparent reason, etc.) It's not a disgrace -- indeed, it's not bad if you like that sort of thing -- while not particularly good, and yet it's one of the better horror films I've seen in a long time. And I learned to love movies from watching horror movies. Feh.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.