If you ask someone ‘What’s your favorite scary movie?’ and they answer Scream 4, they are a fucking asshole.
There was no reason to expect a late period Wes Craven movie to be any good; anyone who has been paying attention to the man’s career can see that with a handful of exceptions - the original Scream, The People Under the Stairs and Red Eye - his post-1990 career has been a series of dismal, painful failures. But as a horror fan I walked into Scream 4 hoping. Hoping that Craven could return to the scene of one of his last few successes and find the magic that once made him a filmmaker I followed with eagerness. Instead it’s just another dismal failure, one that cements the idea that Craven’s best days are behind him.
Even though I’m writing this late on opening night I’ll keep the review mostly spoiler free. There are aspects about the end of the film that enraged me - surely someone must have seen any modern serial killer movie/crime show and understood what ‘forensics’ means, right? - but Scream 4 fails way, way before the end. Scream 4 fails miserably right from the start, as it begins in a series of fake-outs, presenting the opening scenes of a couple of Stab films as the openings of this film. Each fake-out gets progressively more tiresome and more tediously self-reflexive, until the actual film starts. But even then the self-reflexive bullshit never lets up - the true killer in Scream 4 is Wes Craven’s asshole, because that’s exactly what the movie disappears up into.
There’s barely anything resembling a plot in Scream 4. Sidney Prescott has returned to Woodsboro on the final stop of her book tour; she’s written a book about how she’s not going to be a victim or something and of course the final stop is on the anniversary of the original killings. I would say that this was too crass or tasteless for Sidney, but in Scream 4 she’s without defining character traits except ‘surviving;’ the character just floats through the movie, not dying. Rarely having anything to say, even.
Meanwhile there’s some bullshit about Sheriff Dewey and his wife, retired journalist Gale. These three original Scream characters are in the film, but without particularly good reason. They show up because they have to, but the script never makes a serious attempt to integrate their stories with the main killer plot. Gale tries to investigate, Dewey runs to each crime scene right after the killing happens, and Sidney is just sort of around.
Neve Campbell appears to be heavily medicated; she spends the entire film squinting at people as if she’s unclear they’re even there. David Arquette and Courteney Cox are criminally underused; both are fine in the small roles they have, but they’re given little to do. Everybody else is pretty terrible, except for Hayden Panettiere, who - and it pains me to say this - is actually pretty great. She’s probably the best thing in the movie.
Anyway, Sidney returns to town and the killings begin again, but this time the killings are happening in a group of high school kids who are simply non-defined. The one thing I like about the film is that it has a palpable disdain for this group of youths, but that doesn’t a story make. Once the killings start everybody runs around hyper-aware not only of the rules of slasher films, but also the structure of the original film, as these killings appear to be a ‘remake’ or ‘reboot.’ But again, a series of endless references to and riffs on the first Scream don’t make an actual story. There’s no true story to Scream 4, and that’s even taking into account that it’s part of the traditionally story-light slasher genre. The film is a lot of people rushing from place to place and taking phone calls and every now and again getting into hackneyed stalk and slash predicaments.
The film makes a couple of stabs at being technologically current, but none of it works. Instead of having phone numbers spoofed, characters must conveniently lose their phones so the killer can use them. There’s some hogwash about a kid who has a live webcam running on a headset, but it feels like the screenwriters (Kevin Williamson credited, hideous locust of the word processor Ehren Kruger uncredited) saw that webcams were big now. Ghostface doesn’t even communicate by text message, which is a technology so well ensconced that you imagine even decrepit old Wes Craven knows was ‘LOL’ means.
What we’re left with is a film whose structure tries to ape Scream that excuses itself by winking and saying it knows that it’s a carbon copy. This is like me answering every question on a test wrong and putting a winking face on the top and expecting an A. If your movie is a tired rehash of a movie you’ve already made, having characters saying it’s a tired rehash in no way makes it less tired. In fact, considering the fact that it’s a tired rehash of a very self-aware movie, having the characters be this self-aware feels even more tired.
Scream 4 is hamstrung by the fact that it wants to have the original characters involved but never comes up with a way to properly integrate them into a high school slasher story. It’s also unwilling to really put any of them into danger; when somebody does get into trouble things actually feel tense for a moment, but the prospect of a Scream 5 without the same fucking names above the title obviously scared everybody way too much to allow them to do anything.
There are a handful of clever moments, including a denouement in a hospital, but they all feel like story points that were written on note cards, stuck to a cork board and never actually integrated into a real script. This is what keeps getting to me - the way the film is almost defiantly without a story. The killer’s motives are okay, but they’re essentially out of nowhere, since the film never bothers to actually set anything up. The motive needs to be spelled out in a long, stupid, on the nose speech that probably felt like a real statement to the jerk-offs who made this fucking movie. In reality it’s as clever as saying “Paris Hilton is famous for nothing.” What a wonderful insight.
No story. No characters. A lame retread of the first film that spends half the running time assuring you it knows it’s a lame retread of the first film. Maybe two decent kills. Craven’s last movie, My Soul To Take, was an incoherent disaster of a motion picture, but at least it was entertaining. Scream 4 is boring, which is the worst sin a movie like this can commit.
And Wes Craven’s late period holocaust of a career continues.