DVD Review: Kudos to Scream 4 director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson—they’ve crafted a sequel that deftly, relentlessly folds into itself like an M.C. Escher drawing of a ball of snakes. You can’t really tell where its ironic self-awareness starts or ends, or whether quaint terms like “good,” “bad” or “scary” even apply.
While the pointy ins and out of who’s killing who and why in Scream 4 may differ in the details from Scream 1-3, the song playing at the funhouse of horrors remains the same: Someone is tormenting poor, put-upon professional Scream survivor Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) by dressing up in the now-iconic Ghostface costume and ventilating everyone around her.
There follows a parade of red herrings and narrative head fakes, some familiar Scream character types, more career climbing from Gail Weathers (Courteney Cox) and more bumbling from the Worst Police Department in the Country, now headed up by Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette).
New faces lined up for the slaughter include Anthony Kennedy, Adam Brody, and Allison Brie, plus talented youngsters like Emma Roberts (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) and Rory Culkin. Meanwhile web cams, Facebook, and texting may add new mediums, but the voice on the line is still good ol’ Roger Jackson’s.
The not-so-secret secret of the Scream films is that for all the mystery tale tricks and twists, it doesn’t matter who’s under the Ghostface mask or what petty issues and jealousies drove him or her to get all stabby. The franchise’s enduring face of fear isn’t a Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, but a cheap Halloween costume, itself a self-congratulatory wink at Edvard Munch. Likewise, one of the fun things about the Scream movies is the killers take their lumps—no other horror villain gets beat up and kicked around as much as Ghostface.
Like a male predator eating his own children to eliminate evolutionary rivals, Scream 4 takes plenty of swipes at the proliferation of crappy horror franchises it itself helped spawn. But where the first entry in the franchise reflected on horror films and their “rules,” from its clever-clever-clever opening onward, Scream 4 is all about the Scream movies, including itself.
As a result, the film sometimes plays like its own DVD commentary track. By the time characters complain about how today’s navel-gazing horror films over think their scares, we’ve reached OCD levels of self-examination.
(Somewhere in there, the film also toys with one of my favorite American horror-movie topics: That brutal, bloody violence is fine as long as everyone keeps their clothes on. Death good, sex bad! The fan boys in Scream 4 complain that no one ever gets naked in the franchise, even as Hayden Panettiere’s character, a randy horror fan herself, notes that being scared silly is an aphrodisiac. The choir of teenagers watching Scream 4 on a Friday night is duly preached to.)
If all that sounds confusingly off-putting, as if Scream 4 is more fun to talk about than watch, don’t worry—Craven and Williamson still serve up plenty of the ol’ ultra violence, using snappy and aggressively gory bloodletting as punctuation in their thesis paper. The actual killings become a welcome break—after all the House-of-Mirrors meta pranks, a stab is still a stab.
Scream 4 sometimes comes out long on clever but short on creative—there are no inventive new ways to kill teenagers; no creeping, insidious dread or unexpected shocks. (The film’s one truly disturbing death scene is undercut by an unnecessary but inevitable punch line.) And after knocking the Saw movies’ lack of character development, it’s all the more glaring when Scream 4 fails to deliver any of its own.
But the flick also sports a solid scene- and story craft too often missing from the current cinematic teen-horror landscape. “Listen up, kiddies,” Craven and Williamson are saying. “This is how it’s done.” As such, Scream 4 plays like an aging rock band’s reunion tour—they may not have any hot new singles, but it’s fun to watch pros play the old hits with precision.