Fifteen years ago, Scream revitalized the horror film, made the slasher legitimate again, and spawned a whole generation of clones. Then Scream 2 carried through (everybody was wearing Ghostface masks), and we were all there for Scream 3 as well, even if the self-awareness was eclipsing the story somewhat. And, because that was a trilogy, we thought the franchise was over. However, as we’re told in the first installment, the killer always comes back, right? So here we are now at the unexpected, inevitable, long-rumored Scream 4, the “next generation,” and — this is the real surprise — all the principals have signed back on: Wes Craven, Kevin Williamson, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, and, though nobody thought it would happen, Neve Campbell, our favorite final girl.
However, in this age of horror cashing in on remakes, we have to ask: Is Scream 4 an actual sequel or is the series now cloning itself? That is, is Craven returning to Woodsboro because this fourth installment’s script is every bit as strong as the first (like he’s been saying), or is this second trilogy getting kickstarted just because there’s a market for it?
No, Scream 4 isn’t as strong as the original. It traffics in nostalgia a bit much, it rides “We’ve been through a lot together, haven’t we?” a bit too long, and, without spoiling anything, anytime any of the characters in a series become sacrosanct, the story suffers as possibilities are closed. And then of course there’s that glib self-awareness that set the original apart from the rest. It’s fun, no doubt, and adds a running layer of discourse over the film, but the self-awareness is feeling a bit like cannibalism the fourth time out, even after taking a decade to recharge. Like its Scary Movie spoofs, Scream’s feeding on itself, and starving for it.
This was still originally a Williamson script. And what does Williamson accomplish every bit as well as Agatha Christie ever did? Red herrings. He trots out suspect after suspect, and he knows his genre so well that he can anticipate your suspicions, feed them, and then show you it was all misdirected. Or maybe it wasn’t. Or it was. Seriously, even rewritten, nobody can do it like he can. Then you have Craven — if there’s ever been a director better in a tight hallway, a director better able to jump-scare you not at the least likely moment, but at the most, then I don’t know.
I don’t think there has been.
And, sure, if you apply just one rule of the Golden Age slasher — I won’t say which — the killer is revealed, but Scream 4 is still pretty good fun, and not just for the reunion. And, that final reel, man. Horror reviewers are always throwing around the term “grand guignol” kind of irresponsibly. Not this time. Even if you don’t go for the slow burn of the first two acts, you’d better hold on when that third act kicks in. It’s both gleefully violent and a pretty cutting social critique, until we’re the victims. Which is exactly how horror should work.