I wish – for both your sake and mine – that I could position Scream 4 as some sort of referendum on the franchise, but the truth is it’s neither a brilliant return to form after Scream 3 nor a disastrous indication that the entire series has been an overrated, dated phenomenon. Although there is some trademark wit to the proceedings, much of the self-referential shtick (not to mention the gore) feels obligatory. Watching it feels like watching an aged retiree rouse himself for one more round of golf.
Something coaxed original screenwriter Kevin Williamson back – he left after Scream 2 – but it doesn’t appear to have been a burning desire to further deconstruct the horror genre and movies in general (both of which have changed significantly since Scream 3). Although Scream 4 acknowledges things such as Facebook, Twitter, live streaming and movie franchise reboots (of which it is one, of course), these are only half-hearted glances, not the sort of potent in-jokes for which the series became famous. The first Scream was a defining moment in metanarrative (in which a movie knows it’s a movie and cleverly employs that knowledge). The entire exercise was a giddy expression of Williamson’s love for film in general and horror in particular. Scream 4 simply doesn’t have that spark of inspiration.
As usual, the movie opens inside a narrative wormhole, this time as a film within a film within a film. The Stab franchise – a fictional movie series inspired by the murders in the original Scream – is into its seventh installment, you see, and Scream 4 begins with two teens watching it in their home in Woodsboro, the location of the initial killings. Also in town is native daughter and series survivor Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), returning to promote her new book about overcoming trauma. She’ll have more to overcome before things are done.
Besides Campbell, David Arquette and Courteney Cox also make return appearances. They’ve previously been the comic-romantic anchor for the franchise, but here he mostly seems tired while she seems … um … well, let’s just say the killer isn’t the only one who appears to be wearing a mask. (As for series director Wes Craven, he’s on autopilot.)
All of this leaves us doing something no Scream movie should: shrugging our shoulders. I wouldn’t say the series’ time has come and gone – if anything, our world is primed more than ever for metacommentary – but it certainly feels like Williamson’s time has passed. After all, the only thing that can truly kill a horror franchise is indifference.