Scream 4 (R) ★★½

Review Date: April 14th, 2011

At the time of Scream's release in 1996, the state of Hollywood horror was at a pretty low-point. For every Dracula, there was a Frankenstein. For every original idea, there were dozens of painful sequels. There were some truly terrifying films released during the decade, but there wasn't a lot we hadn't seen before. Then along came Wes Craven's now classic slasher pic, a revisionist take on the genre that simultaneously dissected its tropes while embracing them. It was equally hilarious and horrific thanks to the auteur's precise execution and Kevin Williamson's sharp, sardonic script that dynamically pooled the characters' points of view with those of the audience. Scream's self-awareness was a true game-changer that has carved a very nice place in film history for itself. Fifteen years and two sequels later, the franchises' principle players have all returned to Woodsboro to catch up on cinematic commentary and thwart the sadistic plans of yet another Ghostface killer in Scre4m.

In how many ways does this bloody new chapter differ from the others? Not many. The story begins when Neve Campbell's Sidney Prescott, now the best-selling author of a self-help book, returns home on the last stop of her promotional tour. There, she meets up with Dewey and Gale Weathers-Riley (David Arquette and Courtney Cox), her friends and mutual survivors of the Woodsboro Murders, though there's precious little time for a warm reunion because someone has inherited the mantle of Ghostface and begun taking out the town's well-endowed teenagers. The trio, along with a young and attractive cast of victims and suspects including Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Nico Tortorella and Rory Culkin, attempt to stop the killer despite an escalating body count.

As with the original, Williamson's screenplay is the most valuable part of the production. He employs the same narrative formula he did in '96 but puts it in contemporary context, riffing on cinema's current trends (namely sequelitis and the torture-porn craze, the latter which the filmmakers are clearly not fans of), his own franchise (the opening, self-deprecating sequence is absolutely riotous and perhaps the funniest in the entire series) and America's social media obsession (Twitter, Facebook and YouTube references take the place of pagers and other outdated cultural staples, further separating the film from its predecessors), which plays a larger part in the story and its characters motivations than you really want to know. If there ever was a film for and about the been-there-done-that, post-modern generation, it's Scre4m.

While Williamson is at the top of his game, Craven's direction doesn't appear to have evolved much since helming the original (a sad fact considering his creative growth with Music From The Heart and Red Eye). A few eerie shots aside, he doesn't take any risks with the material, resulting in a monotonous merry-go-round of murders that's consciously grislier but noticeably less effective than those found in the earlier entries. Thankfully his enthusiastic cast is more than willing to go over-the-top and beyond to sell the (few) scares; Panettiere particularly stands out as the confident Kirby Reed, as does Alison Brie as the slimy PR girl Rebecca Walters. They're all archetypes, fitting into the film's modus operandi of amusingly adhering to conventions and making it relatively easy for you to predict who's going to die without spoiling the fun.

Still, with so many preconceived notions about what Scre4m should be it's hard to imagine all moviegoers loving its throwback premise and downright silly tone. What was once clever is now contrived; what was once refreshing and exhilarating for horror buffs is now exploitative of their common knowledge and passion. As a horror-comedy hybrid it brings some funny but not a whole lot of fear; in other words, it's very much like the original. Not that there's anything wrong with that… rated this film 2 1/2 stars.