If any genre is notorious for churning out sequels to diminishing aesthetic and financial returns, it’s horror. Most of them are lacking any real substance anyway, so it’s usually just a matter of churning out a dozen uninspired deaths and calling it a day. The ‘Scream’ franchise hasn’t been especially consistent in terms of quality, but it was different because it was willing to poke fun at itself. Eleven years after the third film, director Wes Craven goes back to the series that has worked for him before and gives us ‘Scream 4.’

The story opens with two girls being killed on the fifteenth anniversary of the original Woodsboro murders (the original ‘Scream’). This coincides with original survivor Syndey Prescott (Neve Campbell) returning to town to promote her new book. Evidence is found in her car, which Sherriff Dewey (David Arquette) interprets as a threat. Dewey’s wife,Gale Weathers-Riley (Courtney Cox) has retired from journalism and has spent time writing about the Woodsboro murders. She wants to get back in the game and solve the murders, so she aligns herself with two high school horror movie enthusiasts, Charlie (Rory Culkin) and Robbie (Erik Knudsen). Robbie has a habit of filming everything, from the mundane to the exciting, and uploading it to the internet.

Sydney stays with her cousin Jill (Emma Roberts). Jill has been getting threatening calls along with her friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe). Are the calls coming from her ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella)? The violence starts to happen more frequently with the Ghostface killer getting closer to Sydney. The inevitable party happens which brings together unsuspecting teens.

Who is the killer? What does he/she want? Who will survive? Etc.

The ‘Scream’ franchise is best characterized by its knowledge of genre convention and its self-referential nature. It even goes so far as to openly make fun of the endless parade of remakes and reboots. Despite the conscious attempts to be surprising, this movie (as with most of the series) often falls back into the over-used tricks that it is trying to make fun of. Craven does seem to have fun messing with people’s expectations at certain points, especially in the beginning.

While the series and the world at large have both benefited from taking the decade off, the only real difference is an exploration of technology. It’s no spoiler to say that the killer records and uploads (or at least wants to) all of the killings onto the internet. Tiny cameras and social media platforms are all used liberally. Sure, this is more about celebrity and self-publishing, but didn’t we examine the dehumanizing effects of self-promotion on the internet in other garbage movies like ‘Diary of the Dead’ and flicks along those lines? It is different from the other films, but Craven waited a few years too long to really capitalize on the phenomenon.

There aren’t many scares, either. A few cheap jump moments are attempted throughout but we are sadly lacking in any genuinely sustained suspense. The tone doesn’t remain consistently serious throughout. It has pretty much all been done before (which may be partly the point) and most of the killings are telegraphed. It is nice to see many of the characters address some of the horror movie ‘blind spots’ (the back seat of a car, for example) but this knowledge rarely actually saves them. When the film (via characters) spouts off horror movie references, it seems to be quite smug about possessing such useless knowledge. There’s nothing especially impressive about a middle-aged screenwriter who writes dialog to make ‘teens’ seem precocious. Once the protracted ending kicks in, it’s not hard to predict how things will turn out. You know the movie isn’t going to end as abruptly as it initially seems to. Once we see who we are left with, it’s only a matter of time until it plays out in the standard way. Oh no! A main character was stabbed in the shoulder! Another is stabbed in the side, away from all vital organs! Way to be thorough, killer.

The returning cast is mostly how you remember them, albeit a decade older though Sheriff Dewey is even more incompetent than ever. The movie may have ended a good twenty five minutes earlier if he wasn’t such a useless shot at near point blank range. This new generation of post-teen, teens are mostly alright as far as horror movie standards. As expected, some exist merely as red-herrings while others don’t last long enough to be anything more than lambs to the slaughter.

Special features include: alternate opening, alternate ending, commentary, a making of featurette, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

As disappointing as ‘Scream 4’ is in a lot of ways, it’s also exactly what you should expect it to be. All the time away makes it more welcome and watchable than ‘Scream 3’ or almost all of Craven’s other recent output (like ‘My Soul To Take‘). Was it absolutely essential to return to the well a fourth time in an attempt to lure young viewers back to the franchise? You decide. Here’s a hint: no it wasn’t.

If you saw and enjoyed the first three films, for completion sake, seeing this isn’t the worst decision you can make. Don’t just randomly dive into this, blissfully ignorant of what came before it. You’ll appreciate it even less than those who liked the better films.

Rated R         111 minutes            2011

This post was written by:

J.J. Ellis – When J.J. Ellis isn’t writing as the Allentown DVD Examiner, his Decent Exposure Radio can be heard on the air every Friday night from 10:30 to midnight (EST) on WXLV 90.3 FM or wxlvradio.com!