2.5 stars out of 4
It’s been 15 years since Ghostface first called up Sidney Prescott and asked in his raspy, rascally voice: “Do you like scary movies?” He called again in 1997 and 2000, and fans answered, delighted by horror films that winked at audiences before unleashing bloody violence.
What would this generation’s Ghostface be like? Instead of calling, would he just text: “BRB 2 kill U — Gf”?
Scream’s original screenwriter Kevin Williamson returns to the big screen with the fourth instalment of the franchise. Williamson took an 11-year break from the series, in the meantime creating another seminal piece of late-’90s nostalgia, TV’s Dawson’s Creek. Those viewers grew up, got jobs and saw Katie Holmes marry a loony Tom Cruise. Williamson now produces The Vampire Diaries, whose viewers are probably eagerly waiting for Kristen Stewart to marry a broody Robert Pattinson.
Today’s teens have been terrorized by zombies, long-haired ghost girls and an engineer with a Jim Henson mask and a penchant for gory torture. Will they be scared of a homicidal prank caller dressed in Harry Potter’s robes?
Not much has changed in Woodsboro since we last saw its terrorized folk. The kids may have iPhones, Facebook stalkers and apps to recreate Ghostface’s sound (voiced again by Roger Jackson), but everyone still uses the same cordless phones with identical rings at home (there must have been a sale at Walmart) and there are still stab-happy killers in their midst.
Super-survivor Sidney (Neve Campbell) has penned a memoir and returns to her hometown to sign books. Meantime, egocentric reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) is struggling to write fiction while her husband, Dewey (David Arquette), is now the sheriff. The three characters have been the Scream staples — including Dewey’s caterpillar moustache — having survived three rounds of Ghostface’s bloodshed.
When the trio gets together, you know someone somewhere is getting knifed. The killer also has fresh meat to target, including Sidney’s cousin, Jill (played by Emma Roberts, who was probably finger-painting when the original came out), and her high school pals (Hayden Panettiere, Rory Culkin).
Dewey orders two of his finest men to guard Jill’s house. “It sucks to be a cop in a movie except if you’re Bruce Willis,” officer Adam Brody (The O.C.) tells his partner. That’s because cops in Williamson’s script say things like: “It’s bad, sheriff. Real bad.”
In Scream 4, the Bruce Willis hero role is refreshingly filled by Campbell. Her more mature heroine does a lot less whimpering and a lot more ass-whooping. “I’m going to split your eyelids so you can watch me stab you,” the killer taunts. But 2011 Sidney knows this would actually be very hard to do, judging by how clumsy the killer always is and she flips him the proverbial bird before wrestling him down a flight of stairs.
The secondary characters (all extras from the MTV Movie Awards, including Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin) survive as long as a teenage boy’s attention span, and soon, you’re only left with a handful of people at an ill-advised house party (don’t they know there’s still a killer on the loose?).
The original was a fun whodunit, but with Scream 4, if you find yourself brainstorming “wouldn’t-it-be-awesome-if” alternatives — for example, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if the murderer was Gale who had gone bonkers from married life and needed fodder for her book?” — you’re probably over-thinking things.
The original was an homage to such great slasher films as Halloween. Scream 4 is more of an homage to itself. It hits familiar notes, including a death scene involving a garage door and a creepy spurned boyfriend who climbs into Jill’s window, while also keeping its trademark self-referential zingers and digs at movie clichés. Williamson winks, nudges and elbows his audience so much that it starts to feel like you’re a kid with a wisecracking grandpa: “OK, gramps, I get it. I get it.”
Director Wes Craven educated us with the first three films, and we’re wiser for it. The fourth film, however, is not. While various characters lament the predictability and lack of character development in slasher films (“It’s not scary. It’s gross. I hate all that torture porn,” one girl says), Williamson doesn’t rise above the commentary to give audiences something different.
Meanwhile, the once-legendary Craven delivers what he knows best, even if they’re tricks we’ve all seen before. In one scene, a film geek says: “You do a remake to outdo the original.” Scream 5 is reportedly in the works, so at least Williamson can take another stab at it.
This review was originally published in the National Post, Friday, April 15.