A slasher paint-by-numbers
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, April 15, 2011
“Scream 4” has issues.
If it were a person, and not a movie, it would be a 17-year-old bulimic girl, desperate for the attention of 17-year-old boys and alternately bingeing on cheesy slasher-flick cliches, and purging, by pointing out, over and over, just how gag-me-with-a spoon cheesy they are.
On the one hand, it is obsessed with itself, winking and pouting in front of the metaphorical mirror of self-referential scrutiny that the series — directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson — is famous for. On the other, it suffers from a case of crushingly low self-esteem, reminding us at every turn just how lame it is. (In a sense, it won’t shut up about how fat it looks in these jeans.) The put-downs, of course, are meant to get a laugh. The problem is, the movie doesn’t really care if we are laughing with it or at it.
Set 10 years after “Scream 3,” the movie centers on the return of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) to her hometown of Woodsboro, notable for being the site of a series of grisly murders by a psychopath, dubbed Ghostface, in a black robe and Halloween mask. (Unlike, say, the “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” movies, a new killer is revealed under the mask in each installment.) Film after film, although it’s always Sidney who is the source of Ghostface’s homicidal rage, most of the victims are collateral damage: lusty teenagers, lazy cops and others who happen to get in the way.
Along with Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette return as nosy newswoman-turned-writer Gayle Weathers and bumbling sheriff Dewey Riley, who are now married to each other.
Just as with the earlier “Scream” films, this one apes the conventions of the teen frightfest while sneering at them. Scenes alternate between attacks on adolescents by the butcher’s knife-wielding Ghostface and conversations between the victims’ surviving classmates about just how predictable and formulaic his modus operandi is. Fresh blood is provided — in some cases, quite literally — by Hayden Panettiere, Emma Roberts, Marielle Jaffe, Rory Culkin, Nico Tortorella and Erik Knudsen as horror-obsessed high-schoolers.
At the heart of the film is a joke: What’s happening on screen is just like a bad horror movie. Except that, by acknowledging its own badness, “Scream 4” hopes to turn itself into a good horror movie. Or at least a hip, funny and self-aware one.
But does that trick even work anymore? How long can Craven and Williamson milk the same shtick — mocking B movies and being one — before the audience catches on that they’re running around in circles? As with all genre films — romantic comedies, westerns, gangster movies, etc. — there’s a certain pleasure that comes from going through the same familiar motions. But when does a comfortable groove become a rut?
Admittedly, there’s a bit of fun to be had here. Craven and Williamson update the story for today’s tech-savvy zeitgeist by adding live video blogging, iPhone apps and miscellaneous social media to the murderous mix. Ghostface doesn’t just taunt his victims by phone anymore; he texts them. It’s “The Social Network,” but with blood!
Yet other than waiting for the inevitable “Scooby-Doo”-like revelation of this episode’s killer, there just isn’t a whole lot that’s new. As Gayle says to Dewey during a police press conference, “Any comment on the fact that the murders seem to resemble the pattern of the original Woodsboro murders?”
Dewey doesn’t have a good answer. But one of “Scream 4’s” teenage film geeks just might, when he wonders aloud whether the bloodbath that’s happening all around him is less a legitimate “shriek-quel” than an uninspired “screa-make.”
Contains obscenity, violence, gore and underage drinking.