Same as it ever was?
There are so many layers of self-awareness and irony going on in the Scream franchise that the films themselves failed to keep up with the metaness. The first remains an enjoyably scathing satire of the slasher genre, a clever and funny film that stands up today. Ironically, it inadvertently spawned the deplorable Scary Movie, which satirised Scream in a further layer of post-modern parody, without any of the cleverness of Scream itself. It was up to the two sequels to Scream, then, to pick up the satirical slack. Scream 2 sort of did: a rethread of the first, now in a college setting, but some funny - ahem - stabs at horror sequels. Scream 3 saw the series self-destruct and lose direction - now so wrapped up in post modernity that it was almost a parody of itself. It was simply a standard slasher film minus much of the comedic elements of the first two, despite the increased presence of film-within-a-film 'Stab'. How had Scream become what it had initially stood firmly against?
Many blamed the fact that writer Kevin Williamson was unable to write the script for the second sequel due to other commitments, bar providing a rough story outline. Indeed, it was Williamson's cheekily self-aware scripts that stood out in the films, not Wes Craven's generally bland direction. So Williamson has returned for a fourth entry in the franchise, risking overexposure in the same way the franchises it vocally lampoons have blown their loads over countless formulaic sequels.
Scre4m (/skri-four-em/) starts of well, echoing the beginning of the first while also ripping the piss out of it. The first ten minutes are the best of the film, with a very funny gimmick best not to ruin. It proves that if you're going to be stupid, at least being aware you're stupid is a good way to go about it. Swiftly, though, we're brought back to the town of Woodsboro as series protagonist Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to her home town on the anniversary of her first Ghost Face Killer encounter to finish purging herself of her past traumas. Predictably, this isn't a great idea. Soon there's another Ghost Face on the loose, and Sidney reunites with her still alive (a series in-joke at this point) companions Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox) and now Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) to solve the case. There's also a load of new faces on the scene: Emma Roberts as Campbell's niece, Hayden Panettiere as Roberts' best friend, Erik Knudsen and Rory Culkin as her geeky classmates and Jamie Kennedy replacements, Marley Shelton as Dewey's new deputy etc etc...
There's a tonne of characters, and therein lies the film's biggest problem. The middle hour is a load of shit. It's dull and struggles to juggle the vast cast. There's a few suitably tense and (in comparison to the rest of the franchise, anyway) graphic killings, but the rest is just lazy red herrings and shallow character development. It drags considerably: again, the irony of Scream inadvertently becoming a parody of itself isn't lost. The performances are typically cheesy, and Craven's direction in anything other than the straight up horror scenes feels lazy. It's only when Ghost Face is on the loose does the film come to a sort of half-life with clever directorial tricks like subtle white marks in the black background creating some enjoyable slasher sequences.
The film is never scary: Scream never has been really. Unfortunately, efforts to inject a bit of contemporary relevance and humour into Scream 4 - like having a character constantly video blogging - fall flat. So it's a relief when the film goes slightly nuts in the last twenty minutes or so. The red herrings are revealed to be such, and the film descends into some almost cartoonish action and violence. It's enjoyable in how unrestrained it is, especially once the relatively surprising antagonist's identity is revealed. It doesn't go as far as it could to provide a shocking ending - everything, once again, is wrapped up in a nice little package - but the slapstick streak is to be admired. Scream has always excelled in pleasingly physical chases, and the fourth entry doesn't disappoint in that regard.
That it disappoints in others is the true shame here. When the resident geeks explain the rules of new horror, it doesn't feel as perceptive as the infamous "how to survive in a horror film" speech of the first. Occasionally when satirising reboots, franchise horror and indeed "meta" comedy horror itself Williamson and Craven have tongues embedded in cheeks and the film is good fun. That so much of Scre4m is what it purports to parody is one final layer of irony to the mix. Not the good kind either. It's probably the best Scream since the first, but that doesn't mean it's as relevant as it thinks it is. It doesn't quite know what it is despite frequent evidence to the contrary, and while it's admittedly enjoyable and fun, it's uneven. Newcomers should stick to the original. It had Jamie Kennedy and a confidence lacking in the franchise ever since. 5cream and S6ream are already threatened - let's hope they have the guts to really break the rules.