Self-referentiality is the soul of the "Scream" series, but its fourth installment carries so much franchise baggage that director Wes Craven never really gets around to making a new movie. "Scream" and its sequels skewered then-modern genre tropes—a decade later the mind reels to imagine how the modern horror landscape might lend itself to parody. From the proliferation of "torture porn" to the endless deluge of remakes, one would think the 21st century meant easy pickins for satirists. But if "Scream 4" is any indication, the barbs are only as sharp as their inspiration.
To be fair, the savvy deconstruction of cliché is still present in this addendum to the trilogy. Unfortunately, it's marginalized in favor of enriching "Scream" fiction. Instead of constructing a self-sufficient narrative, writer Kevin Williamson unfairly forces a cast of up-and-comers to contend with familiar characters that have a lot of catching up to do. As an audience, it's never quite clear who "Scream 4" is about.
Naturally, Neve Campbell returns as Sidney, on tour with her New York Times best-seller when a flash of fatalities crops up in her home town. Instead of gracefully passing the torch to a new generation of snarky high schoolers however, she flimsily becomes embroiled in the bloodshed and subsequent media frenzy and police investigation. Enter Courteney Cox and David Arquette, reprising their roles as Gale Weathers and Dewey Riley respectively, and you might as well cut the new characters altogether.
Which is a shame, because "Scream 4" might have worked better had the newbies been trusted with the spotlight. Williamson should have at least left his veterans more on the periphery of the story. Instead, he jumbles their reunion with the new tale he's attempting to tell and neither plays out satisfyingly. It feels like an eternity before the plot gains traction because our focal point is perennially being adjusted.
Even once the masked antagonist shows up in earnest, "Scream 4" is an exercise in redundancy. Not only because it follows three prior "Scream" films, but because internally it fails to up the stakes. Encounters with Ghostface play out virtually identically from beginning to end, with a volley of phone calls, the inevitable bait and switch, and a gruesome death. Scares were never the series' primary concern, but at least the original never lost sight of the punchline. In "Scream 4," I'm not even sure there's a setup.
Part of the problem is that Williamson's stab at modern horror is tethered to an outdated formula. "Scream 4" is still a slasher, and Ghostface is a less topical villain then ever, especially when his would-be victims are dissecting Jigsaw. Several scenes manage to smartly pinpoint new clichés, but they have little bearing on the clockwork of the narrative, and you've already seen most if you've seen the trailer.
Missed opportunities abound in "Scream 4," which pitches new material but ends up trotting out a tired routine. Though it scores easy points with in-jokes, its hokey humor quickly grows stale. Instead of fostering a conversation that might prove why the franchise is still relevant, Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven seem content to remix their smash hit for a new audience. They make tiny modern concessions, but it's apparent the pair hit an artistic plateau back in the '90s. If this is their indictment of 21st century scares, our modern perverted sadists and Japanese ghost children got nothin' to fear.