Fifteen years ago, Scream was the antidote to the teen slashers of the 1980s. Sure, it certainly wasn't the first film to combine audience savvy with meta commentary, but Scream's influence permanently affected the horror genre. Now, in 2011, Scream 4 arrives promising new rules for a new decade, suggesting innovation and inspiration provided by the Asian remake craze, torture porn, and reboots. Instead, the best thing about the new film is its insistence on preserving the formula that made it popular in the first place. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Once again, the film reunites survivors Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), Gale Weathers-Riley (Courteney Cox), and Dewey Riley (David Arquette) in the town of Woodsboro. It's the last stop on a nationwide tour promoting Sidney's book about her experiences, but before she can sign a single copy, dead bodies start turning up and all-too-familiar feelings start flooding back. Among the targets: Sidney's cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), her friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe), and local film nerds Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin).
With reboots and revivals in vogue, it seems like a given that Scream 4 finally got the greenlight with the idea that Craven and his original cast could revitalize the brand, allowing Dimension to bring the Scream to a new generation. Instead, it's a relief to discover that the screenplay by original writer Kevin Williamson is pointedly focused on Sidney, Gail, and Dewey, and remains refreshingly faithful to the tone and style of the original films. There's one swipe at torture porn and an even better jab at remakes, but Williamson doesn't seem that interested in what's been going on in the genre since Ghostface last graced the silver screen. The script is careful to tread the line between heightened and over-the-top: any horror that has changed as a reaction to older trends is inherently meta, and it'd be easy for looping back even further to become obnoxious. Instead, Williamson saves his poison pen for a wicked, inspired ending; viewers may guess the "who", but it's the "why" that makes it work.
In terms of direction, Craven brings his A-game. The original Scream made waves for its violence, which holds up even today as excruciatingly brutal. Scream is bloody, no doubt about it, but it's less the splatter and more the almost sadistic glee with which Craven pummels some of its victims that keeps the original shocking. This new sequel never climbs to the same level of ferociousness, but Craven isn't pulling his punches, either, splattering bedroom walls with a ridiculous amount of blood. Whether the entrails and grue are a comment on today's movies or just an attempt to keep pace with them isn't clear, but a bit of vagueness can be forgiven thanks to a gleefully inventive pre-title sequence that's worth the price of admission alone, several clever nods to the original Scream, and at least one good-natured pot-shot at one of his Dimension contemporaries in the credits of the original Stab (although, I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss "Red Right Hand.").
Had Scream 4 been Scream 3, well, that'd be about as good as one can expect a horror trilogy to get. Despite a long gestation period, all of the nonsense with Miramax and the Weinstein Company, and screenwriter scuffles (Williamson was apparently irked by Weinstein requests and jumped ship mid-production), Scream 4 is not only the second-best in the series, but also the best slasher movie in at least a decade. On one hand, the quality of the slashers of late -- Prom Night, anyone? -- makes that a low standard, but it's also telling: they really don't make slashers anymore. And in that sense, Craven and Williamson have accomplished something even more than a thoroughly satisfying series of films: they've brought the whole genre full circle.
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