The Ghostface disguise that each of the killers have worn in the Scream films was sold in the original Scream under the brand name of "Father Death" but in Scream 4, the invisible killer waiting in the wings is Father Time. Facing a string of psychopaths is no picnic but the simple passing of the years can be awfully arduous in and of itself.
The surviving cast members of the series - Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette - are all back, reprising their signature roles. Ten years after the events of the last film, Deputy Dewey is now Sheriff Dewey and Gale Weathers is now Gale Weathers-Riley. Sidney herself is now an author, having penned the tale of how she overcame her past in a book titled Out of the Darkness. As part of her publicity tour for the book, Sidney is making a stop in her old hometown of Woodsboro on the occasion of the anniversary of the Woodsboro massacre.
As usual, where Sidney goes, tragedy follows. Timed with Sidney's arrival in Woodsboro, two young girls are murdered and Sidney's niece Jill (Emma Roberts) receives taunting phone calls from a new Ghostface killer. Dewey is tasked with heading the investigation into this new murder spree while a frustrated Gale, unhappy with her retirement from journalism, is eager to spring back into action.
Surrounding Jill are her circle of friends, a group as young as Sidney and her friends were back in the original Scream. There's Jill's Billy Loomis-esque ex-boyfriend Trevor Sheldon (Nico Tortorella), her far-too-hot-for-high school friend Olivia Morris (Marielle Jaffe), her acerbic, movie buff pal Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere), and the founders of Woodboro High's cinema club, Robbie Mercer (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie Walker (Rory Culkin). Which of these characters will be hacked to pieces and which ones will hang around for awhile as potential suspects? Or, to put it in proper slasher movie terms: "who will survive and what will be left of them?"
Speaking of which, while many elements in Scream 4 call attention to the fact that this is a film of 2011 - Facebook, texting, twitter, and webcams - the change that horror fans will notice most is the increased splatter. When you see a graphic shot of a murder victim's intestines spilled onto the floor in this R-rated movie, that's when you know that this installment of the Scream saga is taking place in a much different era than the original trilogy. The original Scream was repeatedly slapped with an NC-17 but now Scream 4 - the bloodiest in the series yet - has apparently skated past the MPAA on it's way to an R with nary a single cut. That's what a decade's worth of torture-porn will do for you, I guess. Or, to paraphrase the film's tagline - new decade, new MPAA rules.
The first Scream arrived at a point in horror history when being edgier than Dr. Giggles (1992) was enough to turn the genre on its ear, now there's films like 2009's The Human Centipede to contend with. Never mind the Saw series, that's kid's stuff - in a world where horror fans can get their hands on a copy of A Serbian Film (2010) if they're so inclined, the return of the Scream franchise can't help but be more quaint than cutting edge.
But...sometimes quaint is ok. Franchises represent cinematic comfort food and there's nothing wrong with seeking that out. Yes, horror sequels can still be scary to a point but ultimately they're about recreating a ride that the audience knows and enjoys and on that count, Scream 4 does a solid job. In many ways, Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven are explicitly attempting to recreate the first Scream and while it doesn't come close to being as strong a film as the original, Scream 4 is arguably better than either of the previous sequels.
What makes Scream different from other ongoing fear franchises isn't its sense of self-awareness (that's a trait that the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series already possessed before the first Scream came into town) but that it continues the story of its protagonists rather than that of its villain. Typically slasher series would bring back the sole survivor of the previous installment only to kill them off (Alice in Friday the 13th Part 2, Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3). Occasionally, there'd be a little continuity from film to film - the character of Tommy Jarvis remained at the front of three Friday the 13th sequels in Fridays IV-VI and Andy Barclay was Chucky's nemesis in Child's Play 1-3. But yet there was never any doubt that Jason and Chucky were the real stars of those movies. With Scream, though, it's hard to imagine any sequel being successful without the involvement of Campbell, Cox, and Arquette.
As we see the old gang back together again in Scream 4, all of them inching closer to middle-age (or already there, depending on how you define "middle-age"), it occurred to me that the Scream series might be turning into horror's version of the original Star Trek movies. The ST movies featuring William Shatner and the original TV crew were all about rounding up the old Enterprise gang that fans loved and putting them through their paces, even as the aging cast members became increasingly wrinkled and slower moving. I'd get a kick out of seeing the same thing happen with Scream and - judging by Scream 4 - we're well on our way. As one character says to Sidney (I'm paraphrasing here), "let's face it - you're not the young ingenue anymore."
The extra mileage on Campbell, Cox, and Arquette gives their characters a sense of melancholy that may not be reflected so strongly in the writing but that can't help but seep through the performances - especially when they're surrounded by actors half their age.
I remember reading an interview with Sigourney Weaver at the time of Alien 3's release in which she made a remark about the character of Ripley, saying that after all she'd been through that "survival had lost its allure." That phrase came to mind for me during Scream 4 as I wondered if after fifteen plus years of facing off against one psycho after another - a series of brutal ordeals predated by the rape and murder of her mother - if Sidney Prescott should be exhausted with life altogether.
In real life, yes, anyone who's suffered the traumas that Sid has suffered would likely be - at best - suicidal. And Dewey and Gale probably wouldn't be faring so well either. But this is the movies, and more importantly, a franchise. That means these characters have to soldier on in the face of events that would leave others quivering in a corner. For a brief moment towards the end of Scream 4 it looks as though the movie might actually embrace a ballsy, bleak ending but then the film's real climax kicks in.
It's a move that's undeniably chickenshit on an artistic level but yet it's also an unavoidable affirmation that we're watching the fourth - and most likely not final - installment of a successful horror franchise. Had the movie ended at the earlier point, fans would've surely cried bullshit and let's face it - when you're making the fourth entry in a series, who the hell else are you even making it for if not for the fans?
As the credits rolled on Scream 4, though, I found it ironic to note that while the original Scream had belonged not just to its youthful cast but equally to the young generation that responded to the film's sensibilities, that this reboot of the franchise should not be interested in passing the torch to its younger players. The high school characters in this film are all but inconsequential (this is not entirely an unwelcome move, by the way - having watched the original Scream again just within the past week, it's amazing to me the difference in talent between that film's cast and the group of potted plants that populate this movie). Fifteen years ago, Scream was an upstart horror film that succeeded by leapfrogging past the staid franchises around it but Scream 4 makes it very clear that the franchise's allegiances lie firmly with the old guard and not with the new blood.