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Taking Another Stab at Meta-Horror

MOVIE REVIEW
Scream 4 (2011)

Scream-4-alison-brie-marley-shelton-adam-brody-neve-campbell-courteney-cox-david-arquette-anthony-anderson-scre4m
Gemma La Mana/Dimension Films

In reviving the “Scream” franchise some 11 years after its second sequel, director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson have improbably found the way to territory that’s even more meta than before. The self-aware characters in the first three films always seemed to know they were pawns in a horror-movie game. In “Scream 4,” the protagonists must grapple with the genre’s rules and those of the franchise reboot, as a new generation’s revival of the Ghostface killer parallels the filmmakers’ resuscitation of this late-’90s cinematic icon.

All the self-reflexivity and layered mirror effects make for an experience that’s of a fun and lighthearted tongue-in-cheek variety, with some notably clever wink-wink twists. In the 15 years since the first film’s release, however, Messrs. Craven and Williamson have forgotten that beneath the dense, fourth-wall-shattering aesthetic of that groundbreaking initial effort was a genuinely scary slasher flick.

In “Scream 4,” they give us the window dressing, the brain-contorting and densely packed structural mischief without the substance. The story, characters and ultimate identity of the killer are basically immaterial here, subsumed to a gleeful exercise in film-theory basics. The approach makes for an experience that tickles the brain but neglects to go to the sort of guttural, primal place required of successful horror efforts.

A decade after the serial murders, the town of Woodsboro has moved on. The bumbling deputy Dewey (David Arquette) has become the sheriff and married intrepid newswoman/author Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), with no comment made by the film on the ripped-from-the-headlines nature of the Cox-Arquette pairing. Heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is the author of a best seller about her harrowing experiences. The town’s contemporary high-school crowd, including Sidney’s niece Jill (Emma Roberts) and her best friend Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), is more wrapped up in texting and webcasting than worrying about the return of Ghostface. But someone’s a fan and, sure enough, the sinister voice-box-modulated growling, Munch-inspired-mask-wearing killer resumes gutting and slashing some hot young prey.

The picture playfully interweaves the recognizable “Scream” world — represented by the returning stars — with the new crew. The original-next generation dichotomy is the operating principle here, referred to, ruminated upon and ultimately defining the narrative’s direction. The familiar references to horror clichés, the acknowledgements of what characters should and shouldn’t say and where they should and shouldn’t go, turn up alongside the distinct on-screen awareness of the link between the events of the diegesis and the larger nondiegetic significance of a “Scream” reboot.

Yet, it’s just not scary, bereft of suspense and sorely lacking narrative coherence when it comes to the killings. Ghostface, parodied in “Scary Movie” and now an omnipresent Halloween costume, is regarded as a familiar friend rather than a sinister, shadowy figure. The “Do you like scary movies” refrain is now an applause line. The gleefully teasing torture of its first onscreen delivery (in the original’s Drew Barrymore-headlined opening) has given way to a calling card akin to “shaken not stirred.”

The plot buried beneath all the narrative playfulness has a fleeting, pedestrian feel. It’s as if Messrs. Craven and Williamson regarded it as little more than a sideshow to their real purpose: One-upping the self-referencing of the first three pictures. The killer puts in such face time that he becomes little more than a supporting figure in the ensemble, hardly the relentless sadistic psycho-with-a-sense-of-humor he once was.

His killings are of the rote, poorly-conceived slash-and-dash variety. The filmmakers only jump outside that box to engage in more ego-stroking, as in a fleeting, faltering reference to Rose McGowan’s garage-door death in the first movie.

We get it, guys: You know your horror movies, even your own. Next time, hopefully you’ll make one.

SCREAM 4

Opens on April 15 in the United States and Britain.

Directed by Wes Craven; written by Kevin Williamson; director of photography, Peter Deming; costumes by Debra McGuire; produced by Mr. Williamson and Iya Labunka; released by Dimension Films (United States) and Entertainment Film Distributors (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Neve Campbell (Sidney Prescott), Courteney Cox (Gale Weathers), David Arquette (Dewey Riley), Emma Roberts (Jill Roberts), Hayden Panettierre (Kirby Reed), Mary McDonnell (Aunt Kate), Rory Culkin (Charlie), Nico Tortorella (Trevor Sheldon), Marley Shelton (Deputy Hicks), Alison Brie (Rebecca), Anthony Anderson (Deputy Perkins) and Adam Brody (Deputy Hoss).

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