Just when it seemed the joke might be played out, along comes "Scream 4" with director Wes Craven sharpening his cutting edge and going all meta and physical on us. More precisely, for the "Scream" series is nothing if not precise in its aim, the target is once again most of Woodsboro's teen population and the towering stack of slasher sequels that have piled up since the horror satire last got caustic in 2000's "Scream 3."
Because "Scream" just won't let a good thing die, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette are back reprising their roles of survivor, reporter and cop. The Ghostface killer has resurfaced with a vengeance. And there is a whole new generation of Hollywood talent getting into the act, including Emma Roberts, Rory Culkin, Kristen Bell, Anna Paquin and Hayden Panettiere among many, many others — names designed to entice a new generation of fans.
As "Scream" aficionados know (and it's fine if you don't; the filmmakers make sure latecomers are welcome), the central question posed by Ghostface, a kind of telemarketer of horror, is: "What's your favorite scary movie?" If "scary" is the operative word, "Scream 4" won't be the answer. The movie pulls off some jump-in-your-seat surprises, but hair-raising fear of the Freddy Krueger sort isn't one of them. Which is the price to be paid, I guess, by a franchise that's always valued its sarcasm as much as its scare.
The good news is the satire is in top form with the return of writer Kevin Williamson, the clever mind who created the 1996 original "Scream" and its not-as-killer '97 sequel (Ehren Kruger managed a decent upgrade on "Scream 3" and did an uncredited polish on this one). Any worries that the biting TV adaptation of "The Vampire Diaries," on which he is an executive producer, might have sucked up all his creative juices can be set aside. Williamson makes the most of every line, so much so that it will require multiple watching to get all the allusions.
In the decade since we last saw them, the main characters have all marinated nicely. Here's where we are in our story: Sidney Prescott (Campbell) has always been the one Ghostface is after and that hasn't changed. Though she's always escaped with just cuts and bruises and bad memories, anyone else in her vicinity tends to have a life expectancy of somewhere under two hours. She's turned that pain into a bestseller and is back in that idealized slice of small-town Americana, Woodsboro, on the anniversary of Ghostface's original killing spree. Gale Weathers (Cox), the intrepid TV reporter who cracked the first case and went on to write the Stab book series, all adapted into films that Woodsboro's horror fanatics relish, has a bad case of writer's block. Meanwhile, her marriage to Sheriff Dewey (Arquette) has stalled as well, and his promotion to top cop hasn't helped.
Roberts' sweet teen Jill is a major new addition and Sidney's cousin. Though they really didn't know each other growing up, once Ghostface starts picking off Generation Next, the girls get close. Jill's life looks a lot like Sidney's did back in the day. There are boyfriend troubles with Trevor (moody Nico Tortorella), there's a scary movie club with its top geeks even more tech-savvy with a blog and live video streaming. And Jill has a tight group of girlfriends with Panettiere's feisty horror buff Kirby the most intriguing.
Director of photography Peter Deming, who's been on board the "Scream" train since being brought on late in production on the first, gives No. 4 its most polished look yet. Though Deming's done a variety of work in comedy and drama, he is a master at playing with light and sly shifting from long shots to tight shots to sliced shots in campy horror (he also worked on the scary fun of Sam Raimi's "Drag Me to Hell").
Even with all the parody going on, Craven, the man who has shaped so much of the genre he skewers in "Scream," manages to keep the actors from falling into the same trap as they fight and flee and try to unmask whoever the wretch is who has brought Ghostface back.
Until this point in the series, the killer has always been found out and dispensed with by the time the final credits roll. In fact, one of the most satisfying things about "Scream" is the way the filmmakers make you wonder about nearly every character — basically you're a suspect until death eliminates you from the game — and the way they clear up all the messy questions of motivation at the end.
"Scream 4" finds a way to live up to its gory past while it carves out new terrors in new ways (new media helps). The kills themselves are both bountiful and bloody, the movie references are brilliant and bloody, the funny is very frequent and very frequently bloody, but to say any more would ruin the boo.