Review: ‘Scream 4’ should delight fans, marks return to first film

Your reaction to “Scream 4” will depend largely on your reaction to the “Scream” series as a whole.

When the original “Scream” came out, I was not among the people who went nuts for it.  I don’t hate the film or anything, but it doesn’t do much for me.  As a horror film, I think it’s flat, and as a mystery, I don’t think it plays fair.  I’m not the sort of person who enjoys being nudged in the ribs by references to other movies and pop culture, and much of the charge the film enjoyed came from the way it riffed on the rules of horror films.

What I’ve come to realize in the years since the film’s release is that it was an important gateway drug for an entire generation of people who had never seen a horror film of any sort.  And for those people, the last ten years has probably seemed like a very long time to wait between movies.  For them, I think the wait will end up being worth it, because “Scream 4” feels to me like the most direct sequel to the first film, both thematically and stylistically, and I think it’s one of the most confident films in Wes Craven’s filmography.

That brings me to my next point, and I want to tread lightly here.  Wes Craven’s got a big reputation, and I’m not sure I understand why.  I quite like the original “Nightmare On Elm Street,” and I’m pretty fond of “The Serpent And The Rainbow,” but aside from that, I am sort of mystified by Craven overall.  He is, at best, a wildly uneven filmmaker.  It’s almost unfathomable to me to that same person who directed last year’s “My Soul To Take” was also the director of this film.  It doesn’t even seem technically possible.  Then again, “Scream” is only half-Craven.  The other half is Kevin Williamson, and while there was some work done by Ehren Kruger on the script, you can feel Williamson’s fingerprints all over it.

Take the opening scene, for example.  My favorite thing about the first movie is that opening sequence.  I’m half-convinced that without that one scene, the entire franchise wouldn’t have happened, and both Williamson and Craven seem to attack the opening of this movie with a renewed energy.  By the end of the opening, you’ll have a pretty good idea of just what game they’re playing this time, and whether or not you’re up for it with them.

It’s strange to be of such a mixed mind on this film.  I didn’t personally care for it much, but I can respect the way it does what it does.  It inverts many of the ideas of the first film, playing off expectation in some smart ways, and it does ultimately have something to say about the very nature of franchise filmmaking and how sequels and reboots and prequels feed off the originals.  My own reaction is tempered by my lack of affection for the series as a whole.  A skillful sequel to a film I don’t like is still going to bear many of the characteristics I don’t like, and that’s “Scream 4.”

The good things I can say about the film have to do largely with the cast.  By now, “Scream” is something of an institution, and without Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette, it’s not really a “Scream” film.  All three of them slip back into their characters easily, and Neve in particular does a nice job of playing Sidney Prescott with a decade of growth and healing under her belt.  She’s an author now of a self-help book about surviving and not being a victim, and Neve manages to play both her new strength and her old wounds in a very solid and even subtle way.  In what had to be an uncomfortable coincidence, Dewey and Gale are having marriage troubles, and there is real tension between Arquette and Cox in the film.  If anyone’s got to have a complicated relationship with the films, it’s those two.  They apparently had totally different relationships on each film in real life and in terms of where the characters are.  Complicating things is Deputy Judy, played with pop-eyed zeal by Marley Shelton, who strikes just the right note in her pursuit of Dewey and her naked distaste for Gale.

The younger cast members, including Emma Roberts, Marielle Jaffe, Rory Culkin, and Hayden Panettiere, seem to be relishing everything they get to do, which makes sense.  They’re the right age to view this as this tradition they’re stepping into.  Alison Brie, so good on “Community,” plays the publicist for Sidney’s book, thrilled when the murders start just after they arrive in Woodsboro, and she’s appropriately venal.  It seems like this is very much the same world as the first film.
Peter Deming has been shooting these films since “Scream 2,” and this movie gets both “Stab” and “Scream” right, cleverly differentiating between the two in very funny ways.  I think Deming is a great photographer, and he is a big part of the overall feeling that is “Scream” at this point, just like Marco Beltrami’s score.

The movie plays out as a murder mystery, not a horror film, and that’s fitting.  I don’t think the “Scream” movies have ever been particularly scary.  The films are so self-aware, so carefully deconstructionist, that there’s no hint of peril or suspense.  The place where the film really falls down is when it lays out its big ending, which it doesn’t really earn.  I like what it says thematically when they reveal who-done-what, but it’s not played right.  It’s jarringly sudden.  Still, my complaints are almost pointless, since I feel like other people will get more out of the film than I did.  if it’s never bothered you before that these are essentially “Scooby-Doo” movies in terms of structure, then it shouldn’t bother you now.

Here’s the bottom line.  I’d much rather see a good slasher movie that plays both by and against the rules of the genre than something that is constantly telling me that it is an observation on the genre.  That’s me.  I know how to read a room when an audience is watching a movie, and the audience I saw it with thought “Scream 4” was scream-worthy, laughing in all the right places.

“Scream 4″” opens everywhere this Friday.