Here’s the thing about the horror genre. Due to the fact that 99% of the genre is complete and utter shit, the rest of the genre is immediately taken far less seriously. As original and entertaining as I found the first Saw film (though perhaps original is the wrong word since it was essentially Se7en for the 2000’s), the slew of sequels that are nothing more than torture porn have tarnished the original product. Freddy Krueger’s original scares in A Nightmare on Elm Street are weighed down by its braid-dead predecessors. Modern audiences are so turned on by gore and admittedly creative ways to kill people that they’ve forgotten classic horror was defined as much by its characters and psychological mind games as much as by blood. Probably the only great horror film to come out of the 1990’s was the original Scream (The Sixth Sense and The Silence of the Lambs are more accurately labeled thrillers). With a wickedly sharp wit and the most articulate and memorable main cast in decades, it served as both a vicious satire of the slasher genre as well as a welcome return to legitimate scares. While the two sequels weren’t awful, they notably failed to meet the high bar set by the first film. Wes Craven wisely chose to wait a decade to revitalize the classic franchise, and while Scream 4 isn’t nearly as good as the original film, it’s still a wicked sharp horror movie from one of the genre’s true legends.

Set ten years after the events of the third film, Scream 4 picks up with our heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returning to Woodsboro on the anniversary of the murders from the first film. Now a critically acclaimed self-help author, Sidney has returned to town to promote her wildly successful book. However, Sidney can’t go anywhere without trouble following, and her return to Woodsboro is immediately greeted by a slew of new murders that mimic the style of the original Woodsboro massacres. As Sidney tries to remain the survivor we know and love, Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), whose career has been put on hold after entering domestic life with her husband, now Sheriff, Dooley Riley (David Arquette), decides these new murders are the perfect opportunity to revitalize her stagnant career. We’re also introduced to a new group of high school students meant to parallel the original cast which includes Jill (Emma Roberts), the niece of Sidney as well as Kirby (Hayden Panatierre), Jill’s horror savvy best friend. As the murders quickly spiral out of control, it becomes readily apparent that anyone could be the murderer and that no one is safe.

The original film set the bar pretty high for classic horror film openers, and while this one doesn’t quite have the shock and/or horror value of the original opener, it gets serious points for being incredibly hilarious and metatextual. Ever since Scream 2 introduced the “film-within-a-film” concept of the Stab series based off of the Woodboro killings, Scream has used those to create meta-jokes about the cliches and tropes of the horror franchise in even more comedic fashion than the first film. I don’t want to ruin anything about the opening of the film because it’s one of the best parts of the whole movie (for better or worse), but needless to say Kevin Williamson’s (the screenwriter for the franchise) trademark dialogue and self-aware nature is taken to its logical and hysterical extreme. I was legitimately laughing my ass off. Every aspect of the horror genre that has come and gone since the last Scream film (in particular the rise of “torture porn” and Japanese horror re-makes) gets viciously skewered. Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell get serious props for achieving so much in such a short period of time.

At it’s core, this film is an attempt to renew the (now) old-school sensibilities of the Scream franchise into the modern horror market, while simultaneously retaining the self-aware and chatty nature that makes the movies so unique. For the most part, in those respects, it’s a success. Modern horror films are far more gruesome and bloody than the original Scream films (which were in turn my introduction to the horror genre and scared the hell out of me when I was younger), and this was easily the bloodiest of all of the Scream films. It was quite gruesome and should satisfy the most gore-hungry in the audience. Simultaneously, the gore doesn’t seem there simply to satisfy that “torture-porn” instinct popular in modern horror films but to try to add legitimate shocks to the scenes, which it doesn’t quite deliver in that respects. The film isn’t scary or suspenseful in the slightest. It’s just ridiculously violent, and in that regard, Wes Craven failed to reach the heights of the original film. However, the film is so damn smart that it almost isn’t a problem.

If I were to judge this movie solely on how thoroughly it deconstructs the notion of a horror reboot or its never ending meta-commentary on the horror genre, it would get an “A”. Alas, the fact that it does try to be a horror film (rather than say the horror satire of Shaun of the Dead), it’s lack of being scary costs it considerably. If you thought the original cast was a group of chatty teenagers who had spent way too much time watching horror films, you haven’t seen anything yet. It almost seems as if the entire point of the high school characters this time around (as compared to the returning characters) is to just serve as a graduate level seminar in modern horror theory and history. Not only that, but there are seemingly countless visual shout-outs to classic horror movies that any real horror buff will just eat up. Similarly, why the film isn’t especially suspenseful, Williamson and Craven did a superb job of keeping me on my toes about who the killers actually were (though I knew who one was about half-way through and figured the other one out a couple beats before I was supposed to as well). It’s a testament to their writing skills that I was actually convinced the killer could have been any of our returning survivors.

Besides the film not being remotely scary, the movie also suffered in that the new group of high-schoolers wasn’t remotely as memorable as the first group. Jamie Kennedy, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, and Neve Campbell are such an iconic group of kids now that even understanding that their shoes would be incredibly hard to fill, this new batch just didn’t have that group’s natural chemistry. With the exception of Emma Roberts (who has really grown up since her Nickelodeon days and gives a fantastic performance in this movie), none of the other kids had any sort of star power. Even Hayden Panatierre, who is an actual TV star/rising movie starlet, gave an incredibly phoned-in performance this go around (although I always thought Claire was the worst part of Heroes). One of the great aspects of the original film was how real and authentic its characters felt. Scream 4 does not have the same sense of familiarity.

I just can’t believe I’ve devoted so many words to reviewing a movie that I’m only going to give a “B”. That’s the paradox of this film though. It’s surprisingly more complex and introspective than anything else on the horror market, but in that crucial area of actual genre execution, it unfortunately falters. For fans of the franchise, there is absolutely no question as to whether you should watch this because it scratches that itch for 90’s style slasher flicks that you had forgotten you missed. Simultaneously, it nails almost all of the aspects about the original films that you loved (except for the actual suspense and scares). When the rest of the horror market is another brain-dead and lifeless sequel, something this fun and this smart can’t be missed by anyone with the slightest respect for the genre. While it doesn’t disprove the notion that horror sequels are never as good as the original, it is easily one of the only fourth entries in a  film series that is actually good and not completely awful.

What’s your favorite scary movie?

Final Score: B

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