One question kept bouncing through my mind as I watched the feckless desperation of Scream 4 limp across the screen: what sort of blackmail material do Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette have on filmmakers Bob Weinstein, Kevin Williamson, and Wes Craven? Do these three TV stars have some sort of hypnotic hold on three rather powerful film producers? How else can one explain how I'm being asked to watch these three people carry an entire movie for 105 ungainly minutes?
Or perhaps it's the other way around: maybe the filmmakers are so slavishly beholden to the "studio star system" that they're much more willing to produce a film with slightly familiar names than they are to produce a sequel that takes a few chances, lands a few punches, or exhibits more than one obvious reason for its every existence. Are there really legions of fans who actually care about Dewey the Stooge, Gale the Bitch, and Sidney the Clueless Victim? As if they're full-bore three-dimensional characters and not just goofy caricatures who happened to survive to the end of a slasher satire that somehow made a billion dollars? If these cardboard cut-outs have fans, then Cindy from the Scary Movie franchise should have a cult following.
That reason, of course, is money, and while only a fool would imply that the artistry of filmmaking is not inextricably tied to the business of film-selling -- as in: every film is a business in its own way -- rare is the finished product that reeks so thoroughly of plain, simple money-grubbing. A cash-hungry company (Weinstein Co.) decides, after more than a decade, to polish off one of its most profitable revenue streams, rope most of the original players back into the fold, slap the thing together with a nice dash of marketing department nostalgia, and release it to a horror-hungry audience that, let's be honest, has probably forgotten how embarrassingly bad Scream 3 was.
But all of those financial inspirations aside, all (or at least much) could be forgiven if the late-arriving Scream 4 brought anything new to the party. If someone in the boardroom had dared to say, screw the formula, kill the stars in Act I, and run off in some crazy new direction. Unfortunately nothing of the sort happens here. Whereas the first Scream was fresh, clever, and affectionately ironic, the sequels have become progressively (not to mention aggressively) more smug and sarcastic. What was once novel and nifty has devolved into this: a harrowingly formulaic, consistently choppy, and truly irritating retread that simply copies the silly tropes it enjoyed mocking 15 years ago.
The plot is straight out of a television series desperately hoping to last at least one more full season: the cousin of our heroine, Sidney, is being accosted by someone claiming to be the Ghostface Killer, while all her friends just kinda laugh of it off. Meanwhile, in another part of town, old faces belonging to Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette), Gale (Courteney Cox), and novelist Sidney (Neve Campbell) are mouthing a lot of junky words that sounded patently redundant sometime halfway through Scream 2: people are being killed in a fashion best described as "Agatha Christie Light meets Diet Jason," and just to alleviate the frequent tedium, we'll get frequent visits with the truly insufferable Gale, the outrageously pointless Dewey, and the irrepressibly bland Sidney. Other characters exist to A) talk a lot and then die, and B) talk just a little so we'll suspect that they're the killer. There are also a few scenes that seem like "drama filler" tossed in to appease the actors. Those are the worst.
What Scream 4 considers an upgrade in the "meta / post-modern / self-referential" department is this: two or three scenes of a hip but nerdy young duo who briefly talk about horror remakes, horror reboots, online streaming videos, and all the hip lingo that Wes Craven, Kevin Williamson, and/or Ehren Kruger once overheard during a trip to Hot Topic. Perhaps I'm missing the irony of Scream 4, but having your characters mention how predictable, obvious, and silly the material is ... is just annoying. You don't get a free pass on generic laziness just because you 'fessed up to it. Scream was snarky, insightful, and sorta cool. Scream 4 is an aging hypocrite with delusions of insight.
On a purely technical level, the thing is a gaping yawn: dry scenes that go nowhere and do it slowly, patchwork editing that relies on florid exposition and stupid coincidence, and a lethargic pace that's sinfully light on actual scares. A few cheap jolts, to be sure, because those are easy ... but nothing in the way of actual horror. We do get several chats, conversations, brief anecdotes about what just happened one scene earlier, people talking on phones, people talking to other people while they're on their phones, and then other people talking about why these other people don't presently have their phones ... Scream 4 has the market cornered on that stuff. Beyond that, and the distressingly amateurish nature of the entire movie, there's nothing scary here.
And to those studios that really want a hit from the horror crowd, think back to why we liked Scream: it was something new. Scream 4 is not new. This is a 'Love Boat' episode of horror sequels, and it's tiresome stuff indeed.