Creatively-speaking, it grows exponentially more difficult across the long years, to make the same, familiar Bogeyman scary, and so horror franchises routinely lean towards comedy.
The good news is that as observational, gadfly commentator on the Facebook Generation, Scream 4 indeed impresses.
In fact, the psychologically-depraved climax of the film -- which features the immortal line "I don't need friends...I need fans!" -- involves the most amusing (and most committed) talking killer in the franchise since Stu and Billy took turns stabbing each other.
Thus the old sting-in-the-tail/tale cliche (in which the killer just...won't....die) gets resurrected and drawn out to ludicrous extremes here, and -- literally -- it becomes electrifying. Between the dedicated commentary on a narcissistic youth generation in love with its technological reflection, some timely jokes about celebrity-for-the-sake-of-celebrity (think: The Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, and Paris Hilton), and the audacious, viscerally intense final moments, Scream 4 ends at least, on a high note of ingenuity and wit.
The pace really flags in the film too, in part because Williamson's "next generation" of victims -- a tally that includes Hayden Panettiere, Emma Roberts, Marielle Jaffe, and Cory Culkin -- doesn't get the screen time that Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Rose McGowan, Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich did back in the original. As you might guess, this group scares center stage with Cox, Arquette and Campbell, and the final mix is somehow unsatisfying.
On one hand, seeing the hold-overs in action one more time will satisfy long time fans of the franchise. On the other, it doesn't necessarily bode well for the future of the Scream films, which need fresh blood. By the end of the movie, we're essentially back to square one, spending time with the exact three survivors we anticipated at the beginning of the film. By the next sequel (if there is one), the events of this movie will be rendered pointless.
Scream 4 also makes relatively poor use of Dewey, who is so late for all the film's deadly action -- even after notified of an attack by phone -- that you'll want to hurl your remote control at the screen. Comic ineptitude is one thing, but Scream 4's killer endures for so long mainly because Dewey is conveniently M.I.A. Some folks may also complain about the fact that imperiled teens constantly text and phone one another when they should be focusing on escaping Ghost Face. I don't necessarily have a problem with this aspect of the sequel, however, since we live in a culture in which people text while driving.
Texting-while-dying is merely the next logical step.
Meanwhile, Sidney's cousin, Jill, looks to be one of the prime targets of the tag-team killers this time around. Could the culprit be her on-again/off-again boyfriend? A movie-obsessed geek? A new female deputy with the hots for Dewey, or some twisted combination of all of the above?
Then, when the actual story proper begins, the characters in that drama also express themselves in the exact same way.
This famimliar banter may indeed represent the snarky, trademark and staccato back-and-forth of Kevin Williamson's canon and yet here -- with "film within a film" moments coming hot and heavy -- the movie simply doesn't play fair with its surprises.
If every character speaks precisely the same way, dresses precisely the same way, and inhabits the same world of upscale, designer homes, even, how is it even remotely possible to guess which scene occurs in Scream 4 and which is happening in Stab 6 or 7?
The movie-centric riffs -- what's your favorite scary movie? -- during that Barrymore sequence did not undercut the suspense or horror in any way. We were convinced of Casey Becker's reality and the reality of her world, and the horror movie references proved delightful.
By contrast, the rapid-fire scene changes in the opening of Scream 4 (showcasing moments from multiple Stab movies) actively prevent audiences from investing in any one particular character or any one particular horror scenario. Again, you can commend the film for its abundant cleverness while simultanously regretting that it did not set out, once more, to really scare its viewership.
Despite the amped-up levels of gore in the film (a reflection, according to the dialogue, of the "torture porn" age), Scream 4 also noticeably lacks the killer instinct when it comes to the disposition of its long-standing and beloved characters. The film would have been edgier, more unpredictable and perhaps a gerat deal scarier had Craven and Williamson set out to violently and permanently eliminate at least one of the film's three hold-over stars in the manner that the franchise eliminated Randy (Kennedy) back in 1997.
Now, I love and enjoy Gale, Sid and Dewey as much as the next Scream fan (and yes, I am a Scream fan...) but this new sequel, despite the gore, doesn't feel as dangerous as perhaps it could. At their best, the Scream movies are cynical, wicked, calculating and heartless. Scream 4 is cynical, wicked and calculating but has too much heart. Bring on the slice and dice!
I must admit that as a longtime horror aficionado it's almost silly to criticize Scream 4 too deeply, however, because it is, after all, a pretty solid "fourth" entry in a long-lived slasher franchise.
And truthfully, how many of those have we gotten over the years?
(The answer: almost none).
Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and just about any other horror franchise you care to mention certainly couldn't keep their franchise continuity straight throughout four films, or otherwise maintain film-to-film quality, either.
In other words, Scream 4 is definitely more of the same, but not a blatant or brazen cash grab. With Scream 4, the franchise remembers its history and its metaphorical raison d'etre (social commentary on the rapidly-changing pop culture landscape), even if it doesn't make a rousing or dedicated effort to keep Ghost Face terrifying. Still, at least one quirky death scene involving a police officer, a knife to the head, and an unusually lengthy duration of survival is probably worth the price of admission for the horror faithful.
In terms of the Scream series, Scream 4 is much better than Scream 3 (2000), but not as good as Scream and Scream 2. "One generation's tragedy" is not exactly "the next generation's joke," to misquote Scream 4, but I'm not certain that this acceptable-but-not-always-inspired sequel will necessarily stand the test of time, either.