Wednesday, April 20, 2011

'Scream 4' more of the same and — surprise — isn't bad

“Scream 4,” director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson's latest entry in their self-satirizing slasher series, is unnecessary and yet oddly relevant. It is smart and funny and yet dull and routine. Basically it is a bloody barrel of contradictions.

Back in 1996, the original “Scream” was a shot in the arm, although that's probably a poor choice of words, to the horror genre, which had become stale and listless. “Scream” was both an entry into the much maligned slasher genre at the same time that it mocked it. The characters knew horror films and all their rules.

A year later, “Scream 2” cleverly made fun of the idea of a sequel, but when “Scream 3” came around in 2000 there was nothing new to be said and the series lost some of its bite. If they had to make another sequel, Craven and Williamson were wise to wait as long as they did because the horror movie scene and world at large has changed in the decade since the last film.

Since 2000 we've seen the rise of social networking and become a society that feels the needs to be constantly broadcasting. Reality TV has continued to gain popularity, making celebrities out of talentless dolts. Basically every horror movie of the last 30 or so years, both classic and minor, has been re-made and the torture porn genre found mainstream popularity thanks to the “Saw” franchise.

All this becomes good fodder for Williamson's screenplay, and the movie starts off extremely well with an opening that is the best since the original. It is on target, funny and unexpected. Unfortunately, the film struggles after that when the gears of the plot get going.

The three survivors of the original trilogy, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette, all return. They are joined by a new generation, including Emma Roberts as Campbell's cousin, Hayden Panettiere as one of Roberts' friends, Alison Brie as Campbell's publicist and the prerequisite film geeks played by Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen.

Many of these new characters are well sketched, it would be a stretch to call them fully developed, but they are not complete blanks. They have some fun, entertaining dialogue that is well delivered. Panettiere is a particular standout as the pretty popular girl who is a closet horror fan. Culkin and Knudsen are also solid as the geeks who establish the new rules that the new Ghostface killer is playing by.

In the “Scream” universe there is a series of films called “Stab” which are based on the events that unfold in the “Scream” series. This is a way of acknowledging there is a whole generation that has grown up with and knows the post-modern self-referential conventions of the “Scream” movies. “Scream 4” becomes both a sequel and a remake of the original making for some shrewd jabs at the recent flood of remakes.

The problem is that the middle section of the film, despite the moments of clever writing, is rather paint by numbers. Deaths come quick and there's little imagination put behind them. The killer jumps out and stabs someone. Repeat. This is the nature of the genre, but previous entries in the series had more subtlety and wit about it.

Luckily, the film has an ingenious and completely unpredictable ending that, surprisingly, has some pointed social commentary about the lengths people will go for fame. It is the most satisfying conclusion since the original.

For those keeping track, that is an opening and conclusion that match the first “Scream” for quality and a middle section that could be better. All in all that's not too shabby for the fourth entry in a franchise.

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