It began 15 years ago with a phone call and a simple question: what's your favorite scary movie? For the following 10 minutes, we watched two events happen. The first was Drew Barrymore being terrorized and then brutally stabbed to death. The second was the birth of a new form of self-aware horror, courtesy of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson, and it was called Scream.
Jump forward 15 years, and after two sequels (one good, one not so good), Craven's franchise, like a movie monster back for one last jump-scare, is back in theaters, for better or for worse. Admittedly, I've never been a huge devotee of the series, although I remember really enjoying the first, and laughing at (rather than with) the third. Yet of all the horror franchises at risk for being run into the ground as part of a cash grab, Scream always seemed like the one that actually deserved to return to theaters, but never did. Of course, after so many years and changes in horror (namely the rise of torture-porn like SAW) and technology, there were doubts as to whether Scream 4 could keep up. Thankfully it has, and despite its fair share of problems, the fourth film in the meta-slasher series is a hugely enjoyable experience (seeing it with a sizable audience is highly recommended).
After a pitch perfect and absolutely hysterical opening (further details would only take away from the surprise(s)), we begin to catch up with the old (surviving) characters, along with a handful of new ones. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campell), now a successful author, has returned to Woodsboro on the 15th anniversary of the killings that took place in the first film, as part of a publicity stunt by her agent (Community and Mad Men's Alison Brie). Meanwhile, Dewey (David Arquette) has become head sheriff and has married Gale (Courtney Cox), who's having a bad case of writer's block. When two local girls are found murdered, and citizens receive calls using the infamous Ghost Face voice, the entire town goes on alert.
As far as basic plots go, there's nothing too surprising about the set up. What makes the film such a wild ride is the series' marked self-awareness, which comes from a variety of characters, especially a pair of movie geeks from Woodsboro HS (Rory Culkin and Eric Knudsen). So as Sidney and others are attacked by the new incarnation of the Ghost Face Killer, the film is a mix of genuine scares, and huge laughs, sometimes simultaneously. It's this combination that makes scenes that should otherwise be completely predictable (via editing and intrusive music) actually have some 'oomph' when they hit.
It's a good thing too, because despite its effective scares and laughs, Scream 4 is all over the place when it comes to characters. Sidney, the real survivor of the past three films, sometimes feels like an afterthought. Williamson's script feels like it's trying too much to balance the old characters with new ones, regardless of whether they get killed off or not. There are plenty of fun, heavy meta (excuse the awful pun) moments with the young cast, especially thanks to Hayden Panettiere's butch haircut (and the rest of her, as well), but the end result borders on being overstuffed. The film's middle, while never boring, also loses some steam, with comedic elements draining certain kills of intensity. The film also never fully utilizes the potential of technology. Yes, a character live-blogs some videos, and at one point the killer tries to film his own kill, but aside from quick mentions, Facebook and Twitter are never used; you'd think a film like this would lap up such opportunities.
However, despite its ups and downs, the thing that saves the film (though I'm sure many will disagree) is its ending. Along with its opening, the finale is the best part, because it so knowingly flies off the rails into complete lunacy, repeatedly one-upping itself with a big fat wink. For all of its little faults, Scream 4 is a return to what made the original film such an enjoyable landmark in mainstream horror. Were the Ghost Face Killer to call me and ask me for my favorite scary movie, I wouldn't give this as the answer. However, if the question was "what scary movie entertains you the most," Scream 4 would easily be near the top of my list.