The first 10 minutes of 1986’s Scream, in which (spoiler alert for those who have been living in a cave!) the movie’s supposed star, Drew Barrymore, was terrorized, sliced and diced by a masked madman known as Ghost Face, instantly assured the picture’s place in slasher-film history. Never before had anyone successfully pulled off such a brazen and unexpected kill (even Alfred Hitchcock waited 40 minutes before having Mrs. Bates rudely barge in on Janet Leigh’s shower in Psycho).
The opening 10 minutes of Scream 4 — which begins, fittingly, with a shot of a ringing telephone — can’t quite match those of the original film, but they are funny and surprising and ingenious enough to let you know this is not going to be just another cash-grab sequel, like Scream 2 and 3. Much of Scream 4, in fact, plays better if you just pretend the story begins 15 years after the end of the first movie and just forget all the other nonsense that followed. Director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson have gone back to the basics of what made Scream so effective: Keeping the clean, clear plot a simple whodunnit? murder mystery among the high-school set, while making room for the series’ three surviving veterans: Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who has returned to Woodsboro to promote her new memoir; the slow-witted lawman Dewey Riley (David Arquette), once a deputy, now the town sheriff, and former hard-nosed newswoman Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), now a bestselling novelist with a withering case of writer’s block.
On the day Sidney arrives to town for a book signing, a fresh batch of murders begins, and, as usual for the series, everyone is a suspect (even Sidney herself). Much of the “self-referential, post-modern horse shit,” as one character puts it, is gone: The characters in Scream 4 don’t talk all that much about scary movies, and even when there is a discussion about the rules for the current state of the horror genre — a third-act main-cast bloodbath is required; the only way to still be alive by the end credits is to be gay — the discussion feels half hearted, as if the filmmakers knew they had milked that material as much as they could.
Much more ingenious is the way Scream 4 incorporates modern technology into its plot. For example, there’s an iPhone app that allows everyone to crank call the others and sound just like Ghost Face, which makes it harder to tell which characters are really in danger. One girl complains about a Facebook stalker who has written strange postings on her wall: “Hi. You’re hot. I want to kill you.” Webcams play a major role in one sequence. And in a funny throwaway exchange, two police officers (Adam Brody and Anthony Anderson) talk about how it sucks to be a cop in a movie unless you’re Bruce Willis, because chances are you will probably die. Ahem.
I’m purposely steering clear of the plot details of Scream 4, because as someone in the film points out, “sequels have no element of surprise,” and as well-made and enjoyable as the movie is, there’s nothing really here you haven’t seen before. Williamson brings out the best in Craven as a director: He knows how to compose beautifully for widescreen, allowing the killer to jump from unexpected places again and again. But that’s an old trick, and after all those Scary Movie spoofs, Ghost Face has lost a bit of his ability to frighten on sight.
Fortunately, the movie makes up for that slip with genuinely engaging characters, such as Hayden Panettiere’s beautiful tough-girl and Emma Roberts as Sidney’s still-frightened cousin, and the film isn’t as concerned with terrifying you as it is with showing you a good time, culminating with an over-the-top climax that manages to be utterly ridiculous and still enjoyable. Bonus points, too, to anyone who can guess the killer’s identity this time: Williamson is a fiend with the red herrings. I was certain I had it figured out at least three different times, and all three times I was wrong. Against all odds, Scream 4 proves that sometimes you can go home again.
Cast: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Hayden Panettiere, Emma Roberts, Alison Brie, Erik Knudsen, Rory Culkin, Nico Tortorella, Justin Michael Brandt, Mary McDonnell, Adam Brody, Anthony Anderson.
Director: Wes Craven.
Screenwriter: Kevin Williamson.
Producers: Wes Craven, Iya Labunka.
A Dimension Films release. Running time: 111 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, heavy gore, adult themes. Opens Friday April 15 at area theaters.