Scream, that cutlery, cleavage and quips franchise, returns to life — sort of — with Scream 4), another sashay down the self-aware "meta-movie" lane with director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson. It's a fitfully amusing, not remotely scary slasher picture that refuses to take its own advice, one drilled into our heads (not literally, praise be) by the movie itself:
"Don't (bleep) with the original!"
As a "Don't open that door!" thriller that involves us, connects us with characters and frightens us, it fails.
As a satire of the Media Generation, drunken, horror-obsessed cellphone- and viral video-addicted teenagers, it stumbles. Somebody explain Twitter, texting and live streaming to those geezers Williamson and Craven.
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But as a tribute to the original movie, it more or less succeeds. The survivors of that series — older, a tad wiser and showing their mileage — are back. So Williamson and Craven have made an "In Praise of Older Women" for the horror crowd — a showcase for Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox, first-generation Scream-ers.
The movie staggers out of the starting gate with a "meta" take on the whole "How do you top the original?" post-modernist horror movie that comments on horror movies. It begins with a movie within a movie within a movie, all playing the same "Who is this?" phone game from the era before caller ID. (Among those in the fake films are Kristen Bell and Oscar winner Anna Paquin.)
Every character in these films-within-films notes that "it's been done to death," but nobody listens.
Eventually we transition to historic Woodsboro, the town where "it all happened." "Ghostface" found a big knife, donned a mask inspired by a famous painting and went after all the buxom babes in town ... and Campbell.
It's the anniversary of the original mass murders, which were turned into popular books by Gale Weathers (Cox) and into a string of hit Stab horror movies. Now Sidney Prescott (Campbell) has her own book, about surviving all the various nut-with-a-knife assaults she endured. Her book publicity tour brings her back to Woodsboro. And it all begins again.
The new group of tarty teens under the threat of Ghostface are Hayden Panettiere, Emma Roberts and Marielle Jaffe. The "new" horror movie nerds are Rory Culkin — yes, those Culkins — and Erik Knudsen.
Same old incompetent cop, only now Dewey (David Arquette) is the sheriff and is married to Gale, an ex-journalist whose writing career has dried up — until the killings start again. Same phone calls. Same pointless, heartless attacks. Same entrails.
Professionalism hides the sense that Craven and Williamson feel any "All these years later, and this is what they'll let me do?" frustration. But in casting look-alikes in some of the kid roles in this reboot and in the extremes to which Williamson has to go to keep characters — any of them — from dialing 911, pulling a pistol or generally being cautious or fighting back, the fatigue is there.
At least the dialogue has that same snarky snap — "She fears The Reaper," one quips; "She's on the cutting-room floor" Ghostface hisses to another, putting in movie terms the mayhem he is creating.
But it's hard not to see Williamson rolling his eyes as he typed out this argument. Heaven knows I did. "You've over-thinking it!" "Am I? Or is the person writing this under-thinking it?"