Scream 4

True to form, Scream 4 wastes no time putting Ghostface back to work. Soon enough he’s chasing a buxom blonde up the stairs (and not out the front door!) and into a newly renovated garage. There she meets her grisly end by garage door, echoing a death from the first installment. The message is clear: the house may look new, but it was built to look darn close to the one in the original Scream.

The franchise has always been transparent about its agenda as a self-conscious horror movie in which the genre’s tropes are simultaneously lampooned and upheld. Lazily this time, however, Wes Craven isn’t playing off the genre so much as himself. While Scream 2 and 3 stepped away from the quaint Woodsboro Township, Scream 4 forgoes any attempt to justify a sequel beyond the fact that the series is now old enough to cast actors a decade younger as the archetypes established in the first film. Subbing in for the sensitive Sidney (Neve Campbell originally) is Emma Roberts, in what turns out to be a surprisingly clever bit of casting; Erik Knudsen and a perpetually bustier-clad Hayden Panettiere together fill Jamie Kennedy’s cinephilic shoes. There’s the requisite creepy boyfriend, and so forth. For the most part, Scream 4 ignores its two predecessors, electing to stick close to the formula laid out in the prototype. In true meta-sequel spirit, the murders happen on the anniversary of the events in the first Scream—making this go-round less a continuation of the movies that came before than a celebration that they existed at all.

But the few things carried over from the original are the best part of Scream 4. Most notable is the return of Craven’s trio of eternal survivors: Sidney, feisty Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), and bumbling mustachioed officer Dewey Riley (David Arquette). The neuroses and fears of these characters were hardly explored in the first three movies, but familiarity counts for something, and the only real suspense comes when one of them is in jeopardy. The next generation of high-school prey feels perfectly expendable by comparison, present only for the sake of iPhone product placement and upping the notably gorier body count. The young and their gadgets are secondary to the story, serving as an of-the-moment veneer to freshen up what is really just the same old material.

So don’t let the app references and talk of murders “streaming live” fool you—for all its technological trappings, Scream 4 is almost old-fashioned. The characters allude to exploiting the Web in vaguely sinister ways, but few computers are shown, and the Internet as some desensitizing new medium is remarkably absent. Rather, the action still revolves all around the cell phone, and the direct one-on-one connection—however perverted by the series—that it suggests, instead of the isolating paranoia associated with computers. When it comes down to it, you don’t get much more lo-tech than a mask and a knife (gone is the gun that popped up occasionally in Scream 2 and 3).

In the end it’s Ghostface who’s integral to the franchise. As in all horror films, the villains say much more than the heroes by tapping into something deep and unsettling within a society. Part of the ingenuity of Ghostface was that the cheap mask existed before the first movie was released, though it was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it subsequently became. The mask is a product, a mass-produced look available to all. The killers may change from one movie to the next, yet the look remains the same, further imbuing the mask with a fearful power, independent of the psycho beneath. The enduring villain of the franchise is not, as it might seem, the revolving door of murderers, but the costume itself. For all the self-consciousness of the series, Craven’s mass-produced symbol of violence is its wittiest wink.