The Scream franchise has held up a mirror to the horror genre for the past 15 years, gleefully exposing its cliches one moment and capitalizing on them the next, with terrifying results.
While Scream 4 continues that tradition, it's clear that horror maestro Wes Craven is interested in the evolution of his core characters. Cinema's perennial Final Girl, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), is now a successful self-help author, returning to Woodsboro on the last stop of her book tour. Staying with her aunt and younger cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), it isn't long before Sidney meets up with old friends Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and Gayle Weathers-Riley (Courteney Cox), whose marriage has been tested by years of small-town life, and the latest incarnation of the Ghostface killer.
As this is a Scream film, there's plenty of self-referential commentary on sequels and the spate of torture-porn movies that's passed for horror during the franchise's decade-long hiatus.
Packed with more television stars than a Golden Globes telecast, Scream 4's new cast meshes well with the original members.
Rory Culkin (Signs) and Erik Knudsen (Youth in Revolt) play the movie geeks tasked with interpreting the scary-movie rules for a new generation. Skewering the Facebook and Twitter crowd, Knudsen's character isn't content to merely post updates. Instead, he lives with a web cam strapped to his head, broadcasting life's minutia to anyone who'll watch. Culkin's smart, understated performance of a geek in love with a popular girl adds more heart to this multilayered slasher flick.
Roberts is a serviceable young ingenue, Hayden Panettiere (Heroes) shines as the tough, sarcastic horror-movie aficionado Kirby Reed, and Allison Brie (Community, Mad Men) steals nearly every scene she's in as Sidney's bitchy, self-serving literary agent.
It's difficult to say too much more about the plot or characters without giving something away. Because much of the fun of a Scream movie involves figuring out who's behind the Ghostface mask, I'll only say that Kevin Williamson's darkly funny script clips along at a brisk pace. Snappy pop culture-infused dialogue is delivered efficiently, and Craven effortlessly manages to both satirize and embrace the genre.
The laws of physics and believability are tested with a few too many shots of a swinging door as the killer narrowly manages to evade capture, and the sound is mixed for cheap audio scares in a few places, but these are all in keeping with the spirit of the franchise and don't detract from the fun.
German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht once said, "Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it." With Craven at the helm, Scream 4 is more like a very sharp butcher knife, expertly carving up horror cliches and serving up some genuine scares for fans of the genre.
Scream 4 opens Friday.