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Fourth installments generally have to overcome the innate human affinity for threes — how many trilogies feel unfinished? — but the "Scream" movies made their bloody hay (and $420 million at the box office) by reminding you constantly of their iconoclasm. Hence "Scream 4" (tagline: "New decade, new rules") behaves itself as the most self-aware film even in this lineage of self-aware films, not only aware of itself as horror film, but aware of its awareness. It is, as one of the film's film nerds would say, quite meta.
Unfortunately it's also unaware of how dull this approach becomes. People who talk about themselves constantly are perceived as tone-deaf, and movies are no different. "Scream 4" never lets you forget that you're watching "Scream 4," in part because it keeps insisting on the redundancy of there even being a "Scream 4." At the end of two hours, you're inclined to agree.
Fans of the first three will recognize the old faces who continue to survive the murder sprees that presumably keep property values depressed in otherwise charming Woodsboro. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell, back for more) has emerged from her repeated brushes with serial killers to publish a memoir, and her book tour brings her through her home town on the anniversary of the original killings (oh, not to make you feel geriatric: "Scream" came out in 1996). As bum luck has it, another copycat has decided to don the iconic Ghostface costume, make the obligatory threatening phone calls (using an app to mimic that familiar homicidal voice, reprised yet again by Roger Jackson) and butcher all the hottest teen-agers in town. Semi-capable lawman Dewey Riley and hard-charging TV reporter turned author Gale Weathers are married, tensely, and played again by real-life snippy couple David Arquette and Courteney Cox, as if the story needed to feel any more self-referential. A bunch of hot twentysomethings appear as hot teen-agers who one-by-one die screaming. The script even gives a few of them last names.
Weathers' books about the Woodsboro massacres launched a series of "Scream"-like film adaptations, called "Stab," now up to a seventh installment, so the townsfolk are navel-gazing horror experts by now, obsessed with the idea that the current killer is obsessed with the storyline of his own killings. Watching a film deconstruct itself almost minute-by-minute like this does, at least, become more bearable with slasher guru Wes Craven at the helm. Writer of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise and director of the "Scream" litter, among others, Craven knows the tropes like no one else: cat-and-mouse games in confined spaces, the menace of closed doors that must be opened, the primal brutality of knife murders. And gore, he adores. Craven goes easy on the blood like grandma goes easy on the gravy.
Even as the characters openly discuss which among them is likely to live and die according to the patterns of movie killings (spoiler alert: they pretty much all get hacked up like paper dolls), Craven needles your autonomic system with stereotypical orchestral swells, sudden reveals and a variety pack of gotcha moments. His approach here is that of a boxer who tells you the roundhouse is coming, twirls his right hand in a circle and then wallops you across the face with it, all while softening you up with jabs he never acknowledges. It's a clever strategy, in fact: Beckon savvy horror fans to overthink the plot, so as to lull them into ignoring the genre's subtler gimmicks. Maybe it would even work, if we hadn't seen this movie, more or less, three times already.
— Sam Eifling