By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Much has happened to movie horror since Wes Craven's Scream franchise began calling its bluffs 15 years ago. It's about time that another Scream flick came along to gouge the new cliches out of their sockets.
Scream 4 does it in grandly Guignol style, mirroring a shift in audience tastes toward sadism of the Hostel sort. Craven also toys with texting and vlogging that weren't invented when Scream 3 debuted, several months after The Blair Witch Project made slasher conventions obsolete except in remakes. Craven has a lot of lost time to make up.
He does it with gleeful vengeance against the genre's current "self-aware, post-modern (expletive)," as one starlet says before dying nasty, and a general desensitization to violence that settled in with each new Saw movie. Scream 4 is bloody, and its concepts are still fun. Nothing else is required.
Once again we're in the usually quiet town of Woods-boro, where Dewey Riley (David Arquette) has graduated from Barney Fife deputy to sheriff. Dewey has married former TV crusader Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), who wrote the books on the Ghostface murders but is now dry of book ideas.
Meanwhile, the subject of her bestsellers, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), has written a book about surviving Ghostface several times. Sidney returns to Woodsboro on the final stop of her promotional tour, just in time for the killings to begin again. She fears for the safety of her cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) and Aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell).
There's a small litter of potential copycat killers: the sulking hunk Trevor (Nico Tortorella), who can't quit Jill; Kate, since death in parts 1 through 3 hinged on mother issues; and two movie geeks (Rory Culkin, Erik Knudsen) catching up everyone with the new tricks of horror trade ("The unexpected is the new cliche. And virgins can die now.").
Dimension Films sent a polite note to critics, asking us to "not give away any of the surprising plot points, kills and of course the killer." No problem at all, since the twists — especially Ghostface's identity this time — are nifty, and the kills are effectively brutal (or in a prologue featuring Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell, hilarious). It's a shame I can't share Campbell's perfect kiss-off line to Ghostface, but Dimension asked nicely.
Screenwriter Kevin Williamson peppers his script with clever potshots at 21st century horror; forcing a victim to recite a long list of '70s slasher remakes is a stark reminder of how unoriginal the genre has become. That's cheeky tough love, coming from the third sequel to a horror flick.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.