Where have been several memorable self-referential moments in Hollywood history: Cary Grant describing Ralph Bellamy's character in His Girl Friday as someone who resembles "that Ralph Bellamy fella"; the outlaws and townspeople rampaging across the Warner Brothers backlot in Blazing Saddles; and John Travolta twisting the evening away at Jack Rabbit Slim's in Pulp Fiction. And then there's the Scream franchise. At some point in every Scream film, the filmmakers clumsily grab for the kind of post-modern merit badge those other films earned easily and un-self-consciously. But none of the smug and derivative Scream franchise installments, including the grotesquely self-congratulatory Scream 4 (or Scre4m) has ever contained a single clever moment worth recalling.
Composed of elements from Rob Zombie's Halloween and P.J. Hogan's My Best Friend's Wedding, the fourth installment of director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson's horror-comedy ouroboros nonetheless follows the chalk outline of previous installments. There's a "clever" opening sequence with a pair of big-name stars in grave danger; a day of worrying and nonviolence and background information that also introduces the usual victims and the usual suspects; and then a long night of keenly sound-designed slasher mayhem, capped off by an orgy of ridiculous exposition that lasts 20 minutes longer than it should.
At this point, you almost pity David Arquette, Courtney Cox, and Neve Campbell, the trio of actors eternally yoked to the series. They are present yet absent for most of the film: Arquette's sheriff wheels his police van around town, Campbell tries to hide her boredom as God's Angry Final Girl, and every shot of Cox's smoothly CGI-scrubbed face whispers "Behold — the ravages of age!" Gone is the smooth, high-gloss look of the earlier films, replaced by a rotten, blurry, over-diffused swamp of shallow focus and fuzzed-out headlights.
Although he's put together solid, distinct horror films as recently as 2005's Red Eye, Wes Craven is no master of suspense. Every kill in the film and every false note of danger is synchronized with a shrill sound effect designed to make the audience jump — a tactic as successful as it is forgettable. But Williamson's in-on-the-joke screenplay seriously hampers Craven's ability to create and maintain tension. Because the Scream world is so proudly self-reflexive, phony, and contrived, it's nearly impossible to build suspenseful sequences that rely on characters who know either a bit more or a bit less than they should, especially when (in the series' most tiresome running joke) the victims know what not to do in their situation yet do it anyway.
Two other thoughts: First, what is the extent of the magic powers granted to anyone wielding Ghostface's knife? Anyone who picks it up gains the strength of 10 men and, apparently, the ability to teleport. Second, it's amazing that a supposedly smart horror film which questions everything about its own existence portrays the sadistic, sexualized slaughter of young women without as much as a hiccup of self-criticism.
Not scary. And not funny either.