'Scream 4' review: From 1996, with love... and disembowelment

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Little more than a year after director Wes Craven joined "Scream 4" ("Scre4m," if that's somehow easier for you to read), confirming the horror franchise's bid to rejoin the genre it revitalized and left in very different condition a decade ago, the film debuts to mixed expectations. 

Diehards and '90s nostalgists hope for a worthy entry into the franchise, the mass populace is out for camp and everyone else, buoyed by reports of backstage drama, anticipate a complete train wreck. The product should satisfy everyone, at least a little -- because it never really settles on which kind of movie it is.

More than 10 years have passed since the events of "Scream 3," and the core trio reconvene in Woodsboro, three very different people. Sidney Prescott ( Neve Cambell) has a best-selling book about overcoming her status as serial victim, Dewey Riley ( David Arquette) has returned to the Woodsboro PD as sheriff and Gale Weathers ( Courteney Cox), plagued by ennui, writer's block and/or her failing marriage to Dewey, has seen better days.

Sidney, wrapping up a book tour, returns to her hometown on the anniversary of the bloodbath that took place in the original film. A similar pattern of ill-fated teens answering abrasive phone calls and getting slaughtered ensues.

These teens -- Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Marielle Jaffe, Nico Tortorella, Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen among them -- have their own parallel storyline that weaves in and out of original cast to varying degrees of success. Roberts, top-billed as Sidney's niece Jill, brings a hastily written character some complexity that careens to comedic effect and Panettiere, her abrasive best friend, is surprisingly one of the most winning additions.

But the honor of most valuable player is reserved for Alison Brie. Sidney's cartoonish, hyper-focused publicist, the "Community" and "Mad Men" star is the only one who seemed to have watched the original trilogy.

Not that the new cast is solely responsible for the change in tone. There's a disappointing lack of tension in "Scream 4" -- apparent from its excessively meta opening that shows an un-"Scream"-like preference for quantity over quality. And maybe that's Ghostface's fault. He has a short attention span on the phone these days, dispatching victims without a single piece of film trivia.

The attacks themselves also go down quick and dirty. There's little chase or struggle. Even Sidney, a master in several forms of combat at this point, can barely muster more than dismissive kick-to-the-face while running up a flight of stairs or scrambling down a hallway.

In between the killings, Marco Beltrami's ominous, industrial score from the original has largely been replaced by a distracting pop soundtrack -- which, for the record, doesn't include a single iteration of Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand."

The chemistry between the returning leads has also suffered over time. Despite forming a solid bond by "3," Sidney and Gale are neither protective of each other or exchanging barbs. And Gale and Dewey, perhaps exacerbated by their real-life counterparts' dissolved marriage, seem cold and unfamiliar with each other. It's probably the only one of the films' shortcomings that's actually depressing.

If you can accept the fact that you really can't go home again, "Scream 4" is a fun little ride. Kevin Williamson's sharp tongue, however marred by rewrites, comes through in one-liners and caustic banter. The cultural references make a sound transition to 2011 without too many references to Facebook or Twitter, and for all of the film parody, it never departs from the "Scream" tradition of keeping the killings more outlandish than grisly -- with the exception of a few stray intestines.

Dissecting the ending would be inconsiderate -- and possibly in violation of a waiver -- but it can be said it will be divisive for audiences. Cultural commentary or cliche, it takes the film into a ludicrous third act that's ultimately one of its biggest selling points.

The world didn't need another "Scream" movie, but of all the films "Scream 4" could have been, this one is probably the lesser of many, many evils. And yes, that's an endorsement.
Photo/Video credit: Dimension Films