Scream 4 spoilers after the jump. I'm posting this so late, that shouldn't matter, but whatever. Sorry, I mean wh4tever.
Before the weekend box office results were announced, it seemed that there was nothing to say about Scream 4 (which I will refer to from now on as Scre4m because that abbreviation is too stupid not to use). It is so meta, it's meta about being meta. That's not an exaggeration: there's literally a movie within the movie in which a character bitches about how meta horror has become. Elsewhere, characters identify each other according to horror-movie stereotypes ("You're the dumb blonde with the big tits!" "You are a victim for life!"). Maybe most exhaustingly, Scre4m openly rehashes the first film in the series at several turns, thanks to a rash of convenient copycat killings. Scre4m is the cinematic equivalent of someone babbling about himself and how he fits in the world for two hours. Is it any wonder that viewers tuned out and the film grossed less than half of what was expected? This is exactly why it's foolish to puff yourself up and emphasize your own importance – people don't even have to do anything to prove you wrong. Indifference can be fatal.
Even if it were less obnoxious, I wonder if the Scream franchise is relevant in 2011 on a fundamental level. Since the first one, we've grown less enchanted with the past as pop-culture consumers. Long gone are the days when rappers rhapsodized the music they grew up with and sampled, emphasizing its greatness the point of it being cool to reach back and actually get into the originals. (In music, generally, the synth has been a great equalizer – plenty of stuff that's 25 years old could be mistaken as new, whereas no one would make that mistake with that's 40 or 50 years old.) More pertinent to the medium at hand, I wonder if all the horror remakes at our fingertips have rendered the sometimes harder-to-find originals irrelevant to kids today. This is all conjecture, obviously, but it is clear that we're only becoming more youth obsessed as a culture, and our present is stuffed with current things to consume. With so much drama on the air that we see (and in the LBC, duh), who even has the time to reach back?
A dip in the cultural worth of nostalgia would mean big problems for Scream, which assumes that we're experiencing pop culture like its horror-savvy characters (a fair assumption since we bought tickets to be there). The fact that the Scream universe shares our actual world of horror makes it feel like it exists in less of a bubble than most horror flicks. But self-awareness only goes so far – it is, at best, endearing. It excuses nothing and in Scre4m, it only makes shortcomings that much more visible. This movie has a bone to pick with two-dimensional characters in horror movies…while being a horror movie full of two-dimensional characters. In Scre4m, we essentially watch cartoons bumble around (the only thing that's missing are banana peels). Neve Campbell's Sidney is a bizarre representation of inner peace, spouting self-help bullshit we're supposed to find admirable and always looking as though she just got done sobbing. She seems not so much enlightened as lobotomized and does stupid things that would make previous characters in Scream movies punch in their own faces out of exasperation. These things include running into a house after she's just watched a murder committed from next door, and sighing "Kids!" upon being confronted with decorations commemorating the murders of her family, friends and innocence, as she returns to Woodsboro. Courteney Cox, whose face is so Joker-ized, she couldn't look like she just got done sobbing if she wanted to, plays Gail Weathers with what should be a perfect level of ridiculous anxiety. Her performance eventually feels understated considering Gail's pro-bono desperation for solving the newest rash of murders the film chronicles. David Arquette's Dewey is...well, when wasn't he a cartoon character?
Still, it is those characters that I focused on and stuck it out for, under the same trance of brand loyalty that had drove me to the theater every opening weekend of every Saw movie. Speaking of, unlike the first time around, Scre4m has nothing to say about the past 10 years of horror, save some passing references to torture porn and Japanese ghosts that amount to, "Yeah, but we're better." I actually agree, but telling and not showing isn't the way to prove your superiority to anything. Almost all of the new characters are negligible. Hayden Panettiere's haircut has more spunk anyone introduced by screenwriter Kevin Williamson (and that rewriter Ehren Kruger attempted to shade in).
That said, not all the writing is bad. A scene climax based on calling out the names of over a dozen recent horror remakes worked really well as a gag. (After being bombarded with as many remakes as we have been, it's easy to empathize with the desperation that comes with staring down death.) That list, though, about as much insight, though, as you're going to get from this thing, which replaces Scream's relied-upon film-criticism-within-the-film with surface-level reading. If the original is Cliff's Notes, this is one of those books made out of foam that toddlers can take in the tub. The most out-of-touch moment unfortunately occurs during the climactic killer-reveal scene, in which we discover that the motivation for all this carnage boils down to a case of Marcia, Marcia, Marcia-itis and the desire to be famous. It all feels so...MySpace.
And yet, I didn't hate Scre4m – in fact, I cared way more about it than I should have. What it comes down to is that the Scream legacy is now a soap opera and I am sucked in. I care about Sidney, Gail and Dewey about as much as I care for any fictitious characters. I will follow them wherever they go because I will take what I can get when it comes to horror. I know not to expect too much, which is why something that builds itself up like Scre4m is so jarring. Unlike the original it so wants to be as important as, Scre4m will not revitalize its genre. A soap opera is not what horror needs. In fact, soap operas are what no one wants, as evidenced in their recent rash of cancellation. It'd be giving the film too much credit to read that as more meta-commentary (now the movie itself is a potential victim!). Really, the answer is it's just less self-aware than it thinks it is.