Ten years have passed, and Sidney Prescott (Campbell), who has put herself back together thanks in part to the self-help book she authored, returns to Woodsboro on the last stop of her book tour. Reconnecting with her family and friends, her appearance also brings about the return of Ghostface...
Hollywood's been trying to figure out how to do a sequel right for a long, long time. The marketing concerns are obvious for the ones bankrolling the films, and the need to just get a film into production and have a job is obvious for the filmmakers. They are professionals and they need to work. The result of these mundane, practical considerations is an unending, often unsatisfactory quest to catch lightening in a bottle twice.
What you get is an attempt to somehow quantify why individuals like a film in the first place, which is probably an exercise in futility as audiences themselves don't always know. If studios ask them and then give them exactly what they told (and that happens quite often) those same audience members are equal likely to turn against what they have been given, deciding on actual viewing that it was not what they wanted after all.
It leaves filmmakers in the thankless position of trying to give them more of the same, but different, without really knowing what that means. Sometimes it means repeating plot elements identified as crucial. Sometimes it means coming up with continuing adventures for popular characters. Usually it's a mixture of the two. Which puts horror films in particularly difficult straits as the nature of the plots tends to kill of most of their characters in each film. It was just this dilemma that managed to tie the initially inventive "Scream" franchise into knots by the time it finally petered out with Scream 3 more than 10 years ago.
While most horror franchises overcame the problem by rooting themselves in their villains as the characters audiences kept returning to see "Scream" went a different route, focusing on original lead Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and her co-survivors Dewey (David Arquette) and Gail (Courtney Cox) and their never-ending battle with Sidney's insane (and increasingly distant) family members.
Like all horror movies this worked exceptionally well the first time around, partially on the strength of writer Kevin Williamson's focused deconstruction of the genre and his (mild) attempt to turn its cliché's against it. And like all horror movies, it worked considerably less well for the sequels as audiences were now wise to its tricks and were merely waiting for them to play out. In a genre where startles replace actual terror that's a problem and one which eventually waned interest in the franchise as it tends to with all horror franchises.
In the ten years since we've had several reboots of the old films that "Scream" was created to lovingly mock, so now it's their turn.
Just as before the filmmakers aren't moving far from their roots. As "Scream 4" opens Sidney has returned to her old home in Westboro as part of a book tour and in order to put away old ghosts once and for all. Those ghosts don't seem to want to stay away, though, and no sooner does she arrive in town then the old murders begin again.
Director Wes Craven and returning "Scream" founder Williamson, besides returning to their old franchise, have an eye on using it to reinterpret the modern horror film and its fascination with pain for pain's sake without any of the old notions about morality plays, the same way the original did for its 80s progenitors.
And to that end it is moderately successful, thought it takes quite a long time to get around to making its point and playing with audience expectations. And while waiting to get there we have to sit through a fair of amount of the standard "Scream" shtick as the filmmakers work hard to appease the bloodlust they once mocked.
In the process they unfortunately fall pray to the general problem all of the "Scream" sequels have had, and which by now they seem to have no real answer for. The first film worked as well as it did due to a mixture of its potent central idea and well devised, well executed characters we could care for and have interest in. People whom we were genuinely involved with when they died.
Craven and his various "Scream" writers have never been able to get over that hurdle and they continue to remain hampered by it. And the deconstruction aspect of the franchise isn't enough on its own to carry all that weight.
The nature of horror movies being what they are, most of those characters didn't make it out of the film and the ones that did, didn't make it out of the sequel. That leaves us with just three returning characters and unfortunately the central one who gets the most screen time is and always has been the least interesting part of the franchise.
This is made especially apparent in the newest entry as Arquette and Cox, despite a continual presence, are pushed to the sidelines until almost the end. Much is made early on about their marital problems and the young deputy (Marley Shelton) with her eyes on Dewey, but little eventually comes of it.
This is largely to make room for a new young cast, lead by Sydney's niece (Emma Roberts), her best friend Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and their assorted hangers on. It seems most of the time as if the studio and filmmakers are intent on a nihilistic full scale cast replacement in order to grab the new young generation. How the film handles this is one of its few real joys, but it also makes obvious note of the fact that the new teenagers are horribly bland and proof that "Scream" itself is starting to fall back on its own clichés. Only Panettiere manages to make any sort of impression. Everyone else is lost in the fog.
Despite all the claims to reinvention throughout the film, it is in fact "Scream 4's" central theme; there is little of it actively on display. Despite a lot of commenting about reboot's and the like, "Scream 4" really is just more of the same without enough interesting new characters to carry that entire load. Which in a sense makes it the perfect, or at least a representative, horror sequel.