The Scream franchise is one that has had ups and downs, never reaching the quality that its widespread popularity might suggest, but at the same time being built on an intriguing idea of "meta-horror" that actually meant the concept improved from the first to the second installment. Having overstretched the series in the second sequel, writer and director Wes Craven wisely hung up the Ghostface mask seemingly for good at the turn of the 21st Century. But if the interceding decade has taught us anything it's these two facts: four is the new three, no matter how ill-advised returning to a franchise might be; and the horror genre is constantly being reinvented, thereby giving Mr. Craven a whole ten years worth of blood and gore to riff upon.
Scream 4 sees Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) return to Woodsboro unsurprisingly for the first time since the events of Scream 3, this time to promote her new book. No sooner has she returned (on the anniversary of the original Woodsboro Murders no less) than a new series of killings begins. Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and wife Gail (Courtney Cox) are soon on the case once again, as a whole new generation of Woodsboro residents gets caught up in the commotion and fear.
Scream 4 has problems from the get-go, with an opening so convoluted it almost goes beyond parody. The film takes clear digs at franchises that have experienced success since the last Scream, most prominently the Saw films, for delivering excessive gore without any character development, and then follows those self-same patterns. Craven ultimately comes across as more than a little bitter: Saw may lack character development, but it is still the most successful horror franchise ever made, and it does extreme gore better than anything seen here.
The other key problem is Craven's bullish perseverance with the slasher template established in the original. When he did it in 1996, it was a fresh twisted on a hackneyed subgenre. In 2000, when Scream 3 was released, it was tired. Over a decade on the shelf hasn't made Ghostface's knife any sharper since then.
And yet, once the film settles down, the concept behind a lot of what happens actually does manage to inject something new into the franchise for the first time since 1997's Scream 2. Eric Knudsen and Rory Culkin take over the mantle of resident film geeks from Jamie Kennedy's Randy, supplying insight into how the "rules" of horror have changed. So we have reference to everything from the spate of horror remakes seen in recent years to the "found footage" style of the REC and Paranormal Activity franchises, giving Scream 4 the potential to take a leap into contemporary horror with a "meta" twist. But whilst it dips its toe in the water here and there, it's a leap the film never has the courage, nor vitality, to make.
Ultimately, Scream 4 can't be seen as a wholly wasted opportunity, but it's also never anything particularly worthwhile. Is it better than Scream 3? Yes, but that's hardly something to celebrate. It ends up as yet another example of why returning to a long-dormant franchise to simply add a new installment, without a fresh approach or rebooted concept, is rarely - if ever - a good idea.