Silver Screen: Scream IV *

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Silver Screen: Scream IV *
Bryan Miller

A bad movie is a forgivable thing.

Making a feature film is a complex and perilous process, one that requires collaboration from hundreds of people. Assuming the material at hand is good to begin with, that script must be translated and fleshed out by dozens of artists, from the director to the actors to the editor to the cinematographer and set designers, and survive interference from meddling money-men and marketeers more concerned with demographics than inventiveness. It's hardly surprising that this process frequently generates mediocre products; in fact, it's remarkable that great movies get made at all.

What is not forgivable, however, is a bad movie that knows it's bad and attempts to compensate for a lack of inspiration by simply acknowledging the fact. In other words, just because you're in on a lousy joke doesn't make it any funnier.

That's certainly the case with the abysmal Scream IV, an arduous and particularly empty example of commercial inertia triumphing over original thought. That the whole thing is a numbed and numbing cash-grab isn't nearly as annoying as its implied notion that self-aware snark trumps all other flaws. The movie is a paean to eye-rolling cynicism that glibly espouses the notion that there's nothing new or interesting, then sets about proving it by example.

Once again Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is terrorized by a mysterious figure in a black cloak and a ghost mask who torments his victims with crank phone calls and movie-trivia questions before carving them up. Once again bumbling police officer Dewey (David Arquette) is unable to stop the carnage. Once again meddling, self-interested reported Gail Weathers (Courteney Cox, looking more like Gail Weathered-- oh, snap!) jeopardizes people's lives in attempts to get famous off her proximity to the killings.

The big difference this time around is that there's a fresh batch of high schoolers awaiting slicing and dicing. That group is led by good-girl Jill (Emma Roberts), Sidney's estranged cousin, whose cohorts include her ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella), brash bestie Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), and the requisite film geeks (Erik Knudsen and Rory Culkin).

They're all pretty ho-hum about a string of murders that occurs when Sidney returns to her hometown to promote a book she's written about her experiences. And why shouldn't they be? After all, they've totally seen all this before. Whereas the kids in the first Scream treated the murders with the naï ve fearlessness of youth, these insipid teens are just bored by anything that distracts them from their iPhones and DVD players. Didn't serial killing totally go out along with Y2K? Super retro.

The original Scream was a straightforward horror movie warped by the characters' awareness of genre conventions. The decent sequel edged further into meta territory by shaping a plot around a shlocky horror movie that was made about the events of the first film, folding the concept in on itself yet again. But this notion can only be taken so far before the thing vanishes into its own self-reflexivity, or if the filmmakers are daring enough to take the gimmick to its logical conclusion and actually hire knife-wielding maniacs to literally stab to death patrons as they watch the next sequel. (Talk about a diminishing audience).

Instead we get a movie that's sending up formulas by creating one of its own and then commenting on its own comments about formula. That explanation makes the whole project sound far too deep, however; in reality it's just more repetition in the name of separating teens from their disposable income.

The only thing Scream IV has going for it is its Traveling Wilburys-style supergroup of gorgeous twentysomething actresses. Joining Roberts and Panettiere-- often just for bit parts-- are Alison Brie (who gives the film's lone entertaining performance), Anna Paquin, Kristen Bell, Aimee Teegarden, and TV chippies Shenae Grimes and Lucy Hale.

If that sounds like a lot of characters, it is. Between reestablishing returning players and introducing the new ones, plus pausing to cut somebody up every ten minutes or so, tired master of horror Wes Craven, working off a script from yesterday's Variety news Kevin Williamson, don't even have time to provide the new kids with one dimension, much less three. The movie's ostensible protagonist, Jill, may be the most empty character to front a movie in a long time. She's presumably the target of the new spate of killings, due to her proximity to Sidney, and yet she's no better fleshed out than the coed who gets hacked to pieces in the first reel.

It would be easy to ramble on and on about Scream IV's deep well of flaws, from its old-person's awe at new technology (Blogs! Webcams!) to its ineffective scares (Loud noises!) to its dilapidated cast (David Arquette?). But why bother-- they'll doubtlessly point out all these failings in Scream V.