Sequels are by nature redundant and superfluous. They extend conceits far beyond their logical ending points for commerce’s sake, and recycle ideas until they’ve lost whatever novelty attracted audiences to them in the first place. But it’s rare for a sequel to extensively acknowledge its own pointlessness, let alone make the unnecessary nature of its existence a recurring theme, the way Scream 4 does. Then again, the Scream franchise has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to deconstructing itself and the rules of the slasher genre. Fifteen years in, the series now looks more than ever like a Möbius strip that reflects on itself in a perpetual loop. But meta-arbitrary is still arbitrary.
Neve Campbell returns as a battle-tested survivor of previous massacres, having now channeled her trauma into a memoir that brings her back to her hometown. Emma Roberts co-stars as Campbell’s cousin, a teenager reliving Campbell’s nightmare when a chatty slasher who has been keeping abreast of recent trends in horror movies begins hacking through the town’s hormone-crazed teens in a manner that echoes the bloodbaths of years past.
Returning screenwriter Kevin Williamson is considerate enough to put the most trenchant criticism of the film in his own characters’ mouths, like when a character complains that the deaths in slasher sequels have little emotional weight, since the characters are so thinly developed. Sure enough, the slasher-bait here functions as little more than interchangeable cogs in an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine that pumps out red herrings, cheap shocks, and twists at a steady clip, but provides little actual suspense. Scream 4 goes about its bloody business with impersonal, impatient proficiency: a reasonably clever script, game cast, and assured direction make it only as good as it absolutely has to be. Scream 4 doesn’t justify its existence creatively, but it’s cynical enough to scoff at the notion that it would even need to do so.