When “Scream 3’’ arrived in 2000, Bill Clinton was still in the White House, most cellphones could make only calls, reality television was a novelty, and Lady Gaga was just some girl named Stefani from the Upper West Side. Everything’s changed in the intervening 11 years, but, sadly, not the “Scream’’ franchise, which has coughed up a needless fourth installment that coasts on the winking ironies and Teflon self-awareness of its predecessors. I don’t need to tell you “Scream 4’’ is unnecessary. The movie spends most of its running time in a state of antic self-justification, explaining how the slasher-genre rules that the series so cleverly enumerated now mean nothing because, as explained by one of the new movie’s horror nerds, audiences are tired of the old rules. Now they expect something different: a reboot.
But Kevin Williamson, who wrote 75 percent of the franchise, and Wes Craven, who’s directed all of it, don’t appear to know what different entails. Craven continues to work in the manner of lousy action movies as opposed to landmark horror. If one body is kicked down a flight of stairs, wrestled to the floor, or hurled through glass, they all are. Yes, Mr. Craven, you’ve earned your stage-combat merit badge. Craven’s understanding of the genre he helped commercialize now appears to boil down to putting jarring noise on the soundtrack and having the actors loiter near doors the way, in football, some unmanned receivers try to get a busy quarterback’s attention: Dude, I’m open! Craven no longer appears to be directing a cast of characters. Collectively, they’re a knife block.
No one more so than the hilariously hard-to-kill Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). For reasons I’m not sure even she gets, Sidney returns to the small California town where nutjobs took her mother, father, boyfriend, and pretty much anyone else she ever spoke to or looked at, but gave her a hit horror franchise (“Stab’’) she didn’t want. She’s come back to promote her moist new book, while her sensation-addicted frenemy, the tabloid-TV reporter Gail Weathers (Courteney Cox), is struggling to write another one. The discovery of two dead, formerly pert coeds means Sidney gets to protect her cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts), from the latest stuntpeople wearing hooded ghost-face masks.
Sidney is one of the strangest characters to appear in an American movie. She continues to come back to this bloody primal scene and every time the death toll rises, she can’t believe it’s happening again. Campbell seems too smart a woman for this be a problem of intelligence. It’s more a matter of pathology: Will this be the movie I don’t survive? Campbell applies her unique battle-weary poise to everything from donkey-kicking approaching assailants to sipping mugs of tea.
The movie’s overpopulated with potential victims and suspects — Mary McDonnell, Anthony Anderson, Adam Brody, Marley Shelton, Rory Culkin, on down. The best of them is Hayden Panettiere, who plays Jill’s best friend and wears her hair short and swept back. Panettiere has a tough, dignified glamour you rarely see in a slasher-movie blonde. She and the underused Cox are the only two who appear to be enjoying themselves.
The first two movies were horror films having a caffeinated conversation with its audience about the genre’s cliches. Their high-wire act was fun: Could a scary movie mock itself and still scare? The limited fun of the third, which Ehren Kruger wrote, was watching the series cannibalize itself. “Scream 4’’ has a smart beginning, featuring Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell, and one well-delivered line at the end that would have brought down the house in a better movie.
But Williamson appears to be at a loss for what he’d like to say with a fourth “Scream’’ beyond “ka-ching.’’ Eleven years ago Williamson was a still in-demand writer and producer. He had an annoying way with sentence construction, but his verbose young people became the model for lots of the verbose young people we’re still stuck with. Where would the CW be without him? “Scream 4’’ feels like the work of people who haven’t noticed how much popular culture and the horror genre have changed since the first “Scream’’ arrived in 1996. Despite some topical gags about social media and Channing Tatum’s erstwhile abs, the new movie feels so two decades ago. Yes, there’s a big speech at the end about how dirt-cheap fame has become in 2011. It sounds desperate nonetheless. You’d believe it a lot more were it delivered by a Kardashian.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.