Dir. Wes Craven
(2011, R, 111 min)

That Scream 4 is not a good movie is less disappointing than the fact that there’s so little actual movie in it. It has been eleven years since the release of Scream 3, and fourteen years since creator Kevin Williamson’s last writing contribution to the series, Scream 2, and in all that time no one involved came up with a single idea for where to go next. Perhaps they thought, as most of us did, that the series had been satisfactorily closed with the third film and had to scramble for a premise to stretch the series a little farther. I think that’s the likely scenario, because, really, no one’s heart is in this one.

I wish I could go back in time, wrest the screenplay from Williamson’s hands, and rewrite it. The first thing I would do is write characters for the many able actors on-screen. There are no characters at all in this draft. And when I say there are no characters, I don’t mean the characters are simply underdeveloped. I mean they register more as props than as living people. Hayden Panettiere comes closest to extracting some personality from her role as high-schooler Kirby Reed, but in the end her most interesting character trait is that her name is Kirby. I wonder if her parents played a lot of Nintendo growing up. Maybe they were baseball fans. Either way, wouldn’t it be interesting to meet them?

Emma Roberts, as Jill Roberts

The next thing I would do is incorporate technology into the narrative instead of just paying it lip service. Since the last Scream film have come Facebook, Twitter, smart phones, Skype, and YouTube, but how does this film reflect the communications revolution? By featuring a character – teenage movie nerd Robbie Mercer (Erik Knudsen) – who records his life in a live video feed. Oh, and instead of using a voice changer to produce the menacing Ghostface voice, now there’s an app for that. After this latest round of killings, I think the creators of that app might suffer a backlash, and Apple might have to issue a press release explaining, “We don’t condone the mass slaughter of our customer base.”

How about really taking advantage of social media? I imagine a funny scene where a killer is thwarted by his iPhone’s touch-screen keyboard while terrorizing a victim via text:

GHOSTFACE: R U aloe in the hose?
GHOSTFACE: *alone in the house

Or how about characters witnessing a grisly murder while logged on to Chatroulette? Maybe death by iPad? Give me something! Robbie’s live video feed – recorded using a camera headset – might have had potential, but the film doesn’t do anything interesting with it, only uses it to identify Robbie as a tech-geek, without which he wouldn’t have any identifying characteristic at all.

Third, I would cut the number of murders by about half. There is a lot of bloodletting in this film, all of it carried out hastily, without any sense of atmosphere, setting, pacing, or mood. Director Wes Craven is just going through the motions here. Perhaps knowing that we and the characters have been anesthetized to the intimidating voice after many sequels, the phone calls are now brief and perfunctory, then followed by some abrupt hacking with a knife. How about killing fewer people and using the extra time to generate some suspense, or – call me crazy – developing characters so we actually care when they die.

Last, I would move the killer reveal to the middle of the film instead of the end. Sounds drastic, but the whodunnit aspect of the Scream films was exhausted by the truly startling outcomes of the first two films. (The ending of the third was a stretch.) Scream 4 talks a good game about overturning expectations; as the movie-nerd characters repeatedly tell us, in the fourth film all bets are off. By revealing the killer at midpoint, you might truly surprise the audience, and more importantly you’d energize the second half. Imagine the possibilities for suspense if you see two characters alone together, knowing one of them is in grave danger and waiting anxiously for the moment when the killer strikes. That would be new territory for a film in desperate need of new territory.

Mary McDonnell and Neve Campbell battle Ghostface

The plot of the film, such as it is: Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the target of the killings in all of the films, returns to her home town of Woodsboro to promote a new book about overcoming victimhood. (Maybe her next book will be about overcoming irony.) Hapless cop Dewey Riley (David Arquette) is now the sheriff. Bitch-on-wheels reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) is now trying her hand as a novelist, if only she could overcome her writer’s block. That’s all we get of character development before the killings start. One of the draws of a movie like this is reintroducing us to characters we know and care about, but despite being four films deep this trio has never felt thinner. Dewey is still hapless and spends much of the film looking startled when he hears over the police radio that the killer is terrorizing someplace he’s not protecting. Gale, this time overplayed by Cox as more of a cartoon version of herself, has no official position anymore and struggles to make herself relevant to the plot. To Campbell’s credit, she plays the perpetually abused Sidney with more nuance than you’ll find anywhere else in the film – haunted but not simpering, though after four films it’s about time for her to sign up for some Kill Bill­-style combat training.

Among the more notable actors playing potential suspects/victims are Alison Brie as Sidney’s cutthroat publicist; Anthony Anderson as a Woodsboro deputy; and, most surprisingly, Mary McDonnell, the erstwhile President Roslin from Battlestar Galactica, in a thankless role as Sidney’s aunt. Perhaps the film’s greatest mystery is why one would cast an actress of McDonnell’s caliber and not give her a real role to play. Could Williamson not envision scenes for a woman whose sister (Sidney’s mother) was murdered, whose niece is the center of it all, and whose daughter (Emma Roberts) might be a future victim?

The opening scene is the film’s best. Each entry in the franchise has begun with a major set piece, starting with Drew Barrymore’s still-unmatched slaying from the original film. I won’t spoil the details, lest I give away the part of the film most worth seeing, but it doubles back on itself with a self-referential absurdity that is the first and last clever thing the screenplay devises. Using the story’s coming-full-circle conceit to excuse his lack of originality – it’s not a lazy retread, you see, it’s a copycat killer! – Williamson spins his wheels until he’s forced to try to outdo his previous films with a climax that goes completely bonkers and would be more at home in one of the Scary Movie parodies.

But ridiculous is at least better than uninteresting. That’s why I wish the killer were revealed earlier, so the film could have given up its pretenses and surrendered completely to high-camp hysteria. That way, at least the audience is laughing with you instead of at you.