Scream 4 ★★

If Scream 4 had started with its final half-hour, and spun from there into uncharted territory, it might have been onto something interesting, but the slog required to get to its provocative climax is wearying. Although it begins with an initially cute self-referential all-star sequence (this one is self-aware about being self-aware!), Scream 4 lays bare the problem plaguing this franchise, and particularly its sequels: its flashy knowingness about slasher movie tropes is inconsequential, making no effect on the killers’ actions or the characters’ reactions, and is easily discarded when the plot requires ordinary (and often soft-pedaled) attack scenes and soapy drama. Everyone talks smart but acts dumb.

Maybe it’s a problem that the Scream franchise is atypical in important ways, making its obsession with tropes inapt. Unlike most slasher series, Scream follows a few recurring protagonists who are repeatedly, film after film, attacked by different killers who share the same modus operandi. Scream is also full of mid-level stars who, while appealing, inflate the bottom line, requiring the films to maintain a level of palatability to ensure a healthy box office return, making the expectations for plot and outcome vastly different from its low budget horror ancestors. In the Scream series, the killers are disposable, the characters are, largely, invulnerable, and the murders feel like a marketing gimmick.

Without a big new idea to justify its revival, Scream 4 recycles its own tropes, with a new set of teens (including Emma Roberts, Rory Culkin and Hayden Panettiere) stalked by a copycat killer while aunt Sidney (Neve Campbell) uncharacteristically hawks a book about her repetitive ordeals. Sidney is full of odd surprises, but not the good kind. For example, why would the woman who has spent three movies hunted by lurking psychos ever discount a suspicious noise or shadow in a dark house?

It's not until the climactic reveal, unfortunately, that Scream 4 has any sense of creative energy or distinguishing purpose. This brief spell, during which a potentially compelling character emerges from the sameness, is enough to keep Scream 4 from establishing a new low point for the series, but it feels like a franchise that has run its course (at least until MTV's solid TV series found a way to improve on all of the movies). Both Courtney Cox and David Arquette return for yet more on-and-off hate-flirting, and both Adam Brody and Alison Brie make unremarkable cameos as knife-bait.