Don't Forget About the Surprisingly Great 'Scream 4'

The last time 'Scream' got a reboot it was underappreciated.

scream 4 neve campbell emma roberts
Dimension Films
Dimension Films

The first three Scream movies hit in quick succession. The first became a surprise hit in 1996, followed by Scream 2 in 1997, and Scream 3 in 2000. By the time the fourth Scream came out in 2011, a decade had passed and the horror landscape had changed. Teen slashers had given way to Paranormal Activities and the era of torture porn ushered in by the Saw franchise was in full swing. That was (of course) referenced in the (of course) meta opening of Scream 4.

Scream 4 tanked at the box office, losing its opening weekend to animated animal film Rio, and with the new Scream arriving this weekend, Scream 4 remains the odd duck out of the franchise. It has its fans—all of these movies do—but, perhaps because it lacks the kitschy '90s nostalgia of the earlier installments, it hasn't pervaded meme-dom the way the others have. (That's good news for Courteney Cox, whose Scream 3 bangs are frequently and rightly mocked.)

And yet the fourth film, the last ever from horror master Wes Craven, is just as savvy as its predecessors with an underrated Hayden Panetierre and Emma Roberts honing her talent for comebacks that would serve her well in the Ryan Murphy-verse. In attempting to reboot Scream for millennials, it provided a timeless commentary on reboots that's worth remembering as Scream gears up for another reboot—this time with Gen Z in mind.

As with the previous two sequels, Scream 4 relies on the mythology that the events of the first Scream yielded a series of horror movies called Stab. This time, the teens who are being terrorized by a Ghostface killer are not just experts on scary cinema, they are experts on the very films inspired by tormentors of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who is now back in her hometown of Woodsboro promoting her memoir about trauma. Emma Roberts plays Jill, Sidney's niece, who never really knew her famous aunt, but is thrust into contact with her once her friends start getting offed. There are plenty of would-be killers: Trevor (Nico Tortorella, pre-Younger), Jill's annoying ex; her horror-obsessed cool girl BFF Kirby (Panetierre); and the guys who run the cinema club (Erik Knudsen and Rory Culkin) and plan the Stab-a-thon party where a bunch of high schoolers get drunk in a barn and watch the Stab movies, practically inviting Ghostface to show up.

Ghostface is now filming the kills, making a snuff film, and intrepid reporter Gale Weathers (Cox), her now-husband Dewey Riley (David Arquette), and Sidney must suss out the rules of remakes to figure out just who is spilling all this blood. The twisty answer turns out to be a satisfying surprise as well as a winking commentary on 21st-century fame seekers as well as a bit of Nice Guy pre-incel nastiness thrown in for good measure.

The cast of Scream 4 doesn't quite have the immediate attraction of the other ensembles. There's no Rose McGowan chewing the scenery or a Go-era, pre-Justified Timothy Olyphant with an evil smolder. It lacks a Parker Posey from Scream 3 bringing her trademark zaniness. But Panetierre's husky-voiced turn makes you wish she had a bigger career as a movie star before getting stuck on six seasons of Nashville, and Roberts does a sly bit of inversion and emulation as heir to Campbell's title. The boys are blander, save for Rory Culkin, the member of the famous family who hasn't gotten as much attention as his brothers in recent years.

Scream 4 wasn't completely panned upon release, but the response wasn't effusive. "Between a diabolically funny start and a surprise climax, Scream 4 offers nothing more than a series of gory deaths that grow tiresome with repetition," Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone. Empire declared it "ostensibly redundant" and compared it unfavorably to the Saw movies—which are actually both praised and derided in the opening sequence. And while sure at this point there are repeated beats and only so many ways to stab a person, Scream has never just been about the kills. It's always more fun to untangle the psychology of why someone would want to put on a dopey Halloween costume and disembowel their ostensible friends, which is why Scream 4 cuts so deep.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.