Scream 4 entered the world as a taint­ed propo­si­tion.  For starters, Scream 2 and 3 were bad sequels that poi­soned the well of good-will amongst fans.  Also, the last time Kevin Williamson, Wes Craven and the Weinstein broth­ers teamed up, the result was the dread­ed were-teen mis­fire Cursed.  On a more prac­ti­cal lev­el, it’s been over a decade since the last install­ment of Scream and the only rea­son for its mak­ers to be reviv­ing it at this late date is the promise of filthy lucre from a new gen­er­a­tion of series-besot­ted hor­ror fans.

To make mat­ters worse, Scream 4 has the added stig­ma of being a trou­bled pro­duc­tion.  Williamson walked from the pro­duc­tion after an argu­ment with the pro­duc­ers and sto­ries from the set sug­gest a lot of eleven­th-hour rewrit­ing that dis­pleased the cast.  Thus, Your Humble Reviewer entered the the­ater for Scream 4 with low expec­ta­tions… and was pleas­ant­ly sur­prised by how much fun he had with it.  It is every bit the pro­gram­mer it seems to be — but it’s also fast-paced, agree­ably grue­some and pos­sess­es a sense of macabre fun that you don’t usu­al­ly get from hor­ror films the­se days.

As expect­ed, Scream 4 begins with the intro­duc­tion of a few char­ac­ters that are quick­ly dis­patched by Ghostface for an intro­duc­to­ry shock… but the film­mak­ers pull it off in a clev­er, expec­ta­tion-defy­ing way you might not see com­ing.  The real sto­ry kicks in as Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to Woodsboro as the last stop on a book tour.  Unfortunately, her arrival coin­cides with the mur­der of a few local teens — and the evi­dence is plant­ed in the trunk of her car.  Though Dewey (David Arquette) — now the town’s Sheriff — is smart enough to know she couldn’t have done it, he is forced to keep her in town for the inves­ti­ga­tion.

As Ghostface resumes his mas­sacre, plot threads come into focus.  Sidney fends off an ambi­tious pub­li­cist (Alison Brie) who wants to cap­i­tal­ize on the new killings while try­ing to pro­tect teenaged niece Jill (Emma Roberts), who she bare­ly knows.  Dewey keeps lovestruck deputy Judy (Marley Shelton) at bay while deal­ing with mar­i­tal trou­bles between him­self and reporter-turned-frus­trat­ed-wife Gale (Courteney Cox), who sees the come­back she craves in solv­ing this new string of mur­ders.  Niece Emma fends off the unwant­ed atten­tion of ex Trevor (Nico Tortorella) while she and hor­ror-fan gal­pal Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) try to avoid being the next vic­tim.  There’s also a pair of fan­boys — Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin) — who run the school’s Cinema Club and are plan­ning a marathon screen­ing par­ty ded­i­cat­ed to the Stab films…

The end result has been get­ting a mixed recep­tion from the hor­ror com­mu­ni­ty but Your Humble Reviewer con­sid­ers Scream 4 to be the roller­coast­er ride than parts 2 and 3 failed to be.  It veers between sur­pris­ing­ly gory mur­der sce­nes and dark­ly humor­ous con­ceits that skew­er its own hor­ror-sequel sta­tus in a way that cre­ates a styl­is­tic whiplash  — and that’s intend­ed as a com­pli­ment because it prompts a queasy mix of respons­es (laugh, then cringe) that keeps the audi­ence on their toes.  Williamson and his uncred­it­ed rewrit­ers have fig­ured out a work­able way to keep both the old and new casts involved the plot and they work mod­ern tech­nolo­gies into the sto­ry­line (tex­ting devices, web­cams, etc.) in clev­er ways.

In fair­ness to its crit­ics, the plot gets bumpy in the sec­ond half — with the hasty-rewrite seams real­ly start­ing to show in the third act — but the satir­i­cal ideas behind it remain con­sis­tent­ly clev­er even if the exe­cu­tion gets strained.  It’s also worth not­ing that the script revives the kind of meta-humor that only got lip ser­vice in Scream 2 and 3.  It’s an impor­tant part of the sto­ry­telling here and the way it gets swirled around with the kills is an impor­tant part of the fun.

Scream 4 also has bet­ter per­for­mances that you might expect.  The vet­er­ans all do ace work: Campbell’s return engage­ment as Sidney has an unex­pect­ed grav­i­tas, Arquette asserts his comedic chops once more and Cox does her alpha-bitch schtick to per­fec­tion.  Amongst the new addi­tions, Panettiere is par­tic­u­lar­ly engag­ing as the sar­cas­tic side­kick and Brie prompts a few chuck­les as a nar­cis­sis­tic show­biz type who can’t get through two sen­tences with­out insult­ing some­one.

Best of all, Wes Craven actu­al­ly seems to be hav­ing fun in the director’s chair.  Scream 4 is a good ten min­utes short­er than either of the past sequels and is much tighter in its pac­ing.  Craven side­steps the slap­stick excess­es of past Scream sequels and digs into the set­pieces with Grand Guignol gus­to, chore­o­graph­ing the kills in a pre­cise man­ner and cap­ping each with a gory flour­ish.  Even when things get ludi­crous in the finale, it’s all done in glee­ful way that high­lights crafts­man­ship and a blood­thirsty sense of humor: you get the sense he’s hav­ing a blast skew­er­ing the che­quered his­to­ry of his series.

Some crit­ics are com­plain­ing about a lack of “emo­tion­al engage­ment” or orig­i­nal­i­ty in this film but that begs two ques­tion: a) since when did any of the Scream films have emo­tion­al engage­ment? and b) why would you expect orig­i­nal­i­ty from the fourth film in a seriesScream 4 is a shocks-and-laughs fun­house, pure and sim­ple.  People have seem to for­got­ten that the­se films were more satires at heart than hor­ror films — and Scream 4 suc­ceeds in return­ing the series to those roots, flaws and all.  It doesn’t try to pre­tend that it’s doing any­thing new or rev­o­lu­tion­ary — instead, it sim­ply sets out to have as much grue­some fun as it can get away with while ful­fill­ing the hor­ror-sequel expec­ta­tions.  In the process, Craven and com­pa­ny might have cre­at­ed the best Good Dumb (Satirical) Fun a hor­ror fan will have this year.