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.