In 1996 the phone rang, Drew Barrymore's Casey Becker was terrorized, and the horror world received a much needed revitalization. It was the mainstream gateway drug to cinematic thrills and gore, a fest of bloody, meta-comedy that explained the rules of the death game and thrived on a passion for all things horror.

It was also a trilogy of diminishing returns. While the three films each made roughly the same amount at the box office, the sequels played out like many do -- each a paler, less thrilling version of the last. And though the third film wiped away much of the love Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven brought to the world of Woodsboro, word hit in 2007 that a new installment/potential reboot was on the way.

Along with the cacophony of complaints about remakes, a more important questioned loomed: Wiping away the fan discontent and how much Sidney Prescott's story had already been run into the ground, could it possibly live up to the original -- not only with laughs, but with thrills?

Looking back, we see 'Scream' as a self-reverential horror comedy. Gore splattered the screens, kids jumped and then laughed and laughed with every twist the future 'Dawson's Creek' creator dished up. But in the first film, it was more than just the laughs that made it special -- it was how the suffocating tension boiled to unbearable heights before exploding into a haze of catchy tunes (Nick Cave!) and comedy.



It was this light and dark battle that made the first film so special. Though it was the mainstream gateway into darker films, it didn't do so cautiously. As Ghostface terrorized Casey Becker, the tension mounted slowly. Sure, the creepy voice on the phone wanted to chat about horror movie trivia, but there was a tantalizingly slow build as seemingly innocent chatter morphed into actual menace. For moviegoers who weren't horror fiends, the build-up was practically unbearable -- long enough that the mounting tension looked like it would last through the entire movie. When Casey met her end, unable to shout out to her parents who were mere steps away, Williamson and Craven were feasting on every human weakness.

And just as our nerves hit their limit, threatening to bubble over, the film moved on. It was like the slow rise to the top peak of the roller coaster, each slow inch higher making the anxiety grow, and what follows being the fun excitement that washes a layer of the anxious tension away with each spin and twist. The thrills that remained were more moderate, and there was always a joke mingled in with the fear.

'Scream 2' tried to follow the same model, to less success, but it still had enough of the first film's verve to keep things moving, and then 'Scream 3' became a parody of its predecessors, being more content with ridiculousness and Hollywood commentary than epic, trilogy-ending thrills.

And now we have 'Scre4m,' or 'Scream 4.' One would hope that in a project shrouded by words like "reboot," the fourth installment would wipe away the missteps and get back to that great dichotomy of ravaging the viewer's nerves and then sending them on an energetic and funny ride.

And 'Scream 4' is fun, but it's two-thirds fun, in that way that gets enough right that it can be an enjoyable movie outing, but missing the part that made many of us become life-long fans -- the fear roller coaster. This new incarnation offers up the commentary (although this time the movie banter is a weak hanger-on friend to the modern society/technology premise) and the laughs, but there's no gut-wrenching intro to send the heart into overdrive, or really any scene where the tension is so high that any simple movement would make the theater jump.



'Scream 4' focuses on Sidney's cousin Jill, who seems to be living the life Sidney led in the '90s. She's in a single-parent home, has a creepy loser boyfriend (though not as interesting as Skeet Ulrich), movie geek friends (definitely not as interesting as Randy), a snarky close girlfriend (Hayden Panettiere does what she can, though still isn't the ass-kicking power of Rose McGowan's Tatum) ...

It's like a mostly smarter version of 'Scary Movie,' focusing more on today's reliance on the Internet than the ridiculousness of a killer knife-wielder. There are even some truly unexpected and welcome twists, but when the reboot starts with clever humor and not fear -- like this film does -- there's no balance between the fright and the laughing relief. Though there are clever moments, they have no yin to match their yang.

There is nothing truly scary to keep us preoccupied from the flubs and missteps. Mimicking the original only makes it obvious that these characters are mere blank copies, a horror simulacrum. And that's to say nothing of our beloved heroine who, after all these years, still doesn't weigh herself down with weapons to face Ghostface. Good thing there's always a shiny knife in the kitchen.

By focusing on the humor as the base of the project, and not as the necessary antidote to the agonizing horror, 'Scream 4' can never be a truly scary and slick ride, leaving many wishing that the 10th, 50th or 100th replay of Casey's final moments would be as deliciously tense as the first time.


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