Credit: Gemma La Mana

The horror-savvy kids today, they tweet and text and stream their lives on webcams 24/7. Phone conversations are for, like, lameos. Still, it?s nice to know that in Scream 4, the preferred communication tool for the knifewielding, melty-masked killer known to Scream fans and Halloween revelers as Ghostface is still a phone equipped with the loud, standard brrrrrnnng that predates the invention of downloadable ringtones from Wiz Khalifa. After all, watching the infamous butcher text ?What?s your favorite scary movie?? to each nubile, glossy-haired teen princess before showing up to slash and dash her doesn?t carry the same kick as hearing that bossy sewer voice.

The makers of Scream 4 know that their comedy-horror flick has a lot of explaining to do: I?d start with the question, Why is Ghostface back when we haven?t thought about him for a decade — and when today?s young gorehounds may never have even thought about Scream before? Answer: Because it?s a brand. Maybe a new generation will go for it? And so, arriving 11 years, seven Saws, four Scary Movies, two Rings, and one Shaun of the Dead after Scream 3, the fourth installment (marketed as a hip ?reboot? rather than an average ?sequel?) responds not with quality logic but with a massive quantity of amusing, winky meta. ?Sequels don?t know when to stop,? one movie-buff character clarifies. Channing Tatum, Top Chef, Daniel Radcliffe, and Facebook are among the namechecked. A Mac laptop receives prominent placement.

Some of the riffs are really funny and/or expertly scary. Others have the feel of awfully snappy dialogue crafted by middleaged people trying a little too eagerly to sound like the young people from whose mouths the banter flows. (The movie was written by Kevin Williamson, 46, and directed by 71-year-old Wes Craven — both four-time Scream vets.) Still, the tour de force funny/ scary opener is better (and more surprisepacked) than any since Drew Barrymore picked up that phone of doom in 1996. It?s a giddy reminder of everything that made Scream such a fresh scream in the first place.

And the story premise is neat: Having published a self-help book about how she has, as Oprah might say, moved on after outwitting every previous Ghostface who ever lunged her way, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell, looking uncommonly lovely) returns to promote her tome in her hometown of Woodsboro. Old Screamers Deweythe-cop (David Arquette) and Gale-thejournalist (Courteney Cox), now married, are there to greet her. So is Sidney?s teenage niece, Jill (Emma Roberts). And so, conveniently, is Jill?s collection of glossy friends and classmates, each ripe for slaughter, or at least struggle, now that Sidney?s back in town. Among the potential targets, Hayden Panettiere and Rory Culkin stand out as a snarky party girl and an avid movie geek. In her own corner of the frame, Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men) happily goes for the jugular as Sidney?s aggressive young book publicist.

I?ll say no more about what comes later, except to note that about halfway into the movie, Scream 4?s forward motion seems to stall, around the same time that the riffs and R-rated bloody knifings become more ornate and self-conscious. And by the end (or ends, actually — the plot resolution is the weakest part of the machine), the movie is for all intents and purposes carried out on a stretcher, just like one of the characters. But not before it has accomplished one of its most melancholy-inducing feats of meta, something with which no previous Scream has ever had to grapple. The truly frightening killer this time isn?t Ghostface, but time. The real Grim Reaper. The ticktock no successful movie franchise can escape. Sidney is a woman now, no longer the girl she was, and Neve Campbell is no longer the ingenue. The pretty young players who populate Woodsboro 2011 know it?s their turn now, thank you very much. ?You were my ?90s!? one of those young things says to Cox?s Gale. Nostalgic for the days when Ghostface was everyone?s ?90s, the makers of Scream 4 revisit old haunts where, it turns out, the technology is newfangled but Ghostface is long in the tooth. B?

Scream 4
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