Emma Roberts in Scream 4
She's the killer. I'm dead serious. Spoiler alert.

There is a profoundly fantastic moment in Scream 4, nearer to the end. It’s going to require me to both explain a few things about the legacy of Scream and entirely spoil the plot of Scream 4, but trust me when I say that it’s nothing you wouldn’t see coming in a movie that proudly exclaims how few rules it’s following. If you don’t want to know how Scream 4 ends, do yourself a favour and avoid seeing it for all of time. You aren’t missing anything. Like, you can not see this movie and die with a full life, it’s not that good. In fact, it’s kind of terrible. Which is why instead of explaining exactly how awful it is in every way that it is in every way that I can, I’m going to talk about this one moment in Scream 4 that made me take this movie seriously for all of two minutes. It nearly wiped the slate of the last … two hours? before this moment clean. And if it weren’t the result of a totally stupid plot twist in a series of totally stupid plot twists that somehow substituted for the totally stupid plot this movie could have had, maybe it could have charmed its way to a whole star. Oh well.

See, the original Scream trilogy–more like the first movie–is a legacy. It entirely revitalized horror in an age where we had seen all the tricks be done before our eyes. There was so little new and fresh in horror, that when Scream took center stage and told us exactly that in a fresh and exciting thriller, we lapped it up. Before we knew it, we were watching Scream 3 and talking about how the series had jumped the shark at some point. Sure, there are rules in horror movies, but there can’t be that many rules for third movies in horror sequels. And there can’t be that much trivia for Ghostface to play games with his victims for three movies. And as such, the first Scream has stood the test of time for being a landmark in horror: it was when the average audience member became as aware of the conventions of fiction in horror as the horror geek. In doing so, it amplified our need to be shocked by horror movies we never saw coming. Which is where torture porn and gorn came about, but that’s another story for another day.

In Scream 4, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) has come back to her hometown for some reason as Gale Riley (née Weathers, Courteney Cox) and Sherriff … let’s say Steve (David Arquette) have married but are blahdiblahdiblah, this stuff isn’t important. It’s a standard Scream framework: get’em all together, have two killers stalk them and kill them, what have you. And it neither introduces anything new nor revitalizes the old–it’s just a framework on which to hang some murders based around horror movie trivia. And some geeks are talking about “new decade new rules” and how nowadays, it’s all about killing everybody and subverting all expectations, even if they were built seconds before the subversion. It’s a weird substitute for cleverness that I can’t really get with. And in the middle of all of this is Sidney’s young housemate/cousin Jill (Emma Roberts). Jill’s our protagonist in this story–Sidney’s a side character. At one point, the Voice of Ghostface even asks Sidney outright “Do you really think you’re still the star?” You know it’s bad when the script disagrees with itself on its own meta-commentary. More on that later.

Spoilers start now. Through a series of plot twists, it’s revealed that Jill and Charlie (seriously, just some Culkin dude) are the two people behind the murders this time. And they’re doing it because, like new horror, it’s all about camcorders: they’re recording it, putting it online, and getting rich from the coverage and attention. Or at least, they would be, until Emma Roberts stabs Charlie in the heart cos she’s an evil psycho. Or something. And then, like in the best movies, Jill goes on this big long rant about why she’s done all of this. And it was in this scene that I really saw what Scream 4 should have been trying to say all along. Jill screams at Sidney about how hard it is, living in her shadow all of these years. New Horror, metafictional post-modern horror, is talking to Scream about how hard it is to keep up with reinventing the game when the reinvention was through commentary and the commentary is no longer on anything relevant. And at this moment, I really felt for Scream 4.

Here’s a project doomed from the start, destined for failure, and all it wants is to be seen on its own merits. Scream 4 knows that it will be judged by the shadow of Scream, but it wants so badly to be seen as relevant and good that it escalates everything beyond any rhyme or reason. More people die in more gruesome ways, but it’s all for naught. Because all it ends up in is Jill asking Sidney if she’s proud of her. “Are you proud of me?” I paraphrase. “Look at me, Sidney–all I ever wanted to be was you. And now I finally can be you. I can be as iconic as you are, and I can change the game like you did and please tell me you’re proud of me.” It’s like that moment in any good Shakespearean drama where the bad son looks to the King and asks if his majesty–his father–is pleased that he nearly destroyed an entire race. It’s filled with such tragedy and pathos that it nearly took my breath away–seeing the emotions behind the fruitless, senseless and needless sequel that is Scream 4 laid bare across the drive-in screen.

Which is why it’s rather unfortunate that it’s not the ending to Scream 4. Not even close. The movie continues for another twenty minutes, far overstaying its welcome, bringing Sidney back to life, killing Emma Roberts off for good and negating any of the lessons it could have offered us on sequel and franchise mining. We could have had the movie that had the smarts to say “Enough is enough and this is why.” Instead, we get one great moment in a sea of inoffensive gore. HALF A STAR