Scream 4

There could be any number of reasons for the 11-year hiatus between “Scream 3” and “Scream 4,” but I hope one of them isn’t that they were trying to find just the right story. Because if they worked all that time and THIS is what they came up with, well, that would be sad.

The original film, written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven, really was a game-changer. Released in 1996, it updated the slasher formula for the generation of kids who had grown up with it. It was seemingly the first time that the characters in a scary movie acknowledged having seen scary movies before, and acted accordingly. More impressively, “Scream” wasn’t just a self-aware spoof: It actually was scary. That famous prologue with Drew Barrymore is about as good a terror sequence as you’re going to find — suspenseful, unnerving, and, at last, horrifying.

“Scream 2” featured both a parody of “Scream” (in the form of “Stab,” the movie-within-a-movie based on the events of the first film) and a clever tweaking of horror sequels. It was jokier than its predecessor, but still delivered the horror goods. “Scream 3,” in 2000, was more overtly comedy-oriented and less scary. And then it seemed the franchise had run its course.

But when a series is constructed as a response to a genre, it makes sense to update the series once the genre has changed. The last decade has seen several new trends in horror movies, including remakes of Asian ghost stories, torture porn, and movies filmed by the characters themselves. All of the big slasher franchises that inspired “Scream” have been rebooted. Cell phones, webcams, and the Internet play a much larger role in teenagers’ lives — and in horror movies — than they did in 2000. So there are plenty of things for “Scream 4” to chew on.

Too bad Williamson and Craven are only half interested in pursuing them. The screenplay does its duty by referencing the “Saw” movies, iPhone apps that can make you sound like Ghostface, and the arrival of Facebook — all things that could serve as springboards for some interesting twists to the “Scream” formula. Then it does nothing with them, preferring to walk through the same old routine as before, only more tiredly. A couple scenes go through the motions of trying to recapture the “scary movie trivia” magic of the original film, but no one’s heart is in it.

After a prologue that’s clever enough to trick you into thinking the movie’s on the right track, things become mundane quickly. Ten years have passed since the events of the last movie, and Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is returning to Woodsboro to promote her inspiring new book about living with the terrors of the past. Dewey Riley (David Arquette), the town sheriff, is married to former TV newsperson Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), who’s trying to write a novel. Sidney’s high-schooler cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts), lives here, creeped out by her relative’s macabre notoriety and nervous about the fact that wherever Sidney goes, people get killed.

Well, sure enough. The minute Sidney gets off the plane there’s a new Ghostface in town, making menacing phone calls, stabbing people, and getting kicked down a lot of stairs. As always, his victims get close to him but never try to unmask him. But more than ever before, even as the characters claim familiarity with slasher movies, they behave just as stupidly as the people in them, as if “Scream” had never happened. Like idiots, they run into places they obviously ought to stay away from. The cops (including Anthony Anderson and Adam Brody) are comically inept. Everyone’s idea of keeping Sidney “safe” is to let her stay by herself in a big, dark house while a patrol car sits parked at the curb. Jill and her friends are attacked by the killer one minute, throw huge, unsupervised parties the next. In many ways, “Scream 4” is exactly the kind of dumb, mechanical slasher movie that “Scream” was talking about.

Sidney, who has always been pretty one-note as a character, is even less interesting now, thanks to dispassionate writing and Campbell’s sleepwalking performance. It’s a pleasure to see Arquette and Cox as Dewey and Gale again, but they, too, have lost their spunk. It’s up to the newbies to liven things up: Emma Roberts as the new terrorized girl, Nico Tortorella as her boyfriend, Hayden Panettiere and Marielle Jaffe as her girlfriends, Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen as the school’s film geeks (which is to say, horror geeks), Alison Brie as Sidney’s publicist, Marley Shelton as a sheriff’s deputy with a crush on Dewey. You get a few bright moments here and there with this group, but nothing special. Besides, the movie is torn between loyalty to the old cast (which might not appeal to new viewers) and shining a spotlight on the new generation (to whom “Scream” fans have no connection).

Once the whole story is laid out (don’t worry, no spoilers here), it’s frustrating to see how intriguing the core ideas are in comparison to how lazily they’ve been developed. Instead of being a comment on slasher films, “Scream 4” simply is one, and not a particularly good one. The old gang has almost completely lost sight of what they were doing here in the first place.

C (1 hr., 51 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, abundant bloody violence, some gore.)