Consider this both a compliment and a jab: Scream 4 is the funniest movie of the year so far. The jokes, some good and some inevitably followed by audience groans, are nonstop, the irreverent tone never wavers, and the physical humor goes for Grand Guignol broke. Yes, the kills are the goriest of the series and the body count reaches a whopping fifteen; regardless, director Wes Craven’s sequel/reboot is more of a brutally dark comedy than a horror film. It’s a whole lot of fun, starting on a high note of vibrancy and culminating with a wild hospital-set coda that’s perhaps the franchise’s strangest yet most riotous sequence.

scream-4-review-insert-1Now that we’ve doled out some praise, it’s on to the slights. With such a heavy emphasis on laughs, Scream 4 isn’t scary at all. Neither Craven, one of the horror genre's most inconsistent filmmakers, or fellow franchise originator/screenwriter Kevin Williamson (not to mention, Scream 3 scribe Ehren Kruger, who reportedly finished the screenplay after Williamson bailed due to creative differences with producer Bob Weinstein) seem intereseted in inducing fear. Otherwise gruesome murders are punctuated by goofy punchlines, most notably a knife-through-the-forehead bit that's ruined by a superfluous Bruce Willis reference.

If the filmmakers’ mission was to in fact make this eleven-years-in-the-making Ghostface killer comeback at least sporadically frightening, then Scream 4 should be looked at as a bewildering failure. But that’s most likely not the case. It’s too comical for any intention other than drawing chuckles out of bloodshed and satire.

In that sense, Scream 4 feels unlike any of the three preceding films, which is the movie’s biggest problem. The tonal disconnect is all the more odd considering that the trio of main characters are all in attendance. Neve Campbell returns as Sidney Prescott, the heroine whose run-ins with five previous psychos wearing the Ghostface mask and black cloaks have left a morgue’s worth of butchered corpses. This time, she’s a successful author on a book tour, promoting a self-help book, titled Out Of Darkness, in her old hometown of Woodsboro. There, she reconnects with small-town cop Dewey Riley (David Arquette), who’s now a sheriff, and sarcastic go-getter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), now married to Dewey and a stay-at-home wife instead of a hard-nosed journalist.

“Wes Craven’s sequel/reboot is more of a brutally dark comedy than a horror film.”Sidney’s return to Woodsboro also includes bonding time with her teenage cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts), a normal high school girl with an eclectic set of friends. There’s the brooding ex-boyfriend, Trevor (Nico Tortorella), film buffs/geeks Charlie and Robbie (Kieran Culkin and Erik Knudsen, respectively), and perky hot gal-pals Kirby and Olivia (Hayden Panettiere and Marielle Jaffe). As another Ghostface slasher begins offing all of the unlucky folks around Sidney, Jill and her crew provide the prerequisite “how to survive a modern-day horror movie” rules and die in ways similar to the deaths seen in the first Scream and the Stab movies-within-the-movies.

Scream 4’s clever gambit is that the killer (or killers?) at work is making his or her own Stab remake, shooting each of the death scenes with a camera inside the mask. It’s a slick way of poking fun at the cavalcade of horror remakes that have surfaced in the years between Scream 3, released in 2000, and today. But Williamson isn’t content with simply allowing that motive to spoof Hollywood’s recent genre hits itself; he overloads the script with so many winky-wink shots at horror films that nearly every sentence uttered includes something meta. To the film’s credit, several of the gags work quite well, particularly the extravagant opening sequence’s framing device, which sets the tone for Scream 4 in adrenalized fashion.

scream-4-insert-2The pre-title-card scene, one of the Scream franchise’s most infamous calling cards, is precisely where Scream 4 first diverges from what’s made the series so unique since the first movie debuted in late 1996. Though the overall sharpness gradually decreased from the pitch-perfect Scream to overly hokey Scream 3, Craven’s three films all opened with murder set-pieces seeped in darkness and that scored as masterfully staged slasher movie homicides. Re-watch Drew Barrymore’s iconic 10-minute prelude in ’96’s Scream—it still holds up as a genuinely scary first-round knockout. In addition, Barrymore’s curtain complemented the rest of the movie brilliantly; with such a horrific intro, it’s only a matter of time before Matthew Lillard’s silly overacting and Jamie Kennedy’s nerdy jokes give way to more straightforward horror.

The beginning of Scream 4, however entertaining it might be, is too amusing to buffer the flick into unquestionable horror, even if five girls die before it’s over. The filmmakers’ willingness to introduce so many characters at once plays into Scream 4’s other major fault: There are way too many players on its roster. Excessive screen time is devoted to useless and distracting characters, such as the bumbling deputies played by Adam Brody and Anthony Anderson, and the high school kids only seem to exist as walking and talking reminders of the franchise’s original side roles.

scream-4-insert-3The dizzying amount of red herrings and eventual victims leave the returning trinity of actors with little to do. Campbell mostly looks bored, only asked to react to dead bodies and plot reveals with wide eyes; a hardly present Arquette basically disappears from memory; and Cox, after stealing earlier scenes with some rather funny one-liners, is nowhere to be found for the last 45 minutes or so.

In interviews, Craven, Williamson, and the cast have talked about how Scream 4 is meant to reboot the franchise while recapturing the original movie’s spirit more than either Scream 2 or Scream 3. So much for that. Scream 4 seems to exist in another universe altogether—a bizarro Woodsboro, if you will. Craven has long expressed his innermost desires to someday stop making kids-get-killed movies entirely and dabble in other genres. So maybe Scream 4 is his subliminal attempt at making a comedy that’s still in his horror comfort zone.

If so, more power to him; we just wish he wouldn’t have pulled a fast one on us and billed it as the rebirth of Scream. To horror fans who consider their first time seeing Drew Barrymore’s gutted body hanging from a tree as a formative experience, Scream 4 might seem like a cruel joke.