Ghostface's 11-year layoff hasn't made the "Scream" franchise feel any fresher. But with a decent beginning, a mushy midsection and a killer ending, the latest installment at least doesn't feel any staler.
"Scream 4" is pretty much the same-old thing, which the filmmakers hope will seem new again given how long the horror-comedy series has been festering in its temporary grave.
Honestly, it's not an unwelcome thing to watch the return of Neve Campbell as the slasher victim who wouldn't die, Courtney Cox as the tabloid hack in bloodlust for a story and David Arquette as the bumbling Barney Fife of fright-flick cops.
Director Wes Craven has added an attractive young harvest of fresh meat on the victim and psycho front, led by Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere and Rory Culkin, along with amusing cameos from Anna Paquin, Kristen Bell and others.
"Scream 4" opens with the franchise's usual prologue, this one modestly clever, heavier on laughs than suspense.
But it gets the action rolling and the blood flowing for the main event: Campbell's celebrity victim Sidney Prescott returns to her hometown on a book tour for her memoir about surviving her encounters with the various Ghostface slashers.
Her arrival coincides with the anniversary of the original slayings, when the town's teenage Sidney idolaters already are in a frenzy for the annual "Stabathon" party built around the Hollywood franchise inspired by her experiences.
Of course, bodies pile up as a new Ghostface goes on a rampage.
Cox's Gale Weathers now is married to Arquette's Sheriff Dewey, and the moments of domestic duress the characters experience add a little subtext, given the actors' real-life marriage was breaking up while they shot the movie.
Bored and looking to get back into the journalism game, Gale leaps in trying to unmask the latest Ghostface, while Dewey cluelessly suffers along again, aided by a gung-ho deputy (Marley Shelton) harboring a major crush for him (Anthony Anderson and Adam Brody add decent laughs as a couple of other deputies).
Ghostface's circle of prey includes Sidney's cousin (Roberts) and some of her friends and classmates, among them Panettiere and Culkin. Mary McDonnell also appears fleetingly as Sidney's aunt; the movie progresses in such patched-together fashion that much of her role may have been sliced out.
With a screenplay by original "Scream" writer Kevin Williamson, the movie is an over-long, sometimes plodding collision of characters, any of which could turn out a killer or victim in the arbitrary world of the franchise.
This time, the crisscross of blind clues and red herrings almost makes it feel as if Craven left the unmasking of Ghostface for the last day of filming then simply handed a knife to someone with the instruction to start stabbing.
What comes after that unveiling is great fun, a really clever twist on the clichis of slasher-movie violence.
The movie drags in many spots before that climax. Craven often seems to be finger-painting with the entrails of the first three movies, slopping random blood, gore and gags on the walls to see what sticks.
"Scream 4" slathers on winking, self-referential banter about the conventions of the franchise, along with horror flicks and sequels in general.
Much of it is funny, some of the best laughs resulting when people ponder their place in the hierarchy of horror-genre characters and how that affects their odds of survival.
And again, the movie saves some of the best for last: Campbell's parting quip to her latest tormentor is an absolute scream.
"Scream 4," a Dimension Films release, is rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some teen drinking. Running time: 111 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.