After watching Scream 4, it’s easy to feel sorry for screenwriter Kevin Williamson, the man who launched his career with 1996’s diabolically clever Scream.

Has the guy derived even a sliver of joy from watching any horror film of the past decade, or was it all just fodder for a fourth film in his and Wes Craven’s franchise?

J-horror, torture porn, the found-footage conceit, the zombie-film resurrection. Many fads have flashed and faded since 2000’s Scream 3, and Williamson flays them all. Perhaps he and Craven should have spent time concocting a reason for Scream 4 to exist outside of the eventual killer’s monologue. 

Look, there are dime-a-dozen horror films guaranteed to be awful going in, and then there are coulda-woulda-shoulda, wide-right boots like Scream 4. Gone is the eclectic, electric punch the original still packs today. Craven and company have simply swapped in iPhones for the cordless jobs of the late 1990s. Ghostface voice? There’s an app for that.

The sad thing is it’s easy to see why Williamson wanted to write it. Hungry for a hit, it’s easier to see why Craven wanted to direct it. The cultural insight about celebrity that Williamson concocts is a terrific idea. Too bad it’s preceded by many, many terrible executions. (Even then, the strong reveal is placed in the hands of an actor ill equipped to really sell that madness.) 

Scream 4’s opening sequence is one of its few genuinely lively, and acidic, bits — taking a direct shot at Saw’s franchise life support. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for been-there, done-that sluggishness to set in.

On the anniversary of the Woodsboro murders depicted in Scream, survivor Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) has returned to town on her book tour. Sure enough, ol’ Ghostface strikes again — ringing people up before ripping them open. But he’s not out to kill Sidney, at least not right away. Until he’s ready to filet her, he says, she’s going to suffer mightily.

Ghostface’s return draws David Arquette’s gomer cop Dewey — now a sheriff! — and Courtney Cox’s newswoman-turned-novelist Gale into the investigation. It also seems to rouse Dewey and Gale’s sleepy marriage to life — an intriguing subplot Scream 4 drops, perhaps out of deference to Arquette and Cox’s real-life separation.

Another apparent target is Sidney’s cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) and her cabal of friends, played by Hayden Panettiere, Marielle Jaffe, Erik Knudsen and Rory Culkin. All of them, and the town’s other teens, are gearing up for “ ‘Stab’ Fest,” an annual marathon of the films based on Sidney’s tragedies that’s become a Woodsboro tradition. They might skip Stab 5, though. The time travel really killed that one.

Scream 4 is not without its momentary charms, namely Gale tricking Dewey into calling on her at a press conference or Alison Brie of Mad Men still looking like Trudy Campbell while playing a character more akin to Pete Campbell. There’s also one fine fake-out prelude to a kill, and Neve Campbell still throws plenty of ferocity into her fight choreography. Eventually, though, Scream 4 splashes around in a shallow pool of blood — precisely what it bags on other films for doing in its prologue. Though marginally better than Scream 3, the cycle of sequelized complacency churns as strongly as it did 11 years ago.

Craven approaches his boo scares the way Gallagher approaches watermelons. It starts to feel as if Ghostface is a Netflix shill offering queue suggestions. And in a scene when Panettiere rattles off a rapid-fire list of remakes to save a friend, you’ll face a depressing realization: A lot of those were better than this. As Scream 4 lumbers to its denouement — in a hospital apparently occupied by only three patients and a visitor — that time travel option from Stab 5 doesn’t sound so bad after all.